Attention: Muskegon’s youth are at the table. And they’re making sure we talk about racism, poverty, school discipline, and a whole lot more

YEP students at Wednesday’s forum.

When these students spoke, people listened. Politicians listened. Educators listened. Policy analysts, healthcare professionals, nonprofit leaders—they all listened.

And now, now that they’ve heard what these teenagers from Community enCompass’s Youth Empowerment Project (YEP) said at Wednesday’s “What is Needed for a Healthy Community?” conference—about racism, about poverty, about homelessness and believing in our youth—these individuals from throughout Muskegon County, and beyond, are being challenged. They’re being challenged to take a look at policy, take a look at their boardrooms, take a look at their cities and classrooms and workplaces and better incorporate the students’ voices, whether that means breaking through barriers to racial equity, sealing the cracks through which students are now falling, or understanding the role of racism in poverty and incarceration, among a myriad other issues.

“I’m hoping through this opportunity some of the people in the room will follow through with more conversation with the youth; the objective is to bring the voices that have been marginalized to the policymakers’ tables,” YEP Director Charlotte Johnson said during Wednesday’s event, which was held at the Muskegon Area Intermediate School District as part of the students’ “What is Needed for a Healthy Community?” photography project.

“I’m hoping the confidence of the youth has resonated within them to see their voices are important,” Johnson continued. “I think that’s the biggest key, for them to see that the community does value their voices. The community needs to bring them into those boardrooms.”

Conducted in partnership with PhotoVoice, a United Kingdom-based nonprofit that promotes using photography for positive social change, the project features a series of photos taken by students from Muskegon High School, Heights Academy, Mona Shores, Orchard View, and Muskegon Covenant Academy. All of the students are part of the YEP program, which aims to empower area youth and grow their leadership skills. YEP is organized by  Community enCompass, a nonprofit that focuses on empowering residents and neighborhoods in core city Muskegon.

“We Matter,” one of the photos included in the Youth Empowerment Project’s “What is Needed for a Healthy Community?”

The photographs—which were previously exhibited at the Muskegon Museum of Art and which will have a permanent home at Grand Valley State University—raise deeply important questions, dialogue and topics that are simultaneously calls to action and catalysts for change in our city, state and country.

They are both complex and straight-forward, images filled with layers of social criticism and poignant observations about low wages, racism, suicide, and more.

They are photos that ask of their viewer: What needs to happen for us to become a healthy community? Whose voices are we listening to—and whose voices are we ignoring, or attempting to silence? What truths aren’t we hearing?

For the students, those answers include addressing a powerfully wide variety of issues, from students of color being more likely to be suspended and expelled to homelessness.

Bradley Mosqueda, a Muskegon High School sophomore, addressed economic disparities in Muskegon during Wednesday’s event. In Muskegon County, 26.3 percent of households make $24,999 or less annually, according to 2017 statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau. In the city of Muskegon, 43.5 percent of households earn $24,999 or less each year, and, in Muskegon Heights, that number grows to 49.4 percent. For other areas, like North Muskegon, households making $24,999 or less drops to 20.7 percent.

Bradley Mosqueda, left, and Lakaylah Pace address economic disparities.

That there are households struggling to get by “is not okay,” Mosqueda said.

“There are people living comfortably while others are suffering the entire time,” he continued. “That’s an economic gap that needs to be recognized and dealt with.”

The understanding of what poverty translates to in Muskegon is one that too needs to be recognized, Johnson noted. While homelessness may not always be immediately visible to the public at large, it exists in larger numbers upon closer examination, she emphasized.

“There’s a lot of homelessness in Muskegon County,” said Johnson, who also serves as a Community enCompass’s housing resource specialist for young adults. “There are a lot of parents sleeping in cars with their kids. There’s couch surfing.”

“If a child has nowhere to lay their head, maybe they’re on a couch and people around them are up all night talking and laughing,” she said. “When they get up the next day to go to school, guess what? That teacher doesn’t understand the child is homeless, and that child is trying to keep their eyes open at their desk but can’t. Now they get in trouble. They get suspended. There’s no empathy, no understanding of what’s really going on in the county of Muskegon. It happens every day.”

Poverty and racism—and how racism perpetuates poverty—were major topics of discussion, with students addressing how the two impact everything from education to incarceration to employment.

Miracle Huff’s photograph, “I Am More Than a Test Score.”

“[The data] always shows there is more punishment for minorities,” said Miracle Huff, an Orchard High School sophomore whose photo, “I Am More Than a Test Score,” is included in the project. “The minority is the one going to prison, receiving longer sentences.”

Nationally, black girls are six times more likely than white girls to be suspended, and black boys are three times more likely than white boys to be suspended, according to U.S. Department of Education data. In Muskegon County, Mona Shores Public School District was one of 19 districts in Michigan to be cited by the state in 2018 for disproportionately disciplining black students. Mona Shores was on the same state list in 2015.

This data goes hand-in-hand with incarceration statistics, and the students addressed the “school-to-prison pipeline.” An increase in zero-tolerance school policies has led to more suspensions and expulsions, with students of color being disproportionately represented in those suspensions and expulsions. Suspensions and expulsions make students more likely to drop out of school entirely, and, in turn, those who drop out of school are about three and a half times more likely to get arrested.

Trouble at school can lead to students’ first contact with the criminal justice system, and, in many cases, schools themselves are the ones pushing students into the juvenile justice system by having pupils arrested at school.

“Remember when we were in elementary, high school, we had fights; now, when there are fights, police come, they go to court, they get fines,” Johnson said.

Racial disparity in school discipline is also growing. Black students accounted for 15 percent of the country’s student body in the 2015-2016 school year but 31 percent of arrests, according to the Civil Rights Data Collection. Two years earlier, black students made up 16 percent of the student body and 27 percent of arrests.

“I see this every day,” Huff said. “I’ve gone to different school systems, and I’ve seen how punishments are delivered to students. At a majority white school, a black student can commit the same offense, but they get the worse punishment. It’s unequal treatment. You’re taking away someone’s right to learn because of small, minor things they do. If you’re going to punish someone, it should be the same for every race.”

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Sereniti Huff, a freshman at Orchard View High School whose photograph titled “Translucent Opportunities” is part of the YEP project, addressed racism in employment.

“A black college student has the same chance of getting a job as a white high school dropout,” Huff said [you can see more about that here]. “Studies show that companies and businesses will hire those of lighter skin tones because they think they’re more qualified. They feel safer with people of lighter complexions because of what society is telling us about how the lighter you are, the better you are.”

These are big, daunting, systemic issues—but they are ones that cannot be ignored and must be dealt with head on—here in Muskegon and across the country, students noted. To do so, the adults in the audience—everyone from school superintendents to policy experts—said they aim to better incorporate the students’ voices.

Muskegon Heights Superintendent Rane Garcia said she hopes to bring the YEP photography exhibit to Muskegon Heights and host a community forum surrounding the topics it addresses.

“This kind of event breaks my heart and recharges me as well,” Garcia said. “They’re right in everything they said. Now what? The data is there; the numbers are there; we have wronged communities as a whole. Now how do we take action?”

Jayme Vosovic, Michigan League for Public Policy’s community engagement specialist for West Michigan, said the issues raised by the students align with her organization’s priorities, including racial equity, increasing school funding, and more.

“I think the main point of this is for someone to listen to another person’s perspective…and how these issues impact their lives,” Vosovic said of Wednesday’s forum. “You can take that back and make personal changes and a greater change in our community.”

Story and photos by Anna Gustafson, the publisher and editor of Muskegon Times. Connect with Anna by emailing or on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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