At Local Circles, teens use research to blossom an...

At Local Circles, teens use research to blossom and empower their communities

Participants in the Detroit nonprofit’s most recent cohort conducted research about teen mental health – and received mental health support themselves.

local circles students

Local Circles students. Credit: Benjamin Williams

This series was published in partnership with Local Circles, a Detroit-based nonprofit organization that offers employment opportunities in youth-led research to increase college and work readiness for Detroit teens. Find out more about Local Circles.

It’s a late Thursday afternoon in mid-December when about 10 teenagers begin to pop into their final virtual meeting of the day. It’s clear they’re all at the brink of Zoom fatigue, but after just a couple minutes, they start to perk up. First off, the session launches with an icebreaker that uses funny animal photos as the prop. Secondly, it’s being led by 15-year-old Drew Smith, Jr., now in his second year with the Detroit nonprofit they’re all here for – Local Circles.

As one of the work- and college-readiness program’s designated youth leaders, the high school sophomore is responsible for running sessions for his teen cohort and keeping participants engaged. Since sessions are always after school, Smith prioritizes waking people up. “They’re coming out of school and they’re tired,” he said, “so, we pick activities that can get you to laugh or move and that also help us to check in and see how people are doing.”

Since its launch five years ago as a youth summer intensive, Local Circles has empowered adolescents to remodel their communities by expanding knowledge through student-led research projects and service-based community engagement.

“It’s truly a youth-led experience for young people where they lead around social issues that are important to other teens,” said Nicole Jurek, Local Circles founder and executive director. 

With the support of Jurek and program coordinator Benjamin Williams, each cohort of teens develops skills in job readiness, leadership training and community engagement by conducting academic research on a topic they identify as important in their own lives. This year, that issue is teen mental health. 

It’s something the Local Circles youth have all grappled with during the pandemic, some with a small group of friends, but often in isolation. The opportunity to study teen mental health as they and their peers frequently navigate high school via screens has helped them feel less alone. 

Amaya Nard is a 17-year-old high school junior who joined Local Circles in 2021. She said that she feels grateful for the chance to study mental health with the support of the nonprofit, because Jurek and Williams make it clear that they genuinely care about what youth are feeling and want to help. 

“A lot of [adults] don’t take the mental health of kids that seriously. They think that if you’re a kid, you don’t have anything to be stressed or worried about because you have adults taking care of you,” Nard said. “But they don’t realize that anything can affect your mental health. Even if you’re being taken care of, even if all your needs are being, quote unquote, met. So this topic is important to me, because… I feel different difficulties around mental health, and I’ve been dealing with them alone.”

To explore teen mental health, this Local Circles group studied how to create a valid survey and then, working together, designed an instrument to measure things like their awareness of their mental health, if the pandemic caused any challenges to their mental wellness and if they knew how or even felt comfortable getting help, if needed. 

Each student then distributed the survey out to their networks, with some engaging social workers and educators who work directly with other teens to be sure the surveys reached beyond their direct friends and families. According to Nard, they received about 50 survey responses to analyze and compile findings. 

Jurek and Williams set high expectations around the research and work that Local Circles youth produce, while providing the support and instruction that youth need to meet success. 

Read more: Local Circles students tackle mental health, in their own words

A past cohort used their summer to research how to live life as adults, literally. They studied how to cook a meal, open a bank account and learned about credit. Then, they produced a guide to share with other youth who felt that they’d been expected to learn financial literacy and basic cooking through osmosis. They elected to conduct that research to show the adults in their lives how unreasonable it is to expect teens to know things that no one ever showed them how to do. Success isn’t genetic, they learned, it’s taught.

So this year, as the current cohort studies teen mental health, Jurek felt it was critically important to offer youth the services of a mental health professional. “We can’t have young people select into a program that focuses on mental health without having some support for them, because inevitably we’re going to have someone who needs support,” she said. 

In addition to being available to the youth, Alicia Jackson, the licensed professional counselor that Local Circles has partnered with, also provided Jurek and Williams with special mental health training.

Youth interested in applying to Local Circles (applications for the next program are due by Feb. 15) might also be glad to know that research, leadership and career skills aren’t the only practical things they can get out of the program. They also get paid. The monetary stipend makes a big difference in opening access to the program to teens who might otherwise have to use their time outside of school or during the summer to work a more traditional job. 

Youth are paid a day rate for each session. If they have to miss a session or arrive late, their day rate is prorated, to set attendance expectations similar to what they would experience at a traditional job. In addition, the teens themselves – not their parents or guardians – are responsible for knowing their session schedules and informing Jurek or Williams if they have to miss a day. It’s all part of activating their power and reminding them of the accountability they have for their own choices and success. With these practices, Local Circles aims to provide a pathway for young people to blossom into exactly who they’re here to be. 

“[Local Circles staff are] always talking about how brilliant we are and how proud they are of us for how well we do our research and all this other stuff,” Nard said. “And they don’t treat us like little kids, as though they don’t expect much. They always assume that we know what we’re doing, as they show us that they’re always there to help.”