2727 Second Ave.
Detroit, Michigan 48201
Raised in South Central Los Angeles, a low-income community where youth face many challenges to success, Kayla Mason found her voice at the young age of 15 advocating for improvements in schools and in the community. While the path to get here has been laced with many organizing victories, she is mighty fired up about her role as director of YOUTH VOICE, an organization of Detroit youth who tackle political and social issues to create change. Mason has even developed her own trademarked model to help youth become agents of change in their own life and in their community.
Michigan Nightlight: What is your dream for kids?
Director of YOUTH VOICE and Founder of StreetLite™ model Kayla Mason
: My dream is for youth to realize their abilities and power to create change in their lives and communities. Too often, agencies measure success by their ability to help youth overcome barriers, or they see young people as clients. That model has not been proven sustainable and oftentimes youth see the same results: low literacy, low access to support systems, and low feelings of self-worth.
A comprehensive model that I’ve developed with community partners is called StreetLite™ and we define empowerment as teaching youth about their social context through human development, helping them to become agents of change in their life and community, and examining who they think they are and who they really are. The model builds youth assets and empowers them to become pioneers in their lives and community through integrating mentor services, cultural literacy, civic participation, and volunteerism. My dream is that our society will stop labeling youth “likely to be involved in the streets or prison system” and instead recognize that systems have failed them, and we should figure out alternatives to better support
In YOUTH VOICE, we start with building students’ confidence, developing their assets, and encouraging self-improvement.
What is one concrete thing that could be done to improve the environment for social sector work in Michigan?
To improve the environment for social sector work in Michigan, agencies should develop plans to incorporate the ideas of clients. Professionals tend to believe they know what is best instead of recognizing knowledge can be shared two ways. While someone can be considered an expert with years of experience, a client has the experience of receiving that service. Working in this sector, it is impossible to know how every policy and practice is being perceived so while it might be a challenge, understanding how rules and regulations are affecting the population meant to be served, it can be very powerful.
How do you know you’re making progress?
Progress occurs when I witness a youth individual transformation. Traditionally, community organizing focuses on identifying issues that affect a community as a whole with less emphasis on individual development. In YOUTH VOICE, we start with building students’ confidence, developing their assets, and encouraging self-improvement. After understanding who they are, we use team-building activities to recognize common issues they face as Detroit youth and ways to work together. Then, they develop initiatives and campaigns to improve their community and the results are dynamic. A few successes include getting national attention from CNN after meeting with Detroit Mayor Dave Bing, being selected for MTV True Life for our work improving blight, and helping the city of Detroit get awarded $1.5 million for a youth violence reduction program called Ceasefire. Currently, we are working statewide to modify zero tolerance and address the School to Prison Pipeline. Such progress is necessary for youth to recognize they have power to make systemic change.
What are you most proud of?
Honestly, I’m most proud of my leadership in this work and being committed to education reform for the last ten years of my life. I often tell people, “I wasn’t inspired to be a youth organizer or community leader; this field found me.” I was a resident of
How did our society expect teenagers from disadvantaged areas to realize their potential if no one in the community empowered them to realize their potential?
South Central Los Angeles, a community of low-income people and a place where many of my peers dropped out. But I took classes at a community college while in high school and received my associate’s degree with my high school diploma. I was 15 when my sociology professor had a lecture topic about youth from South Los Angeles being lazy and he used me as an example. ”Kayla is the only high school student in class at this time when others can be here. Only one high school student is taking advantage of the opportunity to take college classes because the rest are lazy,” he told the class. In that moment, I was very agitated and shouted in class that our community, rather than lazy students, played the biggest factor. How did our society expect teenagers from disadvantaged areas to realize their potential if no one in the community empowered them to realize their potential? But my professor was not satisfied with my outburst and told me that if I felt passionate about the issue, I should be at the Los Angeles Community Coalition involved with the development of changing unjust school structures.
I took his advice and for the next three years became a devoted member of South Central Youth Empowered through Action (SCYEA). SCYEA is a youth leadership development program that brings African-American and Latino students together to improve their schools and communities. In 2005, I was a part of the A-G campaign, which pushed the LAUSD School Board to pass a curriculum that increased college access for thousands of South LA students. Being a community activist as a teenager was the place I found my voice and realized youth should use their voice if they wanted to see change.
When I entered college at California State University, Dominguez Hills and discovered budget cuts were happening all over the place for students and faculty, I knew I had the power to make change. For the next two years, I was selected to be a student organizer for the California Faculty Association (CFA). I conveyed the importance of education by planning direct actions to stop the deficit and underfunding of CSU. Such actions included collecting student signature petitions and faxing them to legislatures, rallying outside of the governor’s office, and planning 24-hour vigils in front of the CSU chancellor’s office. I also made presentations to classes weekly on fee increases, overcrowded classes, and class schedule cuts, resulting in extended graduation dates. Through my work with CFA, students and professors helped restore $305 million back into the CSU system in 2008.
Currently working with YOUTH VOICE and reflecting on my experiences, it has been amazing to help youth in Detroit address issues that affect their education like the School to Prison Pipeline. I say all of that to say, it amazes me what a youth from South Central LA was able to accomplish. I enjoy giving other youth the same feeling.
In speaking with younger people who are interested in careers in the social sector, what advice would you give?
If you are a young adult, I suggest you research the field, learn how youth empowerment work is being done in other states, and develop something that works for the local community. In Detroit, we use a model that provides support for young people that may not have the resources needed to support them. Our model was developed based on Shawn Ginwright’s work that youth success occurs in the developmental domains of civic development, psychological wellness, and supportive adult systems. Overall, it is important to research and understand youth assets, build on their skills, and empower them to become pioneers in their lives and community.
If you are a youth, I believe open communication with adults is always best. A lot of adults are not trained to respect teenager’s ideas like their own so it is important to not assume the worst. I tell members in my program all the time that I might argue with them, but I cannot argue with evidence whether it is statistics, surveys, interviews, etc. So when YOUTH VOICE members want to change or implement something in our organization, they begin collecting their research to ensure a fair process. I also suggest finding a mentor or someone in the organization you respect. While youth have a powerful voice, having a strong adult ally behind you could accomplish the goal faster.