Josh Musicant, Youth Energy Squad
Residents of the Cody Rouge neighborhood on Detroit’s West Side live in close proximity to quite a bit of public greenspace. With multiple access points, Rouge Park, the biggest park in Detroit, is home to streams, riverbanks, an infamous pool, and play and archery grounds. Stein Park, due north of the community’s biggest school, Cody High School, is home to some of the best maintained basketball, baseball, softball, and football facilities in the city. But like much of the development in the city, neither park is designed by the residents adjacent to them. However, in between Stein and Rouge Parks, due west of Cody High School, Cody Rouge is home to Hope Park, one of the only places in the city designed and built not only by the city’s residents, but by its youth.
Sitting on 3 lots directly across from Cody High School, Hope Park is a student-led project seven years in the making. After a group of Cody students grew tired of seeing blighted homes from within their school, they were able to pester the Mayor’s Office into demolishing the houses, leaving 3 plots of vacant land. With the support of a local nonprofit, EcoWorks Detroit, in a fiduciary role, the students were able to acquire the land for themselves. The students and EcoWorks were able to secure a grant from the Kresge Foundation, and the Hope Park project was born. Among the three programs at EcoWorks is the Youth Energy Squad (YES), an AmeriCorps program that specializes in facilitating youth-led, school-based projects in community and environmental sustainability.
YES coordinators typically use the Earth Force process to facilitate its projects with students. With substantial grant funding from Kresge, however, the Hope Park project was far from a typical project. In 2018, two years after winning the grant, the Hope Park team still had not begun construction. The team spent week after week planning, but couldn’t bring itself to make any final decisions and move from planning into implementation, forcing the project behind schedule.
We had brought in a design studio from Europe who offered multiple beautiful, inventive designs for the park. Despite consensus that these designs were excellent, students remained hesitant, and couldn’t agree on a final direction for the park.
The Hope Park “adult team” puzzled over this for months, until one of our student leaders gave us an epiphany. Deatrianna Hawkins, now a first-year student at Wayne State University, suggested that the designs from Europe looked like they should be used for a park downtown, not on the West Side. We adults had gotten caught up in the uniqueness of the project and strayed from our Earth Force fundamentals. With the large budget, we resolved to spend the money how we deemed appropriate and wise, not how the students deemed appropriate and wise. In doing so, we limited the students’ choices and tried to make them decide between exotic options that didn’t represent their visions for their own community.
From there, we knew we had to Earth Force (some of our coordinators have been known to use this as a verb) our project. Deatrianna’s comment was suggestive of a community inventory. We were asking students to make choices before identifying the community’s assets and needs. It wasn’t enough to simply use Earth Force’s resources (like decision matrices) to help students make decisions, we needed to use Earth Force’s philosophy so students could define for themselves what those decisions should be. From now on, we’ll use Earth Force no matter what our budget looks like.
The vision our students had in mind reaffirmed the strength of the community, instead of importing something new into it. They wanted the community itself recycled by the park, in line with their vision of repurposing the vacated land itself. Using repurposed materials to affirm this goal became natural.
Since then, three Youth Energy Squad Summer programs have been able to contribute to Hope Park and turn the students’ vision into reality. Student designers and builders have used primarily recycled materials to put down a park sign, grass mounds, a fence, a tire-climbing structure, a gazebo, garden beds, a bee hotel, a bike rack, and a rain garden. With one more pandemic-free summer, the park should be completed and turned completely over to the Cody Rouge community. You can visit it today at 9027 Greenview in Detroit!
Vince Meldrum is an experienced leader with a 25-year history of transforming organizations through program development, innovative technology, and cross-sector partnerships. Vince’s expertise brings Earth Force into the center of the climate resiliency movement. With a specific focus on people, having built several large-scale partnerships, Vince offers a unique perspective on the role of community and youth in the future of our environment.