STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

"It took my childhood." Detroit teens talk about life in the city.

Tires litter the lawn in front of an abandoned house on Detroit's west side
Andrea Claire Maio
Apiary Projects
A neighborhood street on Detroit's west side

I went to a workshop last month called "Why in the D?," which was put on by students at Cody’s Academy of Public Leadership. The point of the day was not to talk about schools; it was to talk about something much closer to home: where they live and the outsize role their neighborhoods have on their lives. 

There were student-led sessions on how neighborhood violence and poverty can lead to PTSD, and what it’s like to live in "the 'hood" (their term, not mine.) Some students even wrote Dear John-type letters to their neighborhoods and read them out loud to each other. 

This question, in particular, sparked a big discussion among the students: 

"What has the 'hood given and what has it taken away from you?

For this week’s State of Opportunity story, we're going to continue that conversation with two 17-year-olds from Detroit’s west side.  

But before we get too far, a quick explainer on the word "'hood" from Cody APL junior Char'De Fisher. "You got a bad 'hood, a so-so 'hood and then you've got a 'hood you don't want to go in."  Char’De says she lives in a so-so neighborhood that needs a lot of work.

"My street, it's not quiet. I mean, it's quiet when ... everybody is gone, that's when it's quiet, and there's no kids or nothing. But at night time it's like, you don't want to walk down there, because all you going to hear is arguing, shooting and bottles probably busting or something."

When Char’De was 14 years old, she was hanging out at a park near her house with her best friend. She says they were just "talking and chillin'" when four guys rolled up. "My best friend tell me to leave, like walk away, just  go somewhere," she explains, "but I just went and stood in the driveway of the park. So I’m sitting there, and I see them over there talking and hollering and screaming at each other. So next thing I know, the dude pulled a gun out and blew a side of my best friend face off." 

Char'De Fisher's handwritten letter to her neighborhood
Credit Jennifer Guerra / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Char'De Fisher's personal note to her neighborhood.

After the guys fled, she ran over to her best friend and sat with him for 20 minutes until the ambulance came.  Her friend didn't make it.

That was a defining moment for her. After that, she says, she was no longer a kid. She had to be on guard at all times. She says the neighborhood stole her childhood. 

Najai Jones also lives in Detroit, about 10 miles from Char’De; different neighborhood, similar story. The neighborhood's "taken a lot from me," says Jones. "It’s taken family and my peace of mind. It took my childhood."

Still, Najai and Char’De say there are some good things about living where they do. They both say their neighbors are like family, everyone watching out for each other. They also say they’re stronger and tougher for having lived where they lived. 

But that’s where their similarities end.

When Char’De looks around here, she sees blight and pain and struggle, and wants to get out. "It just puts you in the mindset that you don’t want to be here for the rest of your life," says Char'De. "If you have kids or something, you don’t want to put them through it either, you don’t want them to grow up like that, so, it just change your whole mindset about yourself."

Her friend Najai sees it differently. She also sees blight and struggle, but she doesn’t want to leave. She wants to stay and make it better "because it’s not the neighborhood necessarily that has to be changed, it’s the people that’s in it. And leaving is not going to help them."

What will help, she says, is talking to her neighbors and coming up with a plan for how to make life there better, and then sticking around to help make it a reality. 

Jennifer is a reporter with Michigan Radio's State of Opportunity project. She previously covered arts and culture for the station, and worked as a producer for WFUV in the Bronx.
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