By David Sands
Jesus Sanchez, 21, has watched a once-blighted apartment complex in his Southwest Detroit neighborhood slowly come back to life over the last few years. Now he’s full of enthusiasm to see it used in a way that benefits his community.
Located near the intersection of Junction Avenue and St. Hedwig Street, the building is now a neighborhood space established and operated by the Congress of Communities (COC), a local nonprofit that’s strongly focused on community organizing. It’s called the Youth-Driven Community Center, and, as the name suggests, it was created with youth and young adults in mind.
Sanchez, a student at Henry Ford Community College who is studying robotics, feels the new community space is a great place for young people in the neighborhood to hang out, while also gaining access to a variety of youth-oriented programming and resources.
“It’s an escape haven,” he said. “If they’re feeling too much pressure at home they can come here and do their homework. And all throughout the building are games for youth to come here and have fun.”
Congress of Communities first popped up on Sanchez’s radar a few years ago. Staff with the nonprofit would ask him to help him move heavy things from time to time. Later, he got involved with a community gardening club run by the COC called Sprouts. Today he works part-time for the nonprofit doing groundskeeping work and odd jobs and leads the gardening club.
Occasionally Sanchez also makes use of the Youth-Driven Community Center himself. Sometimes, he’ll use the space’s printer to print college papers; other times he’ll just stop by to decompress and chat with COC staff.
Fabiola Venegas is Sanchez’ mother. She helps the COC with education-oriented organizing through a grassroots parenting organization called Taking Action por Nuestros Niños (TANN). Like her son, Venegas also loves the concept of the COC’s new Youth-Driven Community Center.
“There are a lot of youth in Southwest Detroit that need leadership development,” she said. “The space is like a second home to them.”
Creating space for local youth
The Youth-Driven Community Center has been in the works for years, but only became a reality in the last six months. The space had a soft launch this past October and a grand opening in May.
It’s currently being used for a variety of youth-oriented programming and events. The most prominent of these is probably the COC’s Youth Council. Each year, the organization chooses a cohort of 12 to 15 local Latinx teens to engage in a 12-month program focused on leadership development, civic engagement, Latinx history and culture, mentorship and educational justice. Almost 100 percent of program participants have gone on to attend college or trade school, and some have received scholarships to attend prestigious institutions like Harvard.
Other programs taking place at the center include the Lavender Society, an LGBTQ group; the Sprouts garden club; EJ at the COC, an environmental justice program aimed at high schoolers, and Detroit Creative Society, an arts and culture group.
The project was originally conceived by members of the nonprofit’s Youth Council during a weekend retreat at the Neutral Zone in Ann Arbor in 2018. The COC’s adult leadership liked the idea of having a youth space that local kids and teens could call their own.
The organization applied for and was awarded a $150,000 Kresge Innovative Projects-Detroit grant that would help pay for planning and a portion of implementation costs. The COC’s leadership then convened a Youth Center Task Force made up of youth, young adults, parents and community members to help realize the project.
Eventually, the organization found a two-story building that had been used as an apartment complex at 4870 St. Hedwig St. and began the work of transforming it into a community center.
Like a lot of development projects that center has run into its fair share of issues with inflation and pandemic-related labor issues, since the COC started work on the community center about three-and-half years ago.
Despite these headaches, there has also been some good news. The WSU Aesculapians, a service organization made up of Wayne State University medical students, chose the COC as its partner of the year for 2023 and has raised more than $7,000 for the nonprofit’s work this year.
The Windsor Detroit Bridge Authority has also awarded the COC a green infrastructure and programming grant as part of its Gordie Howe International Bridge Community Benefits Plan. The investment will help support green programming, community education efforts and infrastructure improvements, including an expansion of its community gardening program.
According to Chinelo Onuigbo, COC’s director of youth programming, work on the house is now nearly complete.
“We’re currently in the process of finalizing things, so the space is up and running,” she said. “We have a youth advisory board, and they’re making sure that the house remains youth-led.”
Youth are also in the process of planning some outdoor summer events, which could include things like bonfires and outdoor movies.
Looking forward, COC Director Maria Salinas is interested in getting a generator for the center to help residents in the event of power outages. And if the center proves to be a great success, she would love to open another space in another part of Southwest Detroit.
As for Sanchez, he’s hopeful the new center will help neighborhood residents connect.
“I hope this brings the community a lot closer together, so we can interact and share some thoughts about what we think of the neighborhood to help improve it,” he said.
– All photos by Steve Koss, unless otherwise noted.
– Resilient Neighborhoods is a reporting and engagement series that examines how Detroit residents and community development organizations are working together to strengthen local neighborhoods. It’s made possible with funding from the Kresge Foundation. Edited for style.