Miami Community Group Urgent, Inc Empowers Youth Through Art & Education

December 11, 2014  |  

Every day the news displays disparaging images of Black men and women. It is wrought with sensationalized extremes and usually negative portrayals that strip little ebony-skinned children of their value. Saliha Nelson, vice president of URGENT, Inc. in the Overtown community of Miami, is giving it back.

In 1997, Nelson began volunteering at the grassroots organization in the historically Black South Florida neighborhood of Overtown.

“I was just doing some research about the community, what was needed,” says Nelson. In response to her engagement, and her background in education and social policy, the group’s founders invited her to join the team as vice president.

Urban Renewal Greater Enhancement National Team was founded in 1994 to combat the aftermath of the ’80s riots and the unfavorable economic climate of the ’90s. Nelson has been there almost since the beginning, and as URGENT celebrates 20 years of service, her commitment to its mission must be recognized. Upon joining the board, she set to work raising funds for the small squad of concerned community residents.

“I was awarded my first grant for $2,500 back in 2000, and have been fortunate enough to continue to grow the organization and add numerous programs since that time,” Nelson says.

Now through a small but powerful selection of cultural, skills and family-driven programming, URGENT is empowering youth from kindergarten through college and graduation. As a youth and community development organization that means not only advancing educational and economic opportunities, but also emboldening the charges speak out.

For three years, URGENT’s Campaign for Girls’ Well-Being addressed teen dating violence. The efforts of the students compelled the Miami-Dade County School to adopt policy for education and prevention. One young woman earned a commendation from the school board for her steadfast work on the undertaking. In the most recent Art Basel Miami Beach, 10 URGENT participants showcased photography that highlighted their community concerns. Nelson sounds much like a proud parent as she underscores their achievements and activism.

“One of the things I always aim to do in my work is to highlight the positive things our young people are doing,” she says. “There’s so much media coverage around everything that is wrong and negative, I make it a point to… raise awareness of what is right and… who’s doing well in our community.”

And while the charges led by the students of URGENT, Inc. have not made national headlines, Nelson can appreciate those that have.

“I think that activism is great because anything that raises awareness and develops the consciousness of and compassion for humanity is wonderful,” Nelson says. However, she prefers to work the logistical end — channeling that momentum into an actual agent for change. Nelson considers how URGENT can follow up and include its youth in the social, economic and political landscape of their communities. She says, “Those who are protesting open the door for us to work on the back end to keep our work moving forward with young people.”

And the work Nelson and URGENT do for the youth of Overtown, and Miami-Dade County as a whole, should not be ignored.

If not for the efforts put forth by URGENT’s still small nonprofit team and its supporters, these young people would lack access to a myriad of social, economic and educational capital. Overtown is not unique in its insufficient public schools or exposure to tragedy that too often plague majority Black, urban communities. With hosts of community partners, Nelson promotes “sponsored mobility.” The concept requires a mutual assumption of value among the youth and the mentoring parties. It has allowed the success of initiatives such as FACE Summer Youth Training Employment Program — an experienced-based internship camp for those 16 to 24 year olds. In the past few years participants have produced a short film and a professional quality feature slated to begin local screenings in January 2015.

Nelson believes that holistic approach URGENT takes toward cultivating young people — educating beyond books through art and coding — is essential to instilling the self-worth inner-city youth are often denied.

“Art produces tangible products,” says Nelson. “That’s a powerful tool to remind people that you have something to contribute.”

The results of these programs are measurable. URGENT reports that 93 percent of participants have increased skills in decision making and problem solving and work readiness as of 2012. But there’s always more to be done.

Immediate on the agenda is extending the FACE program a year-round opportunity for teens and young adults to gain practical training and earn money. Rather than manning the register, Nelson wants “young people to be engaged in professional internships, developing resource networks so that they are moving on a very strategic and progressive career development pathway.”

Furthermore, URGENT wants to combat the mediocre school system with an alternative charter school. Based on the framework of its employment initiative, the curriculum will “engage young people creatively in helping them discover their intelligence and develop their academic, social and educational skills,” says Nelson.

Nelson, whose role as VP requires her to oversee daily operations and the fulfillment of contracts, also creates the community partnerships that allow URGENT to achieve its mission to empower young minds to help transform their communities.

“We’re in the business of helping young people build skills, cultivate their talent and contribute the assets that they have to really make change in their communities,” says Nelson of URGENT.

Nelson champions a charge to transform the small community of Overtown — only 13,000 people — starting with the youth. She invites those with the resources that will be a benefit to answer the call.

It’s a worthy cause and the impact is evident. Nelson recalls a student reflecting on her experience. The young lady had realized, Nelson says, that she doesn’t have to rely on anyone else to create change. She can create change if she simply works hard at it.

“I love the kids,” Nelson says. And powerful revelations such as this make all her efforts worthwhile.

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