Program helps Detroit-area students, teachers overcome divisions


In the 13 years since it started, U-M’s Youth Dialogues on Race and Ethnicity in Metropolitan Detroit has engaged thousands of students and teachers who seek to effect social change, one conversation and one classroom at a time.

The program recently conducted a Summer Youth Dialogue residency week on the Ann Arbor campus, which brought together approximately 75 high school students of several racial and ethnic backgrounds for educational capacity-building workshops and early exploration of practical community projects.

Participants came from some of Metro Detroit’s most racially and ethnically segregated communities, including Novi, Farmington Hills, Dearborn and Detroit, as well as the University Liggett School in Grosse Pointe Woods.

“The frontier of social justice work is in segregated schools, on both sides. This program brings together a world that does not exist yet,” said Barry Checkoway, professor of social work, and urban and regional planning, who leads the Youth Dialogues program with Roger Fisher, co-associate director of the Program on Intergroup Relations.

“One of our primary goals is to produce a continuous flow of young leaders and change agents,” Checkoway said.

The Summer Youth Dialogue week also featured a pre-college experience during which students received pointers on applying to college and securing financial aid, discussed pathways to higher education, went on campus tours, and met with admissions staff and U-M students.

The group problem-solving puzzle “Who Owns the Zebra” held the attention of Summer Youth Dialogue residency participants, from left, Kennedi Seals, Thomas Anderson IV, Nour Nuseibeh, Michael Bates and Amir Naser. (Photo courtesy of Summer Youth Dialogue)

Throughout the school year, Youth Dialogues experts work with groups of classroom teachers and administrators who want to learn to address effectively race, ethnicity and social justice issues. 

At the same time, Youth Dialogues students and adult allies collaborate to develop and implement practical community projects and endeavors that deal constructively with race and ethnicity issues.

One example is a presentation to the Michigan Civil Rights Commission, during which commission members discussed with Summer Youth Dialogue students their personal experiences with civil rights, social justice, and their suggestions for improvements.

The effort culminated with the Civil Rights Commission passing a “Resolution on Social Justice and Civil Rights Education” based on the students’ input.

The Youth Dialogues program is based in the School of Social Work and the National Center for Institutional Diversity, in partnership with the Program on Intergroup Relations.

“This is our longest-standing partnership, apart from LSA and Student Life,” Fisher said. “IGR is a social justice education program, and the fullest expression of social justice education is involvement with the community.”

“This is a critical endeavor to me personally and professionally,” he said.  “As a native Detroiter, I have a commitment and love for the Detroit area and its youth, and am dedicated to seeing young people have a chance at civic literacy and involvement.

“I also am passionate about giving U-M students an opportunity to develop critical thinking about issues of institutional racism and to apply that thinking to real situations in collaboration with community members.”

The Youth Dialogues methodology is built on increasing intergroup dialogues, exploring social identity, assessing similarities and differences, talking and listening for mutual understanding and establishing long-lasting relationships, as well as building skills for intercultural and multicultural collaborations, project planning and implementation.

Checkoway, Fisher and other faculty members and professional staff provide expert consults, technical assistance, curriculum development, and program evaluation.

Annual quantitative and qualitative measures have found statistically significant increases among Summer Youth Dialogue students in understanding of their own racial and ethnic identities, their knowledge about others who are different from themselves, and their willingness to take action against racism and segregation in their communities. 

The Office of the Provost has provided support to the program since its inception, and private foundations also have played an instrumental role. In the early years, the Skillman Foundation, under the leadership of then-executive director and SSW alumna Carol Goss, provided support, and others such as the Kellogg Foundation do so today.


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