Voices of Youth: Kalamazoo youth choose issues that inspire articles and art

Editor’s note: This story is part of  Southwest Michigan Second Wave’s Voices of Youth Kalamazoo program. VoY is a journalism training program for young writers, artists, photographers, and videographers that is underwritten by the Stryker Johnston Foundation. 

Everyone wants their voices to be heard. As evidenced by the ever-growing number of social media platforms, young people value expressing themselves and feeling what they have to say is relevant.

It can be both fun and challenging to produce images, artwork, videos, and stories that bear your name. And it can be rewarding knowing those efforts will be seen by thousands of people.

Giving young people a voice is the mission of Voices of Youth, a four-week Southwest Michigan Second Wave program that helps high school and middle school students learn how to express themselves better in stories, photos, and artwork. The program also introduces students to solutions journalism –  a style of reporting that focuses on how tough issues are being tackled and asking how people are working to find solutions.

“It’s a 10 out of 10,” Regina Kibezi, 15, says of Voices of Youth. “I would for sure recommend it because it makes me feel like I have a voice and I can express problems that are big to me.”

Voices of Youth students choose their topics and are mentored by professionals.
Kebezi is a writer in the Spring 2023 cohort of Voices of Youth. The session, which started in mid-April, culminates with the student projects that will be published this month. Completed projects will be showcased on consecutive Thursdays on the Second Wave Southwest Michigan website and other social media platforms.

Kibezi, a 10th grader at Loy Norrix, is concerned about sometimes being the only African-American student in Advanced Placement classes. AP classes are rigorous courses intended to help students prepare for the more challenging academic work they will face at the college level. So during her third experience in the VOY program, Kibezi is asking questions about the disparity in the number of minority students in advanced placement classes.

Her younger brother Habakuki Kibezi, a 14-year-old 8th grader at Milwood Middle School, says, “I like that I just get to be me.”

He is an artist who created t-shirts with images of a ladder juxtaposed with a key to illustrate the importance that enrolling in more challenging classes plays in students’ chances of advancing.

“I actually tried to get it to my friends because they really want to do it,” Haba Kibezi says of Voice of Youth.

Regina Kibezi says, “I did it because I really liked the past two sessions.” The program has allowed her to address issues that she thinks are important, she says.

These are two of the 14 students, who attend Kalamazoo’s Loy Norrix High School,  Millwood Middle School, and Kalamazoo Central High School, who have been engaged in the spring cohort of the program, producing stories and artwork that tackle issues of interest to them.

Voices of Youth art students collaborated with writers or chose their own topic.
Working with mentors in art, writing, photography, and social media, their chosen topics included the following: Living with the threat of mass shootings and gun violence; Why more minority students don’t enroll in Advanced Placement courses; How transgender athletes are doing at the high school level; The social life of teens in school; and the ongoing need for good mental health care, especially in the rise of mass shootings.

"At first I was going to paint metaphorical flowers to represent people,” says Kierra Walker, a 17-year-old Loy Norrix senior involved in creating artwork to illustrate the lack of diversity in advanced placement high school classes. “And then I made a last-minute switch to doing drawings and it’s together like a collage sort of. It’s mixed-media.”

She says the experience has helped her manage her time better as she takes on new art projects.

“At first I wasn’t really doing that much planning because I was thinking, ‘I know what I’m doing. I can just go into it,’” Walker says. “And then I sat down and I used like four canvases and lots of paper trying to get the project done right. So that (failure to plan) wasn’t a good idea.”

Many VoY art students chose articles by peers to illustrate.Mixed-media collages by Loy Norrix students Plamedie Ekumbaki and Majolie Carter call attention to the need to emphasize good health over superficial standards of beauty while assuring young people that they have support for being who they are.
Cartoons by Daniel Kibezi, a 6th grader at Milwood Middle School, attempt to illustrate how people and technology can harm a teen’s mental health.

Images of a teen in the middle of a large bed, illuminated by only the cell phone he is using, illustrates the social lives of teens. The image by photographer Jaden Davis, a 14-year-old freshman at Kalamazoo Central High School, contrasts an old-fashioned, dark, wood-framed bed with colorful bedding and a wall full of bright Japanese cartoon characters.

“I joined Voices of Youth to be with my friends and get to do art while being with them,” says Davis, who says he likes that every picture can have a different meaning.

Earlene McMichael, a veteran print and public radio journalist, has been the project lead, editor, and writing instructor for the Voices of Youth Kalamazoo program for all four of its sessions. As a former editor and reporter at the Kalamazoo Gazette, she founded a summer student journalism program that operated for a dozen years.
Earlene McMichael, Voices of Youth Instructor“I’m always amazed at the consistently high-level work of our Voices of Youth students, especially considering the backdrop in which they must produce their articles, photographs, and pieces of art,” McMichael says.

“You see, they are meeting with us for several hours, on a Saturday at that, for four weeks straight at the same time they are juggling a full class schedule and extracurricular activities. Yet, they don’t slack off and they look forward to being with us. Heart, hustle, and passion are three words I would use to describe this session's participants.”
McMichael points out that one writing student has attended all four VoY cohorts, and other writing and art participants just completed their third cohort with the program.
McMichael says that she challenges her returning writing students to set goals for themselves each session, so they can go deeper and keep learning. “It would be easy for them to choose safe topics, but they don’t,” McMichael says. “I am blown away that they want to try their hands at tough, even controversial topics.”

Lead Art Mentor Casey Grooten works with Voices of Youth art students.Lead Art Mentor Casey Grooten says this was the largest Voices of Youth cohort thus far, including 10 art-focused students.

“They came from all sorts of different socio-economic backgrounds and schools, and yet they were all able to share their collective experience through their artwork,” says Grooten, who says they were impressed with each student's artistic talent.

“Something we see every session is students saying they're are not talented, or they don't feel confident,” says Grooten, who is a writer, visual artist, and musician. “And something we see each session is how they all prove themselves wrong, and that same sentiment is turned around. These students have valid and vital perspectives that need to be shared, and heeded.”

Alexandra “Lexi’ Tuley, a 17-year-old junior at Loy Norrix, used mixed media to illustrate the world of a transgender athlete. Her piece shows a trans athlete pole-vaulting into what looks like a not-so-certain future.

“In this piece, I specifically wanted to show how trans athletes have to do more work than cis-gendered athletes,” she says.

Of the VOY experience, she says, “I think it’s really cool. It’s fun. You get paid. You get to meet a lot of cool people and get to do a lot of cool stuff. And it’s not that much of a time dedication.”

In the program, students are paid for each of the four Saturdays they participate and they are paid for the story, photography, or artwork they ultimately produce, which is then published on Southwest Michigan Second Wave's website.

“It has taught me more about how to work with other people, I guess,” Tuley says, “and communicate my ideas more easily.”

Rachael Chakutema, a senior who returned to VOY for a second time, says. “It was interesting last year when I did it. … It was fun. I enjoyed it and came back.”

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Read more articles by Al Jones.

Al Jones is a freelance writer who has worked for many years as a reporter, editor, and columnist. He is the Project Editor for On the Ground Kalamazoo.