Connect to overcome: Going virtual with Black youth in need

As crisis after crisis strikes his Detroit community, Shawn Wilson fights back with a powerful message, live-streamed right into kids’ homes.

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Photo credit: Fabrizio Costantini

“The walls are crumbling around us, in a good way,” says Shawn Wilson, CEO of Boys and Girls Club of Southeastern Michigan, as he encounters new ways to reach youth in need.

When COVID-19 hit the greater Detroit area, at-risk kids were left at home with no connection to the outside world. “We couldn’t just disappear,” says Shawn. “You have some kids who are in unsafe environments, who are maybe in abusive homes, who normally come to our facilities to get away from that. You have kids who are being left at home at 7, 8 years old because the parents are now having to go back to work.”

When COVID hit, the thousands of kids who depend on the Club’s after school programs and summer camps were at risk of being left without mentorship, care, and support. Photo credit: Fabrizio Costantini

Shawn helped his Boys and Girls Club pivot, almost overnight, to develop a robust virtual program for youth in need. Kids got a daily connection to their friends in isolation, had meaningful conversations with staff mentors, and even linked up with famous Black talent across the country for workshops.

But just as the kids began to settle into life during COVID-19, the killings of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd, two unarmed Black men, captured the nation’s attention. Shawn and his team reacted quickly to provide a space for hundreds of young Black males across the country to participate in a guided discussion, hosted by a celebrity actor, Hill Harper, and informed by a trained therapist.

For over a century, the Boys and Girls Clubs of America have been safe spaces for youth in need to find development opportunities and empowerment after school and during the summer, times when many kids are most vulnerable. Shawn and his staff—who run eight clubs in the greater Detroit area—knew that this sort of engagement would be even more critical during a crisis, so they turned to the digital space to connect and uplift thousands of young lives across the country.


Black joy in a time of crisis: Virtual Club is—first and foremost—fun

“Right away, our staff worked incredibly hard at a scary time,” says Shawn. “I can’t thank them enough. They made wellness calls to all of our families to make sure they had connections to food and information.” During this process, staff noticed kids who were normally outgoing were pulling back, socially. The staff made a hard rule: “Absolutely no COVID talk,” says Shawn. The kids were already being inundated with talk of the virus, so the team decided to just focus on fun. “So, every day, for two hours, they just need a place to go and have that mental break.”

What is Virtual Club? It’s live DJ dance parties, talent shows, paper plane demos, push-up challenges, fashion shows, Family Feud, science Mondays and Pictionary, all via video conference. “Keeping the experiences diverse,” says Shawn, “keeps the kids engaged.”

The Boys and Girls Club of SE Michigan is one 3,079 Clubs that provided virtual programming during the shutdown. Photo credit: Fabrizio Costantini

The staff also brought in partners remotely to lead workshops with the kids. Partners that looked like them. For instance, they hosted beekeeping demonstrations by a Black-owned apiary, talks on aviation by the youngest Black person to fly solo around the world, acting lessons with a Black film actress in Atlanta, and yoga sessions set to trap music, led by a Black male instructor.

It started with six or seven kids, “but after a few days,” Shawn says, “word of mouth spread, and attendance started to grow.” Soon they were serving 200 youth in need a day, so Shawn and his team decided to go all-in with their online programming.

Confronting injustice with the Black Male Empowerment Series

The club launched a virtual Black Male Empowerment Series just as the killings of unarmed Black men grabbed global headlines; giving hundreds of Black male youth a place to come together when they needed it most.

Led by Ivy League scholar and actor Hill Harper, the series covered topics from creating a blueprint for your life, to economic literacy and empowerment. But after the series began, the killing of Ahmaud Aubery grabbed the national spotlight, so the club shifted to address the most pressing crisis, the killings of unarmed Black men.

“It wasn’t originally planned, but we brought on a therapist,” says Shawn, “to talk to the young men about what they were feeling, how they were feeling about it, how they should react to it. We spent so much time really just talking with the therapist, talking about the frustration. This younger generation, they call it as they see it. They're like, ‘Well, why?’ And I don’t think we provided a good answer. Why is it OK to kill a Black man? Why is it OK to be racist?”

Digging through the roots of racism on a virtual call

“We had to reckon with that hardcore on that call, and help them understand that people who are racist, they’re insecure, they’re full of fear, which then leads to hate. But the biggest thing we wanted them to understand is, ‘It’s not you, it’s them. You can’t hold yourself accountable. You can’t look at yourself through their eyes. You have to understand that they’re coming from a sick point of view and you can’t let that get to you,” says Shawn.

