Organizations of color awarded $310,000 at MBK Detroit Innovation Challenge

According to the dictionary, the definition of a hooligan is, “a violent young troublemaker, typically one of a gang.” But the creatives from Detroit’s North End called “the WHLGNs” are anything but the English definition.

They are a group of peer-to-peer mentors who are looking to connect young creatives in Detroit with the skills, resources, and opportunities necessary to pursue their passions in the arts and build their professional network through their Leaders Amongst Leaders organization.

The group of seven moved a step further with their initiative, winning one of the six $50,000 prizes Tuesday at the My Brother’s Keeper (MBK) Detroit Innovation Challenge held at the Michigan Science Center. During the challenge, twenty teams showcased their ideas through an interactive expo, followed by a pitch competition where six teams were selected to win $50,000 each, as well as continued professional supports to launch their programs. Additionally, audience members voted for one team to win a $5,000 “Audience Favorite” award.

“Leaders Amongst Leaders is essentially the branch between the generation that mentors us and the youth,” said Antonio “Tony WHLGN” Robinson. “We basically want to be the solution for the disparity that children face in our community, with having passions but not having access to those resources to grow their passions into some type of sustainable creative career.”

Leaders Amongst Leaders had an interactive expo on display before their pitch at the MBK Detroit Innovation Challenge. PHOTO: Bre’Ann WHLGN

Leaders Amongst Leaders arguably received the loudest applause and displayed the most emotion when their name was called. That is what $50,000 will do to you. And they plan to put the money to great use.

“We really want a facility,” Allante “Unc WHLGN” Steele said. “Right now, we work out of our house, doing photography, art, and other things. So we want to find a facility where we can create a creative hub. We are already doing what we need to do, now we want to bring the youth in to do what they need to do, as well as bring in other entreprenuers and connect everyone at the same time.”

The other five winners of the $50,000 prizes were the Detroit Phoenix Center, a safe haven for homeless youth; A Seat at My Sister’s Table, discourse around girls of color who have been exposed to sexual and societal trauma; Developing Strong Black Male Educators, empowering black male educators with the tools to redesign teaching and learning in their urban classrooms; Reading Behind Bars, a virtual literacy program that uses video technology to allow incarcerated parents the ability to read with their child; and The Lab Drawer, equipping Detroit students with S.T.E.A.M. learning resources to help supplement opportunities that may not be available in school.

MBK Detroit Innovation Challenge Semifinalist Convening, The Skillman Foundation, Detroit
Founder and Executive Director of the Detroit Phoenix Center, Courtney Smith. PHOTO: The Skillman Foundation

Courtney Smith, the founder and Executive Director of the Detroit Phoenix Center, was almost in tears when her name was the first one to be called. She operates the only drop-in center in the city of Detroit for youth facing homelessness. But the program she pitched at the MBK Innovation Challenge was an apprenticeship program that does not exist yet. But with $50,000 more in funds, it will be in operation soon.

“We are going to be providing supportive housing, job training, and support networks to youth on the streets,” Smith said. “We are also going to employ them through our social enterprise, so that they can exit their homelessness.”

Judges for the MBK Detroit Innovation Challenge included Tonya Allen, Shannon Smith, and James Tate, among others. PHOTO: Xavier Cuevas

The 20 semi-finalists were selected from nearly 650 applications to the MBK Detroit Innovation Challenge, a $500,000 initiative supported by The Skillman Foundation, Campaign for Black Male Achievement, JP Morgan Chase, and Ford Motor Company Fund. Selections were made by a group of 30 judges, including previous challenge awardees and Detroit youth.

“Detroit is rich with creativity and talent. You can see it everywhere, especially in our young people,” said Tonya Allen, president & CEO of the Skillman Foundation. “The MBK Challenge is a way to encourage and support innovative ideas that support our city’s boys and girls of color.”

Shawn Dove, CEO of the Campaign for Black Male Achievement, arrived at the tail end of the challenge, having his flight from New York City delayed and driving down from Flint to take in what he could. But he left those still in attendance with an important message.

“Everybody wins,” said Dove. “Everybody wins when we have the MBK Detroit Innovation Challenge. There are so many people here that won’t fellowship, and they asked for something and were told no. But no just means another opportunity. This is a win for all of Detroit.”

MBK Detroit Innovation Challenge Semifinalist Convening, The Skillman Foundation, Detroit
Ladies in Training founder Jasmin Barnett (left) and advisory board member Brittnee Shows (right). PHOTO: The Skillman Foundation

Jasmin Barnett, the founder of Ladies in Training, a mentoring and scholarship organization that serves as a bridge to develop girls ages 10-18, won the People’s Choice Award and $5,000. She welcomed Dove’s message and her prize with open arms.

“This means that the community understands that what I’m doing is for them,” said Barnett, who made The Skillman Foundation’s 50 People Who Represent the Heart of Detroit list in December. “I have spent thousands of my own dollars, so this is a blessing for others to notice us. We didn’t win the big prize, but we won something that’ll help keep the program going and I plan to invest it back into my kids.”


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