Battle Creek

New Voices of Youth from Battle Creek shed light on important issues

This story is being published to lift up and support local youth as part of the program “Voices of Youth Battle Creek," sponsored by On the Ground Battle Creek, part of Southwest Michigan's Second Wave, and financially supported through coalition underwriting.

The voices of youth in Battle Creek have an expanding platform that is giving them opportunities to share their views on a wider scale through their writing, art, or photography, says Theresa Coty O’Neil, Managing Editor of Second Wave Southwest Michigan and Facilitator for the Voices of Youth program in Battle Creek.
“Voices of Youth is designed to empower youth to tell stories about their community and themselves that matter to them,” says Coty O’Neil. “A group of caring, invested professionals offer mentorship, encouragement, dialogue, and a format for publication. Through the VOY program, youth gain confidence and a real-world experience of creating a piece through all the stages up to publication. They learn their voice matters, and that often, using it contributes to the kind of change in the world they would like to see.”
Art Mentor Casey Grooten works with Athena McCarthy in Battle Creek Voices of Youth.VOY began in Battle Creek in August 2021 as a three-month pilot program with an initial cohort of six students from area school districts including Battle Creek and Lakeview. A coalition of local funders provided the seed money for the pilot program which has become a part of Second Wave’s work in the community through ongoing financial support from organizations including the Battle Creek Community Foundation, BINDA Foundation, and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.
Youth participants are paid for their attendance at each of the workshops which occur over a three or four-week period and also receive payment for their projects when they are published.
“The monetary component of VOY is of extreme importance in my opinion,” says Jeff Cotton, Community Engagement Manager for On the Ground Battle Creek, which operates under the Second Wave umbrella, and VOY facilitator.  “The creation and ownership of Intellectual Property has once again become a career path for today’s youth, so knowing that they will be paid for their time and the content that they create is something that the youth not only desire, they are inspired by it.”
Battle Creek Voices of Youth participants were introduced to solutions-oriented journalism.The participants are committing their time and energy to attend the workshops and producing a piece for publication and they should be paid for their time similar to any other professional writer or artist or photographer, Coty O’Neil says.
Athena McCarthy, a participant in the most recent VOY cohort, says the information presented during the four-week session she attended in November and December made a difference as she worked through her project which focused on the different ways people come out to family, friends, and their community through comic art.
Athena McCarthy participated in Voices of Youth Battle Creek.“I felt like it needed to be brought to light,” says Athena, who is in the ninth grade and homeschooled. “A lot of my friends haven’t come out to their parents because they’re nervous or afraid. Some have tried to talk to their parents and it didn’t work out well. I wanted to bring to light the different experiences people can have when coming out. It happens at different times and people need to do it when they’re ready.”
Casey Grooten, who was Athena’s mentor, says the theme of her comic dealt with issues that are deeply personal to her. They both say that the trust between mentor and mentee is important when working on projects that shine a light from a different point of view.
“It’s not just community issues that these youth are writing about. I think some of them are picking things that impact them personally and using Voices of Youth to explore that,” says Grooten, a Community Arts organizer and a Realtor in Kalamazoo in addition to being the Lead Art Mentor for VOY. “A portion of the comic Athena made was informational and they had gathered information and sources about what can people do if they don’t feel supported. If someone comes out to you there must be trust there.”

Mar'Chionna Sardin, a sophomore at Battle Creek Central H.S., is a Voices of Youth participant.Mar’Chionna Sardin chose her topic, why there were so many vacant buildings near her high school because she had thought of this question a lot: “When will Battle Creek be renovated?”

“When I look out the window driving to school, I see spraypainted, boarded-up houses and buildings, broken windows. We talk about that with each other, my mom and siblings,” says Mar’Chionna. “Sometimes when I’m in my car with my siblings, we think of things that could be done with the buildings.” 

To understand why there were so many vacant buildings, Mar’Chionna reached out to Christopher Lussier, a Community Development Manager for the City of Battle Creek. “When I reached out to Chris, he told me a lot of information that I didn’t know.” 

“For me, Voices of Youth was a great experience. I never thought I would be writing a story about vacant buildings. You see issues with the community, but you don’t think you will ever do anything about it. When you decide to write about an issue, you find out how much deeper the story is and you learn a lot from it. 

“That was the biggest thing I noticed. When I see other things that are issues, I know that if I research them, there will probably be so much more to the story than everyone else sees.” 

Lila McCarthy is a Voices of Youth Battle Creek participant.Lila McCarthy, who is in the ninth grade and homeschooled and is Athena’s sister, says an atmosphere of trust was established during the workshops which encouraged her to share her ideas and speak freely. 

