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Engaging Youth, Engaging Neighborhoods

      Creating a sense of community, creating a sense of voice for youth in our neighborhoods.

Community-Based Research from the Center for Social Concerns  


   By Susan Miller

Engaged and inspired

While it’s been famously said that it takes a village to raise a child, it should be noted that sometimes the village should listen to what the child has to say.

This would be one of the key lessons learned by the adults who were masterminds behind a project that brings together resources from Notre Dame’s Center for Social Concerns (CSC), the Neighborhood Resources Corporation (NRC), and Robinson Community Learning Center (RCLC).

“You really have to follow the child,” said Maria McKenna, assistant professional specialist for Notre Dame’s Institute for Educational Initiatives, adding that this became clear through the process.

“We learned if we went in with an idea of what a project would look like at the end, their idea was different,” added Kevin Burke, assistant professional specialist for Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education.

The project vision

Officially, the Engaging Youth, Engaging Neighborhoods (EYEN) project is a neighborhood development initiative, the goal of which is to involve kids in community change.

The Center for Social Concerns at Notre Dame was involved in the project through its faculty members who acted as facilitators, coordinators, and researchers for the initial project: Naomi Penney, former research associate for Notre Dame’s Center for Social Concerns; McKenna, Burke, and; Stuart Greene, associate professor of English with a joint appointment in Africana Studies. The project work is now also part of a University of Notre Dame research project designed to explore how the process used in the EYEN makes changes in neighborhoods, as well as evaluate how the experience changes the way students think about getting involved in local projects.

The CSC is always working to facilitate partnerships between organizations and the University. The connection with NRC is one example of how this is possible, Penney said.

The CSC team evaluates the outcome of each project year by looking at results, outcomes, and impact. What the team has discovered can best be described as an endeavor that is reaching beyond its original parameters.

Giving youth a voice

It all began about three years ago when the NRC board wanted to create a youth program that would give kids a voice on how to improve their neighborhoods. The original idea was to have groups of students shoot 24 photos on a disposable camera, then discuss those images and what they meant to the student who took them, and outline their ideas for improvement.

Penney, who just ended her second term as president of the NRC board, explained the original project idea was based on using a research method called Photovoice. The vision was for groups to work from a theme, such as “Living in my neighborhood,” “Twelve great things about my neighborhood,” or “Twelve things I’d like to change about my neighborhood.”

That idea turned into a bigger project, which ultimately involved additional creative exercises, such as writing poetry.

“We’re convinced for health of neighborhoods in the community, kids need to be involved,” said Diana Hess, executive director of NRC. “We want to develop future leaders.”


The participants


The NRC planned to draw from the 36 neighborhoods identified, but the Neighborhood Associations had difficulty identifying youth to participate, in part because of insufficient lead-time, Hess said. The first year of the project (2011-2012) one team of five youths from the Monroe Park Neighborhood Association was identified to participate. For the second year (2012-13), Jacquee Dickey from RCLC contacted the NRC. She expressed a desire for her RCLC Photoformers photography students to be involved in the project, because of the scholarship opportunity. While not a neighborhood in itself, the RCLC is located in the Northeast Neighborhood and as a result has connections to that neighborhood association and the larger community.


The projects


So far, there have been two rounds of completed projects; a third round will begin in January 2014.


High-level objectives


Working with NRC, neighborhood leaders, community volunteers, city administration, and the Center for Social Concerns, students in grades 7-12 walk their neighborhood to explore what is going on. By using creative techniques, they identify and demonstrate what could be different or better. Then they meet in small discussion groups to talk with other students about their neighborhoods and finally propose a plan to solve one of the things they see as needing to be changed.

Key points of EYEN are creating a sense of community, creating a sense of voice, and creating a sense of democratic space, Greene said.

Additionally, building trust was a critical element in the success of the project. “Kids had to develop relationships with adults before they were honest,” Burke said.

Results: The first project

The first project started as a group of five students, but ended up with only three participants. The girls, from the Monroe Park neighborhood, took pictures, wrote “I am …” poems, and drew neighborhood maps.

What they identified as a key concern was that they had nowhere to play. They were worried about trash and safety. Their realistic, reasonable request was to repair one stretch of sidewalk, Penney said.

Once the project was complete, the faculty (McKenna, Greene, and Burke) wrote up the experience and submitted it to a national outreach conference. The girls were invited to be co-presenters with the faculty.

“A highlight (of this project) was taking the girls to the University of Alabama,” McKenna said. The conference drove home to the girls that their voices really matter.

