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Helping to write beautiful stories: Leaders under 30 empower youth in Grand Rapids

Shayla Willis

Impassioned to guide first generation students toward a college degree; to provide quality mental health care to all people, regardless of their background; and to create intimate relationships free of violence, these leaders under 30 are making a difference for youth in GR.
Idealism is often a characteristic ascribed to young people, and in today’s political climate, it can seem as if their goals are too lofty: to guide first generation students toward a college degree; to provide quality mental health care to all people, regardless of their background; to create intimate relationships free of violence.

Yet three young leaders in Grand Rapids are not just guided by these goals—they are meeting them on a daily basis in their work with youth. In the second of this two-part series, we’ll take a moment to explore the stories of three leaders under 30 making a difference with youth in Grand Rapids.

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Shayla Willis, T2C Studio Coordinator

A group of young ladies stand tall on a stage, stomping to a beat, even balancing on one leg for ten seconds, centered and focused.

In the brightly decorated and airy space of To College, Through College (T2C) Studio on the second floor of the main branch of the Grand Rapids Public library, Shayla Willis shares a video of the stepping dance routine she led as ‘step master’ at Zeta Phi Beta Sorority while an undergraduate at Ohio State University.

There was no formal process in becoming a step master, she explains with a laugh. She was simply the most coordinated person at the try outs. She was drawn to the camaraderie offered in team stepping, partially because she played sports throughout high school and also because she was a first generation college student suddenly navigating the unfamiliar world of higher education. This experience, which she speaks of as if it were yesterday, is part of what guides her day-to-day work as Coordinator of T2C. T2C is funded by Our Community’s Children, an office within the city of Grand Rapids that aims to provide programming and opportunities for young people (like the Mayor’s Youth Council and Cities Connecting Children to Nature).

“I am the students I serve—that’s the phrase that drives me every day,” says Willis, 27, who is responsible for guiding Grand Rapids Public School (GRPS) students, often first generation college students of color, through the college application process and toward degree attainment. While mainly serving students from GRPS, T2C services are open to any student, and they also provide ongoing support to students while they attend college, such as help completing yearly financial aid forms or scholarship applications.

Born and raised in Grand Rapids, Willis attended Central High School, and vividly recalls her nerve-wracking experience applying for the Gates Scholarship in 11th grade. After submitting her essays online just minutes after the midnight deadline, she thought she had wasted her time. And yet soon she was floored to learn that she had been selected to receive ten years of funding for her higher education.

Shayla Willis

While Willis knows firsthand the challenges of first generation college students, her professional experiences have further fed her passion to lift up youth. After receiving her BSSW degree from Ohio State University, Willis created empowerment programming for youth at Ohio's Bauer Family Resources, which provides services to vulnerable infants, youth, and families, such as prenatal support, parenting classes, and after school youth programs. In one activity she led, youth were asked to put words that they used to describe themselves into boxes. When Willis saw the words that nine-year-old girls had placed in their boxes, such as “stupid” and “worthless,” she was taken aback.

“I realized that these young ladies are up against a fight, at school and at home,” she says. “I felt it was my responsibility to contribute to their empowerment.” Willis responded by contributing her stepping expertise and designed a dance program, which she believed was deeply therapeutic for the girls. “To provide a place to feel free, to let all the stress out...it’s so important,” she says.

Willis returned to Grand Rapids several years ago and finds it “weird but fulfilling” to be back working closely with GRPS. Currently in her first year at Michigan State University’s Educational Leadership and Administration doctoral program with an emphasis in urban education, Willis is now turning her focus toward policy work.

Because she has spent so much time with youth, Willis believes that discussions need to move from just focusing on the barriers students face to more collective, direct work with youth, even “utilizing students in transforming the barriers.” Leaders can become disconnected from the systems students navigate, Willis stresses. In response, her work is guided by the words of John Dewey:

“It is our conviction that we need to begin seeing the educational system from the perspective of the people who move through it.”

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Daniel Scott, Home-Based Therapist at Arbor Circle


Ask Daniel Scott how he got into serving youth and without hesitation, the 27-year old says he’s been doing this work for 22 years. Then, he shares a story: he was five when his mother drove him door-to-door to collect cans for the Kalamazoo Gospel Mission, and since then, he’s been guided by what he calls basic moral understandings. “For instance, it's kind of messed up that housing isn't guaranteed by our society,” he says.

Scott, a Home-Based Therapist at Arbor Circle who serves youth with severe substance abuse, behavioral, or legal issues, finds that stories are a central focus in his work.

“Every human being at their foundation has a story which creates meaning in their lives,” he says. “And yet, society has deemed their story meaningless,” explains Scott, who mainly serves clients who are homeless or struggling with mental health issues.
“That’s what I see as my role,” he says. “To be an audience, a sort of literary critic that asks them: what are the themes are coming up in your story? What are the ways we can organize your plot structure? It’s a beautiful situation to be in, to serve as an audience for these stories.”

