Urban Neighborhood Initiatives
Business Non-Profits

Urban Neighborhood Initiatives Cultivates Leaders in Southwest Detroit

June 14, 2022

Urban Neighborhood Initiatives invests in youths and young adults to strengthen self-esteem and cultivate leaders in Southwest Detroit


On the surface, a summer job lets young people make some much-needed money. But to Detroit’s Urban Neighborhood Initiatives, that short-term gig means so much more to the community and its investment in young professionals.

Youth employment creates lifelong friendships, develops a teen’s self-esteem, and has the potential to change their lives in real and long-lasting ways, which is why the organization invests so much into these opportunities, says UNI Executive Director Christine A. Bell. That’s even more important, she says, as youths and college-age students resume their jobs and activities following the two-year pandemic restrictions.

Urban Neighborhood Initiatives is a place-based community development organization, serving the area around Springwells, one of the oldest neighborhoods in Southwest Detroit. About 17,000 residents live in its 1.4-mile-service area, including people who identify as Latino, Appalachian, African American, and Arab. About 60% of its residents report speaking a language other than English.

This summer, Bell says UNI is approaching its 2022 youth employment efforts with renewed vigor. It plans to do this through a variety of programs, including the Southwest Food Cultivators Program, as well as by working in the environment through its Green Team and by painting murals through its popular South-west Urban Arts Murals Project.

For example, the Summer at the Center program or SATC, which serves children ages 5-13, focuses on educational enrichment, STEM, art, and outdoor recreation, says M. Brook Trejo, UNI’s communications and volunteer coordinator.

Summer at the Center youth participants and their youth leaders play at the UNI Springdale Green Playlot.

“Our goal through this program is to prevent summer learning loss, where on average students lose 17–34% of the prior year’s learn-ing gains during summer break,” Trejo says. “SATC is a huge hit in our neighborhood. Oftentimes, our residents begin calling us early in January hoping to enroll their children.”

UNI is making that happen through strong relationships with its community partners, by working closely with local businesses looking to hire, and by finding adults willing to volunteer, tutor, and serve as mentors, Bell says.

“We’ve created our own talent pipeline,” Bell says. “Our organization is unique because our young people are leading it, they’re designing it, and they’re active in it. They’re active contributors and leaders in their community.”

“We really need people that want to tutor and build a mentoring relationship with kids from elementary through high school,” Bell says. “There’s a long road ahead of us for the kids who came through high school during COVID. There was a misconception that young people were loving being online, but from what we’re hearing from our kids, that’s not the case.”

Whether it is short-term disasters such as the 2021 flooding that hit much of Detroit or long-term challenges like coronavirus and food insecurity, the organization seeks to help residents with everyday difficulties and to find solutions that will lift everyone from school-age kids to teens to neighborhood elders.

Trejo is a prime example of how UNI works directly for and with its residents across individual ages or stages. Trejo grew up in the Springwells neighborhood that UNI serves, and she now works for the nonprofit. “What I appreciate about UNI is the readiness to be there for its residents,” Trejo says.

Like Trejo, about 90% of UNI’s staff live in the same neighborhood that UNI serves in Southwest Detroit, Bell says. “Our motto is we’re building with community,” she adds.

UNI’s mission is tied into its geography — Springwells is bounded by Fort, Dix, and Waterman streets, and it is located about 10 minutes from downtown Detroit and an equal distance from the Canadian border. That makes it feel like the heart of Southwest, Trejo says, but it also faces environmental challenges from its proximity to areas such as the heavily indus-trial neighborhood of Delray, Zug Island, and Detroit’s wastewater treatment plant.

This Southwest Urban Arts Mural Project commission designed by youth participant Alexa Arriaga is located behind the Southwest Detroit Business Association.

Their commitment to key initiatives, specifically economic planning and youth development, are the lifeblood of the organization, Bell says. That’s what created UNI nearly 25 years ago, and its initial concept — developing a neighborhood where people wanted to live, work, and play — continues through today.

A key element of UNI’s overall mission is to help youth and young adults between 14 and 24 through programs that teach life skills, create mentorships, and give participants work experience that will lead them to their next, even greater steps forward, Bell and Trejo say.

Take the Southwest Food Cultivators Program. Participants plant and tend to fruit and vegetables, harvest the food that they grow, and learn to cook as they go, Trejo says.

Andy Morataya, a member of the UNI Q-Team plants vegetables.

Southwest Food Cultivators participants Brian and Mykah.

“Youth also work within several community gardens and provide fresh vegetables, fruits, and herbs to neighbors and residents. This is a youth employment program, meaning they are paid for their hard work and efforts. They get to have fun and be paid,” Trejo says.

With its year-round programming, UNI stands out for its comprehensive youth programs, Trejo says. For example, Leaders in Training or LIT targets students with job-readiness training, leadership skills, and a one-on-one support system that seeks to partner young people with community partners looking to mentor, train, and hire them, Trejo says.

“We’ve created our own talent pipeline,” Bell says. “Our organization is unique because our young people are leading it, they’re designing it, and they’re active in it. They’re active contributors and leaders in their community.”

For more information about how you can help and support Urban Neighborhood Initiatives, visit unidetroit.org, or fill out a volunteer form here.

Read 5 Ways to Give Back to UNI This Summer


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