Detroit Future Youth Connecting Grassroots Missions and Media Technology for Community Development

August 23, 2012

Photo courtesy of Shane Bernardo
It's hardly a new phenomena to see youth and media come together to make key contributions in almost every social justice movement of the modern era. With today's ever-evolving advances in multi-media technology, youth with access to these technologies are often ahead of the learning curve. But even among those, the question remains: How is the technology being used?

Like any tool, the internet is subject to the aims or aimlessness of the user. To help connect the positive aims of the myriad of grassroots youth-based community organizations in Detroit with the potential of these technologies to shape a better world, the Detroit Future Youth (DFY) program has been busy doing ground-breaking work among their 12 member organizations.

These 12 groups come together at least twice each month with the goal of bettering their communities at ground levels. They represent diverse elements of the city to work toward the common goal of building a youth-based movement that trains and educates current and future generations on how to use the internet to connect the latest digital media technologies to various social justice missions.
"Simply signing parents up for the internet was not enough," said DFY Coordinator Alia Harvey-Quinn.
Sure that may lead to more young Detroiters signing on to Twitter and Facebook, but perhaps an increase in the usage of porn sites and watching violent videos on YouTube as well. Access alone does not impact the development of the youth of Detroit. We want to leave young Detroiters with concrete skills because ultimately, too much unproductive internet time could perhaps be more developmentally destructive than constructive. We didn't want those outcomes for DFY programs.
Whether it's traditional social justice and cultural education youth programs like the Capuchin Soup Kitchen's Rosa Parks Youth Program, Detroit Asian Youth (DAY) Project, Detroit Summer, Ruth Ellis Center, Michigan Roundtable for Diversity and Inclusion, and Detroit Impact; or more media, arts and economic development programs such such as 5 Elements Gallery & Heru's the Business Program, Vanguard CDC's F.A.M.E. Program, Real Media and Young Nation and Inside Southwest; to more environmental and food justice focused groups like the East Michigan Environmental Action Council's Young Educators Alliance and Capuchin Soup Kitchen's Earthworks Urban Farm Stand Program; each DFY member organization shares a commitment to social justice organizing through media creation and broadband adoption.

"Since we do more policy based environmental justice by looking at how environmental issues and policy impact people first, it's important that we not just act on collecting information," said 20-year old Siwatu Salama-Ra, Youth Team Leadership Coordinator for EMEAC's Policy Program Stand Up! Speak Out! "We use the internet to do research and we also need to make sure we have correct data and statistics to see what bills are in process and what's new in the cyber world."

Like EMEAC, the other 11 DFY programs have an established a presence on popular social networking sites like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. They are able to then link their various social networking activities back to either the DFY website or their individual programmatic websites, which ultimately creates an online community of like-minded youth leaders and organizers discussing important community issues.

As useful as social networking and websites can be for outreach and program development, Henry Walker says the Ruth Ellis Center -- an outreach program for homeless lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth -- has found even more ways creative ways to make use of digital media and the internet in their program.

"(Utilizing video and other multimedia technology) is a great part of it," Walker said. "What we are able to do is not only help youth out that might identify as LGBTQ, but also to be able to help out educators and other professionals. They often see the videos that we create and post online as a valuable resource that they can use too."

Walker added that video technologies are particularly useful because they allow community members to not only hear about the work being done but also to actually see it for themselves.

"We are beginning to make vidoes of the sessions we have," he said. "People want to know about how to organize around different issues. Instead of reading it, people can actually see it. This way they can not only see the great things that actually come out of it, but they can see the challenging things too. It's definitely a challenge with the camera, but by recording it you can actually show a lot of things that you can't actually show on paper. Once we actually get completed projects, we are actually trying to move toward showing the different items that we have and making them more accessible."

Certainly not least of all, using multi-media to demonstrate the work of the various programs also allows the gifts and talents of the youth involved to shine through. Whether it is mural projects at Young Nation and Detroit Summer, music and performance arts by youth with 5 Elements Gallery and the Heru or cooperative economic thinking at Vanguard CDC, Detroit Impact or Michigan Roundtable, DFY also helps foster the talents of youth in Detroit.

"We try to use digital media to address certain problems we see in the community," said Detroit Summer's 19-year-old Dakari Carter who now attends Wayne State University. "It can be environmental justice, youth self image, school closings or different things like that. We try to examine those issues through different media."

In the process youth talent shines through.

"Detroit Summer youth have also been actively producing several digital media projects such as The Live Arts Media Project, which is a youth-led response to Detroit's drop-out crisis," said Detroit Summer's 17-year-old Zena Addae who attends Cass Technical High School. "It uses music, poetry, and visual art to investigate community problems and generate community-based solutions. We also have produced videos examining cooperative economics, and alternatives to criminalization on the Detroit Summer YouTube Channel."

"We went out into the community and interviewed other youth in the city. From those interviews we made music pieces. There are some pieces from some very dope artists on there that make some dope music."

How each member of the DFY network uses the combination of the internet, digital media and the youth talent at their disposal is completely driven by the missions and goals of each individual program.

"Each DFY partner approaches this differently," said Harvey-Quinn. "Some groups create music around these topics, share it online and then hold online conversations. Some partners' youth leaders create videos highlighting issues important to them, share their videos online and then host workshops in which participants live tweet their feedback.

"One organization [Detroit Impact] created a video about the criminalization of youth, featuring input from police officers, posted their video online, and then used the feedback from the video as a way for youth to have honest conversations with police authorities that they might not otherwise feel comfortable having."

A year after its inception, DFY is fulfilling its goal of growing a youth-led movement in Detroit using digital media created by youth and the internet as a tool for building community. Network members share a commitment to authentic youth-leadership development that fosters the future creators, problem-solvers and social change-makers that the city needs now more than ever. DFY's approach to broadband adoption is based on an assessment of how young Detroiters are using the internet, why young Detroiters are using the internet and what the meaningful uses of the internet could be for young Detroiters.

Of all the "innovative" and "transformative" initiatives being trumpeted throughout the city, here is one that should never be the least of these. Society's best equipment to adapt to the rapid changes of modern society are the youth themselves. Any initiative keeping them grounded in community-based social justice frameworks has the vision for a positive future.