After receiving his undergraduate degree in psychology from Aquinas College, Scott took a year off of school to work full time and contemplate if he wanted to enter a doctoral program, which would have had a clinical focus. As he spent more time working directly with youth, he began to believe in the power of becoming an advocate to “create gains in human happiness.”

Through his day-to-day work, Scott watched how through assisting clients in changing their environment and helping to introduce opportunity to their lives, their health outcomes naturally got better. It was then that he knew he should pursue a master’s in social work at Michigan State University, deciding that he wanted to serve youth directly, while also pushing the conversation about local and national policies that affect those he serves.

Daniel Scott

Scott often turns to a story that grounds his work, the novel “Crime and Punishment” by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Just as the main character, Rodion, had aspirations but faced poverty, Scott sees his clients hoping to further their education but find “that the avenues to get there are shut off.” While Rodion rationalizes that crime is the path toward ultimate freedom, Scott tries to help his clients find “freedom through social connection and having meaningful relationships.”

While Kent County just announced cuts to mental health services in the face of a $10 million budget shortfall, Scott remains optimistic. In part crediting emerging research that indicates that welfare cuts of the ‘90’s weren’t effective in addressing systemic poverty, Scott believes that perspectives are shifting and we are slowly evolving out of a mindset that puts the focus on who is deserving of help.

“I think we are working toward understanding that everyone deserves the basic building blocks of life,” he says.

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Tara Aday, Director of Prevention and Education at Safe Haven Ministries


While Tara Aday is now an esteemed public speaker, community leader, and group discussion facilitator who visits dozens of high school and college classrooms to spread domestic abuse awareness and prevention, she wasn’t steeped in these issues from a young age. In fact, she doesn’t recall ever having discussions about “healthy ways to be treated” as a young adult.

It wasn’t until Aday, 29, began her first job after college as a news reporter that she began to feel more urgency to begin such discussions. A female reporting on sports within a largely male staff, she noticed that she was treated differently because of her gender. While she dealt with off-hand remarks that questioned her ability to do sports reporting, she was also volunteering at Safe Haven Ministries, which is dedicated to offering “residential and non-residential services to women and their children who have experienced or who are experiencing domestic abuse.”

“One day, I thought, ‘I love my work at Safe Haven; why not use my experiences to help others?’” explains Aday, as she details her eventual transition to full-time work at Safe Haven, where she now serves as Director of Prevention and Education. She now recognizes herself in the young people she works with and enjoys watching them transform. “I see them becoming more brave and see them finding the language.” She is especially inspired that young people can take the knowledge and awareness she provides into their future lives at college and work.

Tara Aday

A large part of Aday’s work involves visiting colleges, as well as 15 high schools all over Kent County, including public, private, alternative, and correctional facilities. She is grateful that she’s reaching a diverse audience because she stresses that domestic violence is everywhere; according to National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, “1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men have been victims of [some form of] physical violence by an intimate partner within their lifetime.”

Yet Aday doesn’t believe that statistics truly reach the hearts and minds of those she works with. “We have to give space to let youth ask the questions,” she says. “As much as adults care, they might not be providing those spaces and youth don't feel like they are taken seriously.”

As is typical with those gifted in public speaking and working with youth, Aday explains that she tries to “say the things people are thinking but are afraid to say.” But how does Aday find the courage to face the types of questions that inevitably come up when discussing domestic abuse with youth?

“Where I find bravery is with that fact that somebody has to step up to answer these questions,” she explains. “Every time I enter a space, I create what I call a 'brave space'—it’s a space where we don't hold back, where we can make a mistakes or say something inappropriate and no one will shame us.”

Aday strongly believes in taking youth seriously not just because it builds trust, but also because she knows they are already dealing with heavy life issues and dating by as early as the seventh grade. This same faith in youth carries over to her passionate mentorship of Young Leaders Against Violence (YLAV). Formed several years ago, this student-led coalition is dedicated to “a common interest in eliminating violence from our community.” YLAV taps into the direct knowledge, insights, and talents of youth, and this is a piece Aday sees as critical in shifting cultural norms around domestic violence.

“It’s so important to have youth speak to the process of education,” Aday says. “Youth share how they see violence impacting their communities and as a mentor, I teach them how to advocate. They learn what they are passionate about, they graduate, and they do amazing things.”

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While all three leaders agree that larger policy change is needed in order to see significant shifts in college accessibility, quality mental health care, and domestic violence prevention, they have consciously chosen to serve youth on the ground. They take youth seriously and as a result, they know the vivid details of their lives: from struggling to pay for college textbooks to making sense of dating in a digital age. With these rich experiences, these youth leaders will have powerful influence at policy tables in the near future.

This article is part of Michigan Nightlight, a series of stories about the programs and people that positively impact the lives of Michigan kids. It is made possible with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Read more in the series here.

Photos by Adam Bird of Bird + Bird Studio.
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