Battle Creek

Voices of Youth: Through words and art, Battle Creek youth share what matters to them

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's Voices of Youth Battle Creek program which is supported by the BINDA foundation, Battle Creek Community Foundation, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and the City of Battle Creek.

Finding their voices was just the beginning of a monthlong journey in March for nine students in Battle Creek.
Some of these students are homeschoolers while others attend Battle Creek Central and Lakeview high schools. They came together to participate in a Southwest Michigan Second Wave Voices of Youth program which resulted in news articles, a podcast, and artwork based on subjects that they were each passionate about.
Beginning on May 4 and continuing through May 25, their completed projects will be showcased on consecutive Thursdays on the Second Wave Southwest Michigan website and other social media platforms.
Logan Stevens, 17, and Kai Stevens, 15, siblings who are homeschooled, chose to focus their efforts on removing the stigma that some people still seem to have about seeking out mental health services. Through their research, Logan says he and his sister found that some people think they can’t afford services while others cited accessibility to those services.
Siblings Logan and Kai Stevens collaborated on a Voices of Youth project focused on mental health access.“I found information on the Affordable Care Act Medicaid that cover these services and a few more that will cover therapy sessions and any medications or something as small as a yearly checkup,” Logan says. “We discussed affordability, past experiences, and people saying ‘I don’t need that.’  People feeling like they didn’t need therapy was a lot higher."
Kai wrote the story while her brother edited it. Their choice of subject is something they have familiarity with as consumers of the mental health system who have had their share of challenges accessing affordable services. Along with their mother, Willow Stevens, they each have been challenged by long waits, in some cases one year or more, to see a therapist or have had to switch to different therapists because of the high rate of burnout and turnover within the profession.
Lauren Davis, a senior at Lakeview High School and VOY participant, put a different angle on mental health through her story which focuses on the post-Covid impact on teen mental health.

“Any opportunity to express my voice while making a positive difference in society is one I'll take,” Lauren says. “When considering my piece, I knew that writing a piece on mental health in teenagers would be impactful for many students, as it provides comfort in knowing that they're not alone in their suffering. With my experience in video journalism,

"I knew that only doing interviews wouldn't be a challenge, so I conducted interviews as normal, and then wrote an article, which was something I had never done before. I found a new love for writing that I had never previously grasped. This opportunity opened a new world to journalism by providing experience and connections to further progress in the field.”
Elisha Willis, a Battle Creek Central junior (left) and Cordell Barnes, a Battle Creek Central Junior (right) created a podcast with their mentor Gerald King (center).Cordell Barnes and Elisha Willis, both students attending BCCHS, used a different format to put a lens on mental health with their production of a podcast highlighting the impacts of social media on mental health.
However, mental health wasn’t the only area of focus for this most recent group of VOY students.
Kayanna Smith, a senior at Lakeview High School, built a dress out of discarded shipping materials as a commentary on the negative impact online shopping and fast-fashion has on the environment. She also wrote an article to further explain her project and the environmental impact of discarded items such as the materials used in packaging.
The idea for her project resulted from a brainstorming session that happened during the first week of the March VOY sessions when cards containing subjects, including fashion and the environment were distributed. Kayanna says these cards served as prompts to nudge the creative process for each participant.
Kayanna Davis, senior at Lakeview High School, participated in Voices of Youth Battle Creek.“I drew a card about an artform and the person sitting next to me had a card about fashion and somebody else had something about the environment and I started thinking in my head how could I merge them,” Kayanna says. “I’ve always been interested in fashion and environmentalism, sculptures and 3-D.”
It was all in the cards for Lila McCarthy as well. A homeschooler who participated in an earlier VOY session in 2022 whose preferred pronoun is phe, says phe took cards that said fashion design and LGBTQ+ and “decided maybe I’ll design something about inclusivity with gender and how presentation differs from identity when it comes to gender.”
“I was going to highlight that we shouldn’t be judging how someone might identify gender-wise based on how they dress or how they look,” Lila says. “This is something I run into in my own life.”
Lila King, 13, a Voices of Youth participant, talks with her mentor, J.R. Reynolds, a Battle Creek journalist.Lila's project was a few simple designs that include a dress of transwomen who tend to have broader shoulders, are of varying heights, and “struggle to find clothing in their size.” Lila also produced a design for transmen who "tend to have smaller shoulders and are of shorter height.”
Giving voice, overcoming challenges
Voices of Youth is designed to empower youth to tell stories about their community and themselves that matter to them, says Theresa Coty O’Neil, Managing Editor of Second Wave Southwest Michigan and Facilitator for the Voices of Youth program in Battle Creek.
“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,” she says. “They learn their voice matters, and that often, using it contributes to the kind of change in the world they would like to see.”
“I think people should know about this program,” Lila says. “The adults we work with are really amazing, respectful, nice and really accepting.”

Lauren says the workshops were very beneficial.

“We were all given expert mentors to help with our pieces. My mentor, Jane Parikh, helped with the structure, quality, and time management of my piece, which really allowed for the impactful movement I created during the program,” she says. “I am incredibly grateful for Theresa O'Neil for extending an invitation to participate, as well as Jane Parikh and Jodi Darland for helping my article thrive."

Lauren Davis, Voices of Youth Reporter and Lakeview High School SeniorSimilar to the solutions-based journalism format that is at the core of stories and art produced by professional writers, artists and photographers who work for Second Wave and its parent company Issue Media Group, Battle Creek’s VOY participants were encouraged to look at their projects through that solutions-based lens.
For Lila who learned about the solutions-based approach in faer first VOY session, the challenge was finding and connecting with people to interview for faer project.
“The hard part of all of this was the interviews. For some reason I have bad luck finding people to interview,” Lila says. “It took a while and I did find people.”
One of the most important things, phe learned was “to write down and record interviews.”
Kayanna says one of the main challenges for her was finding a way to get “all of the ideas from my head to be understandable in a story I write as well as the themes I wanted to get across. I interpreted all of what I made one way and wanted to make sure the audience understood what I’m trying to get across by being creative, influential, and solutions-based. Mixing in solutions-based journalism, I wanted to spread awareness and attempt to offer solutions while still being creative. Having my project meet all of those marks was a challenge.”
Her biggest takeaway, based on her future plans to go into media production or journalism was to get a feel for how what she did in VOY would translate in the real world.
Athena McCarthy participated in Voices of Youth Battle Creek.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 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.
While the financial compensation is a draw for participants, Kayanna says she thinks VOY provides opportunities for students to get out of their comfort zone and challenge themselves.
Speaking from experience, she says, “Even if a student has no prior experience with journalism media or writing, this is a great program to be part of because you learn new skills. Everyone had something they were passionate about. The ability to create something you’re so passionate about is really great.
“This Voices of Youth session was also my introduction to solutions-based journalism and since the news can be so negative at times, it’s a very refreshing thing to learn that not all stories have to be negative. It’s cool to see there’s a form of journalism trying to find answers instead of talking about all the negatives.”

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Jane Parikh is a freelance reporter and writer with more than 20 years of experience and also is the owner of In So Many Words based in Battle Creek. She is the Project Editor for On the Ground Battle Creek.