“That made me feel comfortable and able to talk about things that I like to talk about. My writing comfort zone is more fiction and it felt nice and challenging to be writing about something that is very much real,” she says.
Lila wrote an editorial about the role social media plays in the way people view their body image.
“I felt like it was something that impacted my life along with a lot of my friends’ lives and it is something that needed to be talked about from a more personal angle,” she says. “It was really challenging to make it sound like what I actually felt was what I was saying. It felt challenging to put my words on paper.”
Although the Voices of Youth program focuses on the tenets of journalism, one integral part of journalism is multimedia. 
In today’s digital age of social media and the overload of internet news, “our youth need to be able to use this technology to tell their stories and the stories of their communities and country. Programs like Voices Of Youth should be required learning for coming generations because just as we have to learn how to use our bodies to walk, run, and ride bikes, we must equip the youth with the chance to learn how to use their voices to stand up, highlight and narrate the stories of their generation,” says Cotton, CEO of Big Homies Inc. “Journalism allows us to share personal experiences and opinions with the rest of the world.  Journalism also can be used as progressive steps towards change.”
The projects done by youth participating in VOY are contributing to that change and giving adults opportunities to see a different point of view as was the case with J.R. Reynolds who mentored Mar’Chionna, who wrote our first Voices of Youth article about the city’s abandoned and blighted buildings. Through her interviews, she was able to show the way that youth and adults see these properties.
“My initial reaction to vacant houses many times is just tear them down and use them for greenspace or rehab them and use them for older adults to move into,” says Reynolds, Racial Equity Trainer with Beyond Diversity Resource Center in New Jersey. “She had a broader perspective. As I was talking with her she teased out of me possibilities of what other things could be done such as refurbishing the space into something youth could take advantage of like a greenspace targeting youth. I wasn’t even thinking in those ways. It tends to be the youth thinking outside the box to create change. This is an opportunity for adults to learn. Youth have a perspective that older folks do not have.”
Youth have a ground-level view that adults don’t always have, says Coty O’Neil.
“In Mar’Chionna Sardin’s story about abandoned buildings near her high school, she noticed in her interviews with adults and peers that the perspectives were very different,” O’Neil says. “Her peers witnessed other youths exploring the buildings and engaging in unsafe behaviors. Adults acknowledged the buildings’ eyesore but saw possibility and potential. Both views have merit. Our world is a better place and more equipped to tackle issues when more voices are heard.”
Battle Creek Voices of Youth participants discuss story ideas.Cotton says that in addition to giving youth opportunities to let their voices be heard, the program is also teaching or explaining the importance of individuals or collectives using their voices.
“The youth will create opportunities based on their reality, so if somehow we can find ways to inject the importance of Civic Development through the use of journalism into their reality, or their toolbox so to speak, then I believe that they will come up with innovative ways to create and share the news and the views of their generation,” he says.
Paul Schutt, co-founder of Issue Media Group, Second Wave's parent company, says the idea of the VOY program arose in the Southeast Michigan and Detroit area, pre-pandemic. In "conversations among community members, there was a concern that young folks, youth, are disconnected from local news; that they have a pretty good handle of what's going on at a national level, but they just don't really track what's going on in the local news as well."

The concern was, Schutt says, "could this lack of connection lead to a lack of civic engagement on really important issues in the community?"

Soon after these conversations, a global pandemic hit, then the world saw a police officer killing George Floyd. It became clear that young people were engaged and working in their own way to record history as it happened. For example, the journalism world recently recognized Darnella Frazier, who at 17 videoed Floyd's murder, with an honorary Pulitzer Prize.
The success of the program in Detroit led to similar programs which started in Kalamazoo and Battle Creek in 2021. There have been numerous sessions in each community drawing in students from a wide variety of school districts.
Coty O’Neil says the stories produced by Lila and Mar’Chionna and Athena’s comic are all “exceptional expressions of the writer’s or artist’s interest. These are important issues that relate to all of us. The youth are telling us what they need from the world to feel safe, valued, and seen. By listening, responding, and supporting them, our community will be better, more diverse, and stronger.”
She says the VOY program contributes to the Battle Creek community because it elevates the conversations “we all need to have about the issues that impact us, and specifically, impact our youth. These Voices of Youth writers and artists are often starting a conversation that needs to be had—at other times, they add their voices to an ongoing conversation. As adults, it’s easy to think that we understand all the ramifications on youth of our decisions and actions. But in fact, we can miss a lot and assume too much. When we give youth a platform to consider, research, and put their thoughts together in words or images, we have a richer understanding of the issues at hand.”
The next session in Battle Creek begins on March 7 and concludes on March 21. Youth from ages 13 to 17 can get involved in our next VOY cohort, which begins in March, by signing up HERE

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