King Bethel says his neighborhood on Detroit’s east side has blighted and abandoned homes, emptied storefronts and open fields where properties once stood. A stark difference to the blocks of homes the 15-year-old says he sees in Detroit’s suburban neighbors.
When Bethel thinks about how his neighborhood became known as a blighted area, he’s reminded of how anti-Black housing policies, like redlining, harmed the well-being of residents.
So he wrote a speech about it and began meeting with elected officials to recommend solutions.
Bethel wrote his anti-redlining speech to participate in Project Soapbox, a public speaking competition through the Mikva Challenge. A coach at the Downtown Boxing Gym Youth Program encouraged students to participate by following the Project Soapbox prompt: What is the most pressing issue facing young people today? After identifying an issue the students suggested solutions—which they’ve shared with political leaders like U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit. Bethel is now in the top 12 in the nation and his peer Isaiah Chambers, who wrote about emotional well-being, is in the top 12 in the state.
“I thought my voice can finally be heard, this is my chance, this is the time for me to speak out,” Bethel said about why he wanted to participate in the competition.
A ninth-grader at Detroit School of Arts High School, Bethel said he wanted to discuss systemic racism but found the topic to be too big for a speech with such limited time. He began to learn about redlining at school and had discussions with his family about housing policies that prevented Black residents from living in certain areas. He said he learned how Black people have been financially restricted and unable to get housing loans to obtain property across the United States.
“This is really hit(ting) home for me. It has had a big impact on Detroit,” Bethel said.
His solution: get more money from Washington to repair what has been done to Detroit. The School of Arts student says he sees continued developments in downtown Detroit, but buildings in his neighborhood are only being torn down.
That’s why Bethel calls out legislative leaders like U.S. Sens. Gary Peters and Debbie Stabenow and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence of Southfield “to advocate for the communities hurt by the racist redlining in our nation’s past,” he says in his speech.
“I feel like they could find a solution because they’re in Washington, D.C., and they’re working on helping Michigan,” he told BridgeDetroit.
Dan Finegan, or Coach Dan, as he is known, encouraged the students at the Downtown Boxing Gym to participate. He said both Chambers and Bethel have been leaders within the afterschool program.
A former Henry Ford High School teacher, Finegan said young people are often excluded from the democratic process, even though they’re impacted by government decisions.
“I believe that students should feel like they are constituents to political representatives, and that they are members of the community,” Finegan said. “Their lived experiences, their opinions and their expertise are valuable.”
The students’ speeches went through several revisions to meet time constraints for the competition. Chambers’ initial speech was 10 minutes long.
“It was so personal, we didn’t want to cut out what he felt was critically important,” Finegan said. “I think there was value in that, too, because we just had a chance to learn a lot about each other.”
Chambers, a student at University Preparatory Academy High School, said he joined the competition because he enjoys writing. Chambers’ Project Soapbox speech begins in the style of a poem and his deep, personal ties to the issue of emotional well-being.
“I yearn to hold on to the person like they’re still in front of me. I’m just a lonely kid searching for my mother, yet she’s gone. Suicide took her,” Chambers says in the online version of his speech.
The speech has received a range of responses, Chambers says, both from those who don’t know what to say due to the severity of the speech and those who have thanked him for being willing to speak up.
When Chambers was in elementary school, a friend’s parents got divorced. He said he watched the effects take a toll on his friend’s emotional well-being. Over time, the high school student says he’s learned that everyone’s emotional well-being shifts due to daily factors like quality of sleep, levels of stress, social connections and loss.
“He was having a really hard time with that, so that’s when I started researching how could I help my friend to feel better,” Chambers said. “And then my mom died. So, then I had to use it for myself and keep developing it.”
Chambers said being mindful of one’s own emotional well-being and being able to detect signs of depression, anger, or instability in others could save lives. He said it’s something that’s not talked about often enough in the Black community, and he hopes that by sharing his speech, people will begin to understand another side of the Black perspective.
His solution to the issue: start having these discussions early and in educational settings. He believes that repetitive conversations and ongoing education about emotional well-being could prevent worst-case scenarios.
“I feel hopeful for a solution and how we can present it for the future, but I also feel sad. I feel sad to remember those experiences that happened in the past in my life,” he said. “Overall, I just feel a great sense of joy to be able to connect my story with other people out there so we can make life better for other people in the future.”