Leading Detroit: Angela Reyes of Detroit Hispanic Development Corporation
Tired of burying children, Angela Reyes became a community leader by organizing youth programs. Reyes vividly remembers going to the funerals of young people close to her every other week.
“It was traumatic for me as a mother, it was traumatic for the community,” said Reyes. “Sometimes kids were involved in a gang; sometimes they were just sleeping on their beds at night when a random bullet killed them.”
Angela Reyes is the executive director and founder of the Detroit Hispanic Development Corporation (DHDC), a community-based nonprofit dedicated to youth violence prevention, gang retirement and continuing education programs.
At 17 years of age, Reyes saw the need to become a community leader as she developed a passion for working with young people. She dreamed of servicing the needs of the community with an adaptive, creative and culturally competent approach. Her vision was to engage young people in the process of creating solutions in the community by training them to take leadership positions.
With nothing but a computer, a printer and a fax machine, Reyes founded DHDC in 1997 from her living room. It was in her home that she helped form a truce between rival gang leaders getting them to agree to leave the gang life behind in exchange for employment.
Reyes describes the DHDC as an organization created for the community and by the community. Its indigenous staffing model promotes community involvement in the development of the organization and its initiatives. According to their website, over 75 percent of its employees grew up in southwest Detroit and most have gone through DHDC programs. The organization services over 5,000 youth and adults annually.
What started as a program to reduce the level of gang violence has evolved into what DHDC is today. DHDC combines service provision, advocacy and community organizing for policy change.
“To be honest with you, I never envisioned that it would become what it is today… Sometimes I feel more like a witness, rather than the person who created all of this,” said Reyes. “A lot of the young people that were involved in our program have become co-creators along with me."
Reyes’ responsibilities as the executive director vary from grant writing and program development to the occasional cleaning of toilets.
“My responsibilities vary from moment to moment, but first and foremost, I’m a leader of leaders,” said Reyes.
Balancing Roots with Suits
Reyes has become a voice in the Latino community and for the Latino community. Growing up in southwest Detroit, she has always been familiar with the needs and desires of people in the community.
Proud of her Latino heritage, Reyes has remained true to her roots by incorporating indigenous traditions into the organizational culture of DHDC. Familiar with Mayan and Aztec symbolism, Reyes searched for something that would represent the work that DHDC does to impact individuals, communities and systems. The organization’s logo is based on a Mayan glyph that represents transformation.
The balance of “roots and suits,” describes a practice implemented at DHDC were people who have professional background and training, are also people who have deep roots in the community.
Reyes experienced racial discrimination in the education system since elementary school. At school, kids were punished for speaking Spanish and called “lazy and dirty Mexicans.” With no Latino leadership in administrative positions in the Detroit schools, Reyes became a rabble-rouser. She saw the need to take action and give the Latino community a voice and a seat at the table.
“When you experience that sort of discrimination you do one of two things, you either become very silent and internalize it, or you become someone radicalized,” said Reyes.Reyes, who as a student, was a member of the national honors society got kicked off the organization, not for her grades, but she was told that she “leaned too much to the left."
Children Run this Place
From a young age, Reyes envisioned herself working in an orphanage taking care of children. Throughout the years, Reyes has taken in over 50 children into her home. Today, her children continue to offer their homes as shelters to young people in need.
Alexis Zavala, director of youth programs and son of Angela Reyes, is a testament to the family atmosphere that Reyes created at DHDC.
“My son (Alexis) was four when I started doing this kind of work,” said Reyes. “He is turning 34 today.”
Reyes’ son, who has seen her mother develop into a pillar in the Latino community, celebrated his birthday at DHDC where the staff gathered around a cake to sing him happy birthday with a cha-cha Latin flair and a Spanish cheer.
Every day, Reyes walks around the DHDC building receiving hugs from children and adults alike. She jokingly mentioned her need to get her daily dose of hugs for good mental health. People in the community affectionately call her mom or ‘buela (grandma).
Reyes lights up as she talks about her family. As the second of 10 children, Reyes grew up caring for her younger siblings. She considers the lives of the children in her life her motivation and her greatest accomplishment.
“The children run this place,” said Reyes lightheartedly.When the school bus drops youth program participants off in the afternoon, the children freely roam the halls of DHDC feeling at home.
strength in numbers
Reflecting on her legacy, she recalls the struggles and triumphs along the way.
“We knew that nobody was coming to save us,” said Reyes. “We didn’t wait for anybody; we just started doing things to help our own people."
"The more we came together, the stronger our voice became and the more partnerships we were able to form outside of the community,” she added.
Planning for the future, Reyes wants to continue serving the community through her public health experience as a consultant and mentor to DHDC leaders.
“What I’m most looking forward to is traveling and spending time with my children. My seventh grandchild is on the way, and I have three great-grandchildren.”
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Francis Cruz-Aldrett is a public relations student at Wayne State University in Detroit.
Follow her on twitter at @FrancisVascruz