Press Release | Incarcerated Michigan Youth Win National Prize

Giving Voice to the Voiceless

Five teens confined to the high-security juvenile treatment facility Shawono Center have won a national year-long competition designed to solicit ideas from students to build a world free of stereotypes and discrimination. The team was awarded runner-up in the Global Impact Challenge for their work and granted a $1,500 prize to implement a project to help other adjudicated youth discover positive passions, share their voices and transition into the community. They were also invited to be presenters at the No Barriers Virtual Summit in June 2020.

The significance of the honor goes well beyond the award, notes Andrea Flowers, the social worker who coordinated the year-long project with Disability Network leading to the video. “The youth of Diverse Survivorz were able to look beyond the tensions that come when discussing racially charged issues, to find a solution. The youth were able to do this! The youth spoke and the adults are listening. In a time where anger and sadness are so prevalent there is great inspiration and hope in the message that was born from the No Barriers project. The students have told us what they need. Now it’s time to honor their work and their message by moving forward in creating a world where diversity and inclusion are celebrated, and barriers are removed”.

The Global Impact Challenge started back in June 2019 when middle and high school educators across the U.S. participated in a training at the No Barriers Summit in Lake Tahoe, CA. Following that training, the educators returned to their communities and recruited diverse teams of students to participate in the challenge. Kristen Conrad, Transition Manager, and Caitlin Chlosta, Transition Specialist, of Disability Network Northern Michigan were among the educators chosen to take part in the Global Impact Challenge.

DNNM partnered with Flowers, LLMSW, at the Shawono Center of Grayling, Michigan, to assemble a group of five 16-18-year-old students who all eagerly accepted the opportunity to participate. The educators and teens followed an online curriculum designed to foster creativity and develop projects to address local diversity, accessibility and inclusion challenges. Out of that, they developed their program to help their peers and those who might follow make community connections, discover passions and positively fill free time until they are able to transition into the community. They additionally worked on developing community connections so that transition would be a more positive one.

One of the most impactful outcomes was the chance for the youth to be heard, in part through the video produced at the Land Information Access Associates studio in Traverse City. When first presented with the No Barriers Global Impact Challenge opportunity, participating team member Delorian asked, “Why does anyone want to hear our story?  Who would want to listen to us?”

By the end, as team member Corey explained in the video, that changed. He says: “If you try speak up, someone is going to hear you. If you try to make a change, someone is going to see it- don't give up” and “instead of using the stuff I've been through as a crutch and as an excuse- you know- I use it as motivation. You can be a victim, or you can a survivor- you can choose to let whatever happened break you down, control your life, and cause you to do things that you don’t really want and don’t mean to do- or you can be a survivor. You can prosper from it. Let it motivate you every day to do something better, to do something different.”

The Global Impact Challenge was transformational for everyone involved, Flowers said. “As a social worker committed to understanding the problems of these young survivors, I looked for a solution. Working through the No Barriers project with the Diverse Survivorz, I now know that I did not fully understand the barriers. The No Barriers project created a pathway for me to see these struggles through the eyes of those who experience them first hand. This project provided an opportunity for the youth to engage with the community from a different perspective and to empathetically examine where and how their lives were impacted by their environment.”

The project also stretched the adults' understanding of issues faced by young people, she said. “Diverse Survivorz gave voice to young people across the state who otherwise would not have had that voice. Watching the tremendous investment made by these five young men and the growth that occurred for them will have far reaching impacts. The Diverse Survivorz now believe that their voice is important and that they can positively impact their community. This may be the most important time, as a country, that we listen to each other.”

The No Barriers Global Impact Challenge was a year-long competition designed to inspire the best ideas from students as well as to equip educators with the tools necessary to help students dream big and to break down diversity and inclusion barriers.

Through the program to be partially funded by the grant, the Shawono teens hope to expand upon the Community LIFE program offered at Shawono through DNNM. Through that students like Delorian, who speaks in the video, have had the chance to be powerfully influenced by giving back at spots like the animal shelter and a local historical society. The program will additionally let residents explore interests and passions through community outings and recreational activities, build a strong community network prior to exiting the Shawono program, and share their experiences and challenges through additional videos and expanded mediums.

The systemic barriers confronting our youth, including economic, educational, and social, were overwhelmingly exposed during the No Barriers Global Impact Challenge (GIC). At the program introduction, the students were guarded and when told of the GIC they were overcome with disbelief that anyone would care about their stories. As they embraced the GIC through the 7 steps of the program, their passion for justice was revealed. The young men took the lead with staff guidance to help navigate the project segments. The students began to break down their walls and speak freely of their experiences and emotions. The commitment and focus inspired the educators and others working with the youth.

The Diverse Survivorz embraced the program steps of defining a vision and relying on their rope team to support the progress to the summit. The group defined, “the catalyst to change is learning something new.  If we are never exposed to opportunities for productive, healthy lives and only see negative influences we cannot be successful,” said Kristen Conrad of Disability Network Northern Michigan.

“The privilege of working with these students was mine,” she said. “Being welcomed into their lives, trustedwith their vulnerabilities and tasked with helping coordinate their vision for change was awe-inspiring. These young men talked of survival instead of choosing the perspective of a victim. Their passion, courage and strength motivated all those involved to commit to exposing the barriers and changing the broken system. The opportunity to continue the fight for exposure, knowledge and justice with the dedicated members of the Diverse Survivorz is possible because of their passion, experience and strength.”

To learn more about Disability Network Northern Michigan, the No Barriers project or the Diverse Survivorz please contact:

Kristen Conrad, L.M.S.W.
Transition Manager
Disability Network Northern Michigan
Cell: 231.620.0982
Office: 231.922.0903

Jennifer Hutchinson
Associate Director
Disability Network Northern Michigan
Cell: 231.218.0096
Office: 231.922.0903x330



Disability Network Northern Michigan

415 East Eighth Street
Traverse City, MI   49686

Phone: (231) 922-0903

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