One of the members was Anyjah Perkins. In ninth grade at the time, she signed up because her mom wanted her in an afternoon program and because of the opportunity to earn a scholarship.

“I thought we’d take pictures, but we got to travel and make a difference in the community,” she said.

Perkins, who aspires to be an obstetrician/ gynecologist, said the trip changed her views on college. As a student athlete, she was pleased to see the University of Alabama had a sports focus, allowing students to study and be involved in athletics.

Simply being on a college campus was an added bonus of the trip. “To be on campus made them realize they could be there someday,” Burke said.

Results: The second project

The second group of EYEN, decided it wanted to improve Kelly Park in the Near Northeast Neighborhood. The group presented its findings and suggestions to South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg.

They thought a lot about ways to create spaces, Greene said. They used a very democratic process in approaching the park idea. “Kids immediately think about everyone around them, young and old—not just themselves,” he said.

The kids met with an area landscaper to look at how they could reclaim their park, Penney said. The landscaper spent time explaining plant options, including edibles. An element of neglect that was discovered during this session was a large amount of poison ivy along a chain link fence on the edge of the park. Once educated on what the plant was, the kids saw it as a safety hazard.


From the experience, kids have realized they have a voice and have more confidence:

Voice — The three girls from the first group are going on to use their experiences, either as mentors for future groups or to lead similar projects in new communities. The girls gained confidence that their ideas do matter, an understanding of the democratic process, and a bigger view of the world from their trip south.

“I helped with a group at the Robinson Center this year,” Perkins said. She explained her experience and presented workshops to groups of 10-15 people, guiding them in interpreting photos.

For her, the entire experience has changed her view on dealing with opposition, realizing she does have a voice.

“Before, (adults) didn’t pay attention to what we said,” she said.

While the project is about giving the kids a voice the adults have grown, too. Adults have thought of things in a limited way, and not about the kids. Now, Greene said, they are expanding their understanding of place.  It’s been as much a learning experience for them as for all of us, he added. “We’re learning to listen.”

It awakened many adults to the fact that kids can be partners in community projects, whether it’s a park or a sidewalk, McKenna said. All around, the project is an example of a successful community partnership. “Expectations have been surpassed,” she said. “We’re creating partnerships on the ground.”

Confidence — McKenna said the exercise has been a confidence-building one, too. When the project began, there were kids who were difficult to understand, they were so soft-spoken.

“The physical magnification of project was unbelievable to watch,” McKenna said.

They discovered their capacity to engage and inspire others and know it’s safe to talk about what needs changing.

“Youth who participated certainly lit up and became pretty enthusiastic when speaking about how they feel about their neighborhoods,” Hess said.


In evaluating the long-term payoff of the project, numerous things are starting to happen:

Youth council and leadership summit —The 2013–2014 project year will kick off with a neighborhood youth leadership summit in August. The event will be held at the Civil Rights Heritage Center in South Bend. Groups from the 2012–2013 project will have their materials on exhibit and scholarships will be presented to winners.

This event will also mark the beginning of a youth neighborhood leadership group, something the kids have asked to form. Penney cited this as an example of the growing self-confidence that has become evident in the participants. This council will give kids a voice and teach them how to get involved in government even more. Parents will be welcome to come to meetings, but can’t participate, Penney said. This is example of them owning their voice, she said.

Educational opportunities — Students who continue studies beyond high school can have a long-term impact on the community. The chance to receive a $250 scholarship that can be used for any post-secondary educational endeavor has been a huge draw for the kids.

Awareness beyond self — For each project, the goal is to have students select photographs to be displayed in a traveling exhibit going to selected South Bend locations and have the opportunity to share their stories with a wider audience, Hess said.

Penney is hopeful to see even more ripples spread into the community as a result of EYEN. “We’d still like to have more groups and do city-wide presentations.”

Arts as a form of engagement —The project is an opportunity to engage kids through arts in a way not possible at school, as schools cut budgets.

Greene said engaging kids and giving them multiple ways to express themselves through the arts is important. “Kids are creative and perceptive. They offer insight into their surroundings that adults don’t have.”

As part of the storytelling segment, computers will be integrated more in the third project round, allowing students to not just pull together ideas, but to imagine possibilities and see how to make it happen, Greene said.

Burke hopes to shift the conversation of what literacy looks like in schools and engage kids in telling stories in a different way.

Community involvement and support —The community has been supportive of the project, Penney said. Gene’s Camera Store provided discounts and technical support. The major need now is securing corporate sponsors to help fund the scholarships.

