When faced with widespread problems like crime, teen pregnancy, and high dropout rates, a common response is to feel disempowered. Grand Rapids Initiative for Leaders
(GRIL) seeks to change that.
With faith as a foundation, GRIL aims to build self-awareness and leadership skills in urban teens and adults, in order to cultivate community change. Graduates of the DeVos Urban Leadership Initiative
started GRIL in 2006, and since then, 246 teens have graduated from the program.
“The majority of our young people live in Grand Rapids, they go to urban schools, and the majority [of them] are minorities,” said Tatum Hawkins, Community Relations and Development Coordinator for GRIL.
“A lot of times we can focus on what's wrong with our young people: what they're lacking, or what they're not doing,” Hawkins said. “We know that they possess the skills, the leadership, the talents to make an impact right there in their own communities.”
For this reason, GRIL teaches participants to discover and cultivate their identities, treating urban teens not as problems to solve, but as unique individuals who can create their own solutions. To discover their individual strengths and values, both teens and adults perform self-assessments, develop a mission statement, and craft a “breakthrough plan” that identifies how they want to make an impact in the community.
“They need to recognize that they can make an impact now,” Hawkins said. “They don't have to wait until they're 30 or 40 or 50. Sometimes we think, 'Oh, well if I just had a few more years….' No, do it now. You have what it takes to do it now.”
Hawkins pointed out that there are many resources for early childhood education nationwide and a growing focus on this stage of childhood development. But the teenage years are crucial, too. Teens are expected to deal with greater stress and pressure, figure themselves out, and prepare for the next phase of their lives, all the while absorbing messages of mistrust and suspicion for those their age.
“It's reality that bad things happen, crime happens, teen pregnancy happens, and the dropout rate happens. But we also need to focus on the good things our young people are doing,” Hawkins said.
GRIL’s young people are doing good things set up by the program, such as fulfilling hundreds of hours of community service. This year, students read to kindergarteners, raised awareness of social injustice with Silent Demonstrations, and traveled to Washington, D. C. to attend the U. S. Government’s official apology to the Native Americans
The young people themselves initiate subtler improvements in their own lives. In GRIL’s annual report, many teens anonymously describe gossiping less, setting an example for younger siblings, and standing up for bullied kids. Some report feeling less critical of others and working towards an understanding rather than acting on prejudice.
“One of our core values is diversity. We want everyone who graduates from our programs to be cross-cultural leaders,” Hawkins said. “So we learn about things like assumptions, prejudice, and social injustice. We want them to understand that there is social injustice and racism in the community, and to not run away from that, but to recognize that although this issue exists, as leaders we can work together to solve it.”
The ability to work together falls under another GRIL core value: interdependence. GRIL programs teach both teens and adults to know when to seek the expertise and energy of others, instead of trying to take on the whole problem by themselves, to achieve better results.
Hawkins said GRIL has been striving to be more interdependent and build mutually beneficial relationships with other nonprofits.
“Something that we've challenged ourselves to do this year is to get out in the community more, learn about what people are doing, and find ways to collaborate and partner. It's so easy to get caught up in what we're doing, especially when we're a small staff and have limited resources,” said Hawkins.
Currently, GRIL offers four different recurring programs. The Adult Ministry Program
and Community Leadership Trainings
teach adults to be powerful forces in their community. The Ambassador Club School Program
and GRIL U Faith-Based Program
help teens find their place, and provide them with the motivation to achieve their goals.
“About 99 percent of our young people graduate from high school. They commit to hundreds of hours of service in the community. They have a better understanding of themselves, their values, and what they can contribute to the community,” said Hawkins.
GRIL’s high school graduation rate is 23 percent higher than the state average.
The results of the program may have broader implications for urban youth. GRIL’s technique doesn’t impose harsh restrictions on underperforming teens or try to punish them, but shows them respect, and seeks to make them feel empowered. This approach frequently sees teens engaging with problems constructively, instead of lashing out or shutting down.
“I think if everyone really recognized their own power, we could make a huge difference in the world,” Hawkins said.
“I would definitely want to tell the whole world: don't undervalue yourself. Don't undervalue your capabilities. You don't have to be a great politician to make changes happen in your community. You can make a difference right there on the street where you live.”
GRIL is seeking passionate people, skilled people, and those with knowledge to share that might help a teen or adult learn leadership skills.
For more information on how to get involved, visit: http://www.grileadership.org/get-involved/
Katie Jones is a professional idealist, film enthusiast, and freelancer for UIX Grand Rapids.