From Youth Programs to Land Use Projects, Urban Neighborhood Initiatives Reflects on a Successful Year

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By Camille Allen, CEDAM Communications Intern

Many urban programs are directed at youth, but it is not often that we see these programs driven by youth themselves. For CEDAM Member Urban Neighborhood Initiatives (UNI), this is nothing out of the ordinary. This past year, over 1,500 adolescents engaged in the organization’s leadership programs, which include youth designed and facilitated workshops on substance abuse, movies in the park and a school lunch improvement campaign.

Part of UNI’s mission is indigenous leadership, meaning they aim to have a staff that is more reflective of the community it serves, and provide the youth of Detroit with leadership positions in these programs that ensures that they will be able grow into positions with more responsibility. UNI puts young people at the forefront of their movement, and this philosophy is strongly reflected in their video titled Why Youth:

I recently had the opportunity to catch up with executive director Christine Bell to discuss UNI’s annual breakfast, a day for the organization, along with guest speakers and members of the community, to discuss successes from the past year and plans for the one ahead. As 2017 comes to a close, it is clear that Detroit, and the state of Michigan, have much to be proud of when it comes to this nonprofit organization. IMG_0195

Recognized for their youth-centric philosophy, UNI was deemed a lead agency for Grow Detroit’s Young Talent this past summer, providing nearly two-hundred youth individuals with work experience. The organization brings individuals into the workforce through their community-based programs including their Southwest Urban Arts Mural Project, their Urban Forestry and Recreation program and their Apprenticeship Program which places youth in local businesses and organizations that correlate to their career goals for the future. In addition to being named a lead organization, UNI was the only organization in the entire city of Detroit to utilize America Saves, a savings program aimed at teaching children about banking and saving.

“All of our young people have opened banking and savings accounts,” Bell said.

Their youth has collectively saved $92,000 dollars and pledged to use their savings for education. This pledge largely sets them apart from other programs which do not prioritize saving for education. Not only were they first in the city to use this program, but they are one of thirty organizations in the nation to implement it.

In addition to youth development, UNI focuses on land use and economic development. Through their Land Stewardship Program, residents identify vacant lots they would like revitalized and UNI supports them in the restoration process. Bell stresses that they try to create a sense of self-sufficiency in the community.IMG_0179

“Our goal is to get residents to a point where they can care for the land themselves,” Bell said.

This past year 55 lots were beautified and they have claimed over 150 for the long-term stewardship of the residents.  This year their Green Team, which is part of their Urban Forestry and Recreation Program, redeveloped and beautified three pocket-parks in the city, creating safe spaces for children and families to enjoy.

Just as much as the organization strives to beautify the area and get the best use out of its land, they also care a great deal about justice in the community. This is reflected in their ongoing project to renovate the Lawndale Center. The Lawndale Center is set to become the first community-based justice center in the state, with future tenants including Lakeshore Legal Aid and the Southwest Detroit Community Justice Center. This center will provide an accessible way to address crime and reconnect people with their communities.

This year UNI made significant progress on the Lawndale Center renovation, and a unique aspect of this ongoing renovation is its participatory design process. This allows stakeholders and community members to have a say in the design of the center and influence the outcome of the project.

“There is nothing we’ve done that hasn’t come from the community,” Bell said. “We believe that residents know what the problems are in their community, and need support solving those problems and have a better understanding of how to do so.”

IMG_0171Bell also discussed some of the organization’s plans for 2018. In addition to beginning the renovation process on the other half of the Lawndale Center, UNI plans to develop a community land trust. Through their partnership with ProsperUS Detroit, a community development organization that focuses on entrepreneurship training and business services, they will be hosting classes and looking into new ways to provide residents with more economic opportunities.


With all of this in store, Urban Neighborhood Initiatives has given us much to look forward to in the upcoming year.