Host Hill Harper wrapped up the live, interactive series by examining racism’s impact on Black money. “I think money was powerful in this series because, if you look at the core issue that our kids are facing, especially young Black men, it’s low graduation rates, it’s gang violence, it’s food insecurity, it’s all these things at the top of the tree. But then at the roots, the root cause of it is poverty or lack of economic mobility. Racism prevents them from buying a house, racism affects how much money goes to their schools, racism affects them not being able to receive a proper education, which then makes it more likely they’ll go on to be incarcerated.”

As the Club reopens with social distance guidelines in place, Shawn and his team continue to nurture the connections made during Virtual Club. Photo credit: Fabrizio Costantini

Broadening Black horizons: The virtual advantage

400 young Black men across the country took part in the Black Male Empowerment Series, a unique opportunity for many who lacked access to resources beyond their own neighborhood. What began as a program for Detroit-area youth in need quickly spread nationwide as organizations and families from 14 other states contacted Shawn and his team to participate.

“We heard from a lot of moms, nationally who wanted to get their young men involved,” says Shawn. “Some were single moms looking for that role model for their sons. They told me, ‘So much of what you said is what I tell my son every day, but it came off differently coming from you guys.’”

“If you think about a young man in Detroit,” he says, “hearing that another young man in Atlanta, or North Carolina, or Washington state is experiencing the same thing that they’ve experienced, it breaks down that isolation. It’s like, ‘Oh, wow, I’m feeling anxious, he’s feeling anxious. While I experienced that, you experienced that.’”

“So many youth at this age haven’t been on a plane. They haven't been to another city. Many of them probably haven’t been off the block. We run into kids who haven’t been to downtown Detroit,” says Shawn. “Now, think about exposing them to this world, programmatically, it’s super powerful.”

The Boys and Girls Club of SE Michigan has 8 clubs in its footprint, traditionally serving hundreds of kids and teens a day. They had to close their facilities at the onset of the pandemic. Photo credit: Fabrizio Costantini

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Unlocking top talent, virtually

The live, digital world also unlocks big-name talent that otherwise couldn’t participate. “Getting someone like Hill Harper to do three classes back-to-back, it’s almost impossible. He lives in Detroit, but he shoots in Vancouver,” Shawn says. “Traditionally, there’s no way he could commit. But virtually, he could, absolutely.”

The virtual approach doesn’t just create access for incredibly busy people, it opens up doors for everyone. “The first week, I had this a-ha moment,” says Shawn, “where a mom looked over her son’s shoulder when I was observing and just thanked us for doing this virtually. Her son’s in a wheelchair and can’t make it to the club too often. So I was like, ‘Oh man, we’re leaving a lot of kids out who we could be serving, who may have physical impairments, transportation challenges, or other special needs. So we knew then, we’ll always have a virtual component.”

Every Virtual Club started with a live DJ dance party. As clubs open back up, the Club is keeping some of the best parts of Virtual Club in place. Photo credit: Fabrizio Costantini

Forgetting the barriers, remembering the moments

The challenges that COVID-19 laid at the feet of the whole world have offered new possibilities and new ways of thinking. For Shawn and his team, it’s been a kind of blessing.

“The combinations are endless of how we can grow the virtual experience,” he says. It’s even encouraged further partnerships with the likes of rapper, actor and entrepreneur, Ludacris. “He launched a new platform called Kids Nation, a kind of TikTok for younger kids, where they’re singing songs about brushing your teeth, health, fitness, all positive things. And after he experienced Virtual Club, he and his foundation approached us to help launch their platform. That’s going to be the fun part of it. Now we get to reimagine how we think, we get to retrain our mind to ask, ‘Is there a virtual component to this, or are we just doing this in person?’”

“I think our mindset is truly entrepreneurial,” says Shawn. “Where there are barriers, there are opportunities. So, let’s look at the opportunities and maximize them. Because now we feel like we can just do anything.”

After the success of their Virtual Programming, The Boys and Girls Club of SE Michigan will continue to innovate their programming and expand their offerings to reach as many youth as possible. Photo credit: Fabrizio Costantini

“We say, ‘forget the barriers,’ because it really is about exposing the youth and creating moments, whether virtually or in person,” Shawn says. “That’s what you remember, right? You remember moments.”

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