For the 2013–14 academic year the NRC is considering working with community centers such as LaCasa de Amistad Inc., Charles Martin Youth Center, the Ray and Joan Kroc Corps Community Center, Notre Dame Center for Arts and Culture, and others.

“These projects build the fabric of the neighborhoods,” Penney said.

Leadership Summit

kicks-off a new year

EYEN 2013–14 program and the new Neighborhood Youth Leadership Council underway

SOUTH BEND —“Whose responsibility is it to keep people safe?”


That was just a piece of one conversation going on at the Youth Council and Leadership Summit, held at the IU South Bend Civil Rights Heritage Center on Washington Avenue, August 17. The event was a continuation of the Engaging Youth, Engaging Neighborhoods (EYEN) program that brings together resources from Notre Dame’s Center for Social Concerns (CSC) and the Neighborhood Resources Corporation (NRC).

Moderator Maria McKenna, assistant professional specialist for Notre Dame’s Institute for Educational Initiatives said the kids were so engaged they didn’t want to take a morning break.

Breakout sessions addressed safety and access to affordable housing.

A dozen kids and a few parents participated in two breakout sessions that addressed safety and access to affordable housing. In the small groups, moderators McKenna and Kevin Burke, assistant professional specialist for Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education, led the kids through a series of thought-provoking questions that encouraged them to answer and explain why they felt things could be different and better.

In addition to the breakout sessions, the event was an opportunity for 2012-2013 EYEN project materials to be exhibited and scholarships presented to winners.

Pictures on display in the conference room included shots of graffiti, rundown houses, broken sidewalks, and furniture on the curb, giving a representation of what groups found as they explored their neighborhoods. They were taken by the Near Northwest Neighborhood team of Nathan Jindra, Anastasia Smith-Davis and, Tyrese and Tyren Irby.


Nathan Jindra found the beauty of the Chapin Street neighborhood sign a beautiful part of South Bend’s history.


Jindra captured what he found to be historical beauty of the Leeper Park and Chapin Street signs.


Anastasia Smith-Davis captured this scene where a homeless person had spent the night.


Smith-Davis captured the morning after someone had slept on a park bench.

“I never thought there could be someone sleeping here for the night,” she said. She wanted to show people the collection of clothes, toiletries, and an open Bible so they can learn from those who are homeless.

A keynote address was given by John Adams High School sophomore, Trevion McFarland. He shared his ten points for success, which included: the need to have standards, the need to hold yourself accountable, the need to talk to new people, don’t be afraid to work for free, and pray often. 

Stuart Greene, associate professor, College of Arts and Letters and fellow, Institute for Educational Initiatives gave the lunch keynote. He focused on history as process.

“You are learning to live in the subjunctive,” Professor Greene said.  In other words, living between where you are and where you want to be. 

He addressed the 1960s Civil Rights movement, the Aug. 28, 1963, speech of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the 1968 Birmingham youth march in which more than 2,000 youth marching to end segregation were arrested. He explained how in the days before social media, youth were organized through messages delivered by radio disc jockeys.

Professor Greene shared his belief that youth culture is a model for what both education and the civil rights movement should look like.  It’s important to look at what history can tell us about who can make change, he said.

Following the address and lunch, the 2012-13 EYEN teams representing the Near Northwest Neighborhood and the Robinson Community Learning Center were recognized. The NRC presented a $250 scholarship for post-secondary education/training to each of the 16 participants.

In addition to stimulating conversations and inspirational keynotes, some important lessons were learned during the summit.

Tanashia Mudzimuruma said the speaker made her think and broaden her mind about issues in the community.

Bringing the old to the new through preservation was an important takeaway for Anyjah Perkins.

And Smith-Davis said the biggest impact of the day for her was being at the Civil Rights Heritage Center, which was formerly The Engman Public Natatorium, built in 1922 as a public swimming pool.

She’d heard stories from her father about the segregation that went on at the pool when he was younger.

From 1922 to 1936, blacks were completely prohibited from swimming there. After limited admission was allowed from 1936 to 1950, the pool was fully desegregated.

Seeing the building and reading the inspirational messages posted throughout made her father’s experience real for Smith-Davis. “That could’ve been my family,” she said, regarding those who were turned away.

The day concluded with the participants talking about the EYEN 2013-14 program and the new Neighborhood Youth Leadership Council, which will start to develop this fall. Participants will begin leadership development classes as they meet monthly from September through March. 





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