It is a busy Friday at the Cody Rouge Community Action Alliance (CRCAA). Young people and parents alike are completing tax forms, applications, and submitting work permits. On the coming Monday, 175 young people, referred through this agency, will start their summer jobs as a part of Grow Detroit’s Young Talent program.
CRCAA is one of a dozen referring agencies placing young people as part of the citywide program. Ranging in ages from 14 to 24, these young people will be placed as camp counselors, administrative helpers, party planners, and more with businesses and organizations across the city.
Placing youth into summer job roles is just one of Charday Ward’s responsibilities. The youth development coordinator for CRCAA for nearly two years, Ward is focused on youth-led community engagement. “Research shows that youth from low-income backgrounds do better after high school when they’ve been involved in youth-led programming,” Ward says.
And she’s right. According to a 2012 study in the Journal of Community Psychology, “youth community organizing programs influence a range of youth development outcomes, including the development of skills, knowledge, civic engagement, empowerment, and positive changes in self-concept.”
For Charday Ward, this is simply defined by one word: “agency.”
Sociologists define agency as the thoughts and actions taken by people that express their individual power. It is the power people have to think for themselves and act in ways that shape their experiences and life trajectories.
For young people, particularly urban young adults, discovering their own agency can be challenging. Social structures such as schools and other institutions devalue youth voice —children and young adults become accustomed to having their opinions go unheard. And this lack of agency in determining their own fates can have negative ramifications down the road.
Leaders in Cody Rouge, however, are creating platforms for youth to reclaim their agency.
One significant example is the Cody Rouge Youth Council, which consists of 10 young people ages 12 to 18 that live, work, worship, or attend school in the Cody Rouge community and have a genuine interest in making a difference in Detroit. Established in 2007, council members actively participate in community service projects, and planning youth and community events for the Cody Rouge neighborhood. Members also gain invaluable preparation for college or careers and have opportunities to engage in leadership training, participate in the legislative process, and work paid summer internships.
Torrianna Bradley was a Cody Rouge Youth Council member. She also graduated from The Academy of Public Leadership (APL) at Cody High School, one of the four small academies that made up the school for several years. Cody is leaving the small school model in the coming school year and reverting to a single large school, a fact that leaves Bradley wistful.
“APL gave us the ability to connect, with each other and staff,” she says. “There were only 72 people in my graduating class. The cohort you started with in ninth grade was who you finished with in twelfth grade. Even my English teacher was the same all four years.”
Bradley is currently enrolled at Michigan State University and majoring in social work. She ultimately wants to be a counselor, perhaps at a school, and attributes this passion to her experience growing up in this community.
“We talk so much about being family-oriented and mentorship here, and it’s demonstrated,” Bradley says. “The people in this community really are authentic in who they say they are and what they say they will do.”
This year, the Cody Rouge Youth Council will be learning about and developing projects that are focused on social justice. They’ll get leadership training, lead community meetings, develop a youth-led community plan, and engage with other agencies and block clubs all while earning a stipend — a new addition made possible by grant funding from United Way and Community Foundation of Southeast Michigan.
As the youth development coordinator, this new evolution in the youth council is encouraging to Ward. “We [at the Cody Rouge Community Action Alliance] are highly dedicated to building and maintaining opportunities for young people to grow in leadership and be exposed to things that will enrich their lives,” she says. “That requires more than just passion, but research, training, and understanding that there is a science to making that a reality.”
Ward and Bradley outside St. Suzanne’s
Ward believes that the Cody Rouge Youth Council can be a guiding light for programming across the city of Detroit that leads to youth agency. “If more communities across the city could truly and deeply engage with youth, allowing them to lead and be heard, we would be raising more activists. If our city’s youth are more community and civic-minded, then we would see more positive change across the city as a whole.”
This article is part of “Voices of Cody Rouge,” a series that showcases the authentic stories of residents, community stakeholders, and local organizations helping to create and shape positive transformation in the Cody Rouge neighborhood of Detroit. This series is made possible with support from Quicken Loans, IFF, and the Cody Rouge Community Action Alliance.
Photos by Nick Hagen.