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Youth Initiative Project

Neighborhood Service Organization’s Youth Initiatives Project engages at-risk youth in creating their own campaigns around causes they believe in. This reinforces leadership skills and teaches young people to advocate for themselves around the policies that affect their lives. In the process, they give kids in some of the hardest-hit neighborhoods in Detroit a sense of ownership over their futures.
Michigan Nightlight: Tell us briefly about your program in terms of it purpose and who it serves.
NSO Youth Initiatives Program Director Frank McGhee: The mission of the Neighborhood Service Organization’s Youth Initiatives Project is to provide youth leadership and advocacy training focused on violence and substance abuse, targeting the population between the ages of 11 and 18 -- middle and high school, mostly. It is a program put together by the youth themselves to address these issues, and to take on an issue in terms of advocating for policies that improve the quality of life for youth. We address issues of education, address the concerns of the prison pipeline, and address concerns of poverty. All that is quite clearly connected.
We target a majority of males with programming designed to improve literacy rates and to retain young people in school. We have a case manager also who works with at-risk girls who could join a gang or be involved in truancy. We’re also working with young people involved in gang activity with our street outreach.
I’m also doing quite a bit of working in boardrooms, telling people that these young people are ready to go. They are
...our peer educators are the stars of the show. They are advocating for policies that interact with and impact what we do, and many of them have become quite astute at it.
committed and have turned their lives around with advocacy and mentoring as well. We want to be able to advocate on behalf of that young person so that they can reach their full potential.
It’s all done through our youth program and our peer educators are the stars of the show. They are advocating for policies that interact with and impact what we do, and many of them have become quite astute at it.
What really differentiates this program?
What sets it apart from other youth programs is that we were one of the first youth-driven programs in Detroit. Once the youth are trained, young people step up and do amazing things to carry out their campaign that they conceive and execute. We encourage youth to think differently about at-risk behavior in ways that are not all “doom and gloom” -- we do street theater or invite VIP guest speakers to talk to them.
What are the keys to success for your program?
It’s when our youth graduate ready to move on to college with the leadership skills that can impact others. As an example, one young man we trained put together our “Grads, Not Inmates” program that encourages peers to embrace their opportunities for education. It’s really taken off and now these young men in the program wear shirts and ties when they go to school. There is a level of expertise, commitment, and passion that our youth have to carry out their goals promoting safety and nonviolence for our community.
What existing challenges remain with this program and how do you plan to overcome them?
One of major challenges we see is literacy. By the time they get to high school they are behind. We have seen that over the last few years, but the good news is we made an adjustment with the support of the Skillman Foundation to provide after-
A lot of people are leaving the neighborhood and moving into the northeast suburbs. That creates a vacuum, which creates instability in the community.
school literacy and leadership training, and to showcase skills through voluntarism or participating on a committee. We realize we have to do more collaboration to deal with issues of literacy.
Our second challenge is what has happened in the city. A lot of people are leaving the neighborhood and moving into the northeast suburbs. That creates a vacuum, which creates instability in the community. We’re trying to cut down issues of crime in the community and have more people involved in activities and events.
How does your program take a collective, collaborative approach to creating systemic change for children? 
We’ve partnered with the U-M School of Public Health and their Urban Research Center to address those policy issues that are key to the success of dealing with a multifaceted set of issues that negatively impact the quality of life for youth and families. Inherent in how youth design their programs is that they welcome collaboration and encourage it.
How does your program address issues of equity (economic, educational, racial, etc.)?
We try to present a sense of diversity in the program. We have African American and Hmong youth in our program. They have different challenges and we respect each of them because so much is involved with certain cultures. In the Osborn neighborhood ours is one of a few programs that have Hmong and African American youth working together. 
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