In Reverence for Detroit Youth

I’m at the high school graduation of a school I’ve been working with on some workforce development training and summer employment placements. I’ve become attached to the students, the staff, and the mission of the school. 

As I walk up to the church, I see a friend and counselor, “Mr. C.” He's a larger than life man who loves the kids of the school like they were his own. He greets me with his customary bear hug that lifts me off the ground. "Hey Brother Terry! Glad to see you,” he says. “I need to introduce you to someone." 

He introduces me to a young man I will refer to as “Johnnie.” Johnnie has his graduation cap on, but is sitting outside of the church. I immediately know something is wrong. 

hand on fence

I talk to Johnnie and hear his story of pain. Eight years to graduate high school. Homeless. Incredibly intelligent, especially in math – so gifted that teachers would make him explain his process for getting the right answers. He wants to become a robotics engineer. His goal is to get his master’s degree by the age of 30. We talk about free community college. We talk about job training through Southwest Solutions. We talk about learning from our missteps in order to create a better story for ourselves. We talk... 

As we carry on, police officers walk up behind me. They’ve come to take him away. Either the school or church called the police because Johnnie wasn’t leaving the premises. He had been looking forward to ceremoniously accepting his diploma. I later found out that this young man had a history of loud outbursts at school. Because of this uncertainty, the school decided he would not be invited to walk. Unfortunately, without a home or phone, the administration had no way to convey the news to him before the ceremony. Now, he couldn’t pull himself away from this greatly anticipated moment. Would you? 

 As the police stand in the background, I ask Johnnie to leave with Mr. C or I, confronting him with a real life "Let's Make a Deal, door #1 or door #2” scenario. 

Unfortunately, the choices don’t matter much. Either way, he will still be homeless. "Just take a ride with me in the front seat, because I don't want you in a police car’s backseat," I say. 

Johnnie doesn’t budge. He stands his ground. In this moment, he has a clear understanding of his reality: He has nowhere to go. 

Finally, he agrees to leave. Mr. C will take him away from the pain of being excluded at his graduation. Away from the threat of going to jail, and from the hurt of the "system" failing him once again. 

As Johnnie walks away, he assaults himself, beating himself upside the head. He tosses the dirt from the church's flower bed on his face. This young man is truly alone in the world. It’s just him and his pain, his anger, and his steadily fading dreams of a better life. 

This story should make our collective souls cry, hearts explode, and our voices cringe with anger. This young man, and others like him, live in a world where the net that connects the systems designed to support our youth is frayed from gaps in vision and values. 

Johnnie’s story is that of another young brother being failed. Detroit’s forgotten population.

Those living on the grass tops of society too often don’t know or can’t understand what life is like for these youth, and so we leave them abandoned. 

Change happens when we make it 

The time has come for Detroit to move a youth first agenda. In order for our city to fully realize its renaissance, children and young people must be at the center of conversation. We must establish a greater vision for what our youth can become, and understand how we as adults can truly support their dreams and aspirations. Another generation of youth should not endure our fragmented attempts at collective change. Our youth need us now, more than ever. Their future, and the future of our city, depends on our ability to stand together.  

For those who are committed to Detroit’s most vulnerable population and the future of our city, please join the conversation. It is time to push for a comprehensive, system-wide strategy encompassing schools, city government, the juvenile justice system and philanthropy that equips our young Detroiters to be the positive contributors our city needs for long-term sustainability. 

Add your thoughts in the comment section below, and share this story – or your story – with others.  

terry whitfield

Terry Whitfield

Terry E. Whitfield is project coordinator of children, youth and families for Southwest Counseling Solutions. His work is driven by a love for Detroit, and a belief that all of Detroit’s citizens must be part of the city’s revival. This includes reestablishing a middle class and providing high-quality afterschool programs for youth to gain the skills, knowledge and experiences they need to be a part of Detroit’s new economy.


Terry I'm in!! 313 289 8600

Jaye Hill
7/14/2017 at 10:29 am

Youth Fallen in the cracks
Id like to harbor these youth and be the pathway for them to succeed. But it takes more than this vision.
City development is needed it can create jobs. Provide skill sets. Uplift a community. And be the gap that is needed to pass on a true legacy for our youth. I am in are you.
Harriette Brown

7/13/2017 at 8:19 pm

And I thought I had it tough, being raised without a father and a small town in New Jersey! My dad died when I was three and although we lived apart for sometime, We were reunited when my Mom bought a house a block away from where my grandmother lived with my aunt. So I had extended family, cousins, and because my Mom worked for the school system. She knew every teacher in the system and they for sure let me know that as I started each school year. So as a non-native Detroiter, I ended up here at the end of my professional career in Human Resources. I was shocked, saddened, and overwhelmed with the lack of education some of the prospective employees I interviewed. I felt I was doing my part by personally counseling employees regarding their children's resumes, preparedness to enter the workforce, or go off to college. It wasn't until I connected with City Year Detroit and Southwest Solutions did I understand about the city, its youth, and its problems. We will never be able to dig ourselves out of our current drop-out crisis here and around the country unless we develop and follow the plan, or a plan mentioned above describing this set of circumstances. I can't imagine the pain with this young man, his frustration, or the fact of being homeless. I, at least, am doing my part by volunteering my time with City Year Detroit corp members, previously serving on Southwest Solutions development committee, and supporting these organizations financially. But this is not enough. We must address the problems of our underserved population, our youth in crisis, and our educational system.

Kate Safford
7/13/2017 at 1:09 pm