By Tunde Wey
March 21, 2012
On any given day in Southwest Detroit, you might see wild dogs roaming, young kids strolling in pairs or groups, and smoke from open-air taqueria stands mixing with exhaust from large tractors. Old, vacant buildings are overtaken with eager new graffiti; longer settled residents mingle easily with newer émigrés. These contrasts have interesting ramifications because they point at what happens when established and traditional ideas inform (and are informed by) newer ones.
, a non-profit organization co-founded by Erik Howard, is an evolving example of the positive melding of past and present to deliver a contemporary culture. Using cultural and educative initiatives, Young Nation informs and engages youth. Through a participatory process where emerging talents are enlisted to aid in their own development and growth, Young Nation connects passionate interests to community initiatives, organically developing their young charges along the way.
Howard grew up on the corner of Carson and Pit in Southwest Detroit. He describes his three-block childhood neighborhood as a microcosm of the larger Southwest community; an intense overlay of community, crime, culture and tension. Whites, Blacks, Hispanics and Arabs lived in close quarters, earning their livings in professions as diverse as teaching, social work, law enforcement and illicit activities. The houses varied from multi-unit apartments to two family homes. Renters and homeowners lived comfortably together. Howard explains that the uniqueness of his childhood lies less in this cultural clutter and more in the connection between these seemingly disparate groups.
He describes himself as a “porch kid” -- closely parented and regularly involved in community institutions such as school and church. In contrast, the “corner kids” were less supervised, with limited or no attachment to community institutions and almost always involved in illegal activities. Howard however notes that the neighborhood kids were agnostic to any superficial distinctions, and they all interacted genuinely and frequently. This understanding that most difference is prima facie
evolved into a guiding principle of Young Nation. Howard says, “Impact is measured by relationships. (Young Nation) measures impact by examining unlikely relationships formed through our work.”
Young Nation focuses on outreach, education and youth programming as locomotives for its inventive brand of youth and community development. Erik Howard describes this model as “combining the matters of the head
(development competency) with matters of the heart
(cultural competency)” to institutionalize youth participation and growth in the community. Howard says this can only be achieved by first understanding youth culture, recognizing its passions and interests. By working in tandem with community partners and organizations, Young Nation is equally connected to institutional ideas and practices around youth development.
Having a seat at the table with traditional institutions and a foot in the door of youth culture is the explicit intersection, Howard believes, where holistic development of youth occurs. This cooperation of contrasts makes up the underpinnings of Young Nation’s philosophy; an ideology Howard learned and lived in Southwest Detroit. For Howard, the opportunity and goal for Young Nation’s projects is to “support unlikely relationships” and have those relationships “work together to create solutions for common ground problems.”
Portrait by Marvin Shaouni Photography.