Community Learning Exchange

Youth Take the Lead at Boys and Girls Club Benton Harbor

A Life-Changing Experience

Leaders from Boys and Girls Club in Benton Harbor, Michigan have been a part of the Community Learning Exchange from the very beginning. The organization got involved with the Kellogg Leadership for Community Change (KLCC) initiative in 2005, focusing on using youth and adult partnerships to advance just communities.

Liji Hanny, director of operations for Boys and Girls Club Benton Harbor (BGCBH), explained that the experiences gained through KLCC and the CLE have made an enduring impact on both youth and adults at the club.

Youth learn about engineering through hands-on projects

“Having an opportunity to sit down with folks from West Virginia and know that as different as we are from the outside - and where we run our programs and how we run our programs - the people that we are on the inside are very similar,” said Liji.

“And at the core of what we do, the approach of what we do, we can learn a lot from each other. And we did. Sometimes your approach gets stuck in a pattern because of how things have always been done. Having an opportunity to get a new voice and a new perspective in the room gives you an opportunity to learn and grow. Whether it’s things I’ve learned from a 14 year old from New Mexico or someone from the Lummi or someone from Boston or Denver, it’s been a real life-changing experience.”

Living Collective Leadership

The principles of collective leadership are closely aligned with the work they do at Boys and Girls Club Benton Harbor, said Liji. It is essential for all youth to feel that they have a voice in the community. The staff at the club works to empower youth to exercise their leadership and take an active role in shaping the programs they participate in.

“I wanted it to be part of who we are and our culture, rather than this program or activity we’re doing today,” said Liji. “I think we’re successfully doing that. It’s becoming a part of how we work with our kids. It’s very awesome.”

He recalled a recent discussion that took place within the club’s performance choir, made up of youth from 6 to 13 years old. Choir members were talking about the challenge of not everyone being able to make every practice. For example, some youth play on basketball teams and have practices that interfere with rehearsal times.

“We were talking about how one individual adding to the whole is important, and should we count it against kids who are missing practices,” said Liji. “And the president of the choir said, ‘Why do we have to deal with punishing them if they’re not here? Why can’t we deal with rewarding those who show up?’ And that was awesome to hear.”

The BGCBH performance choir was invited to rehearse with Andrews University's Deliverance Mass Choir 

“In the way we were doing prior to 2005, it was, ‘OK, kids, this is what we’re going to do, this is how we’re going to do it. And that voice would not have been heard. What was born from that was, maybe we need to change the look of the room to make it more inviting. Do we need to make it that you have to make it to this many practices and then you’ve earned your right to perform? And it changed the conversation from, ‘There’s something wrong with the people that aren’t here’ to, ‘There’s something right about the people that are.’”

BGCBH has incorporated many of the CLE’s pedagogies into its everyday operations, though Liji said he tries to put practices into words that youth relate to. When something feels too formalized and orchestrated, it can often miss an opportunity to resonate with young people.


A fundamental belief within BGCBH is that there must be a space where everyone feels comfortable expressing his or her views. Meeting in circles can facilitate this kind of communication.

“I say, ‘Let’s sit down and talk, and here’s the talking piece and here are the rules we’re going to have for this conversation,’” said Liji.

“If I say OK, we’re going to sit down and do this peacemaking circle - sometimes a wall goes up. So with, ‘Let’s sit down and talk,’ everyone can be heard. That’s much easier than when we first started introducing circles into the process, calling it the peacemaking circle. Kids didn’t want to make peace; they wanted to have their opinions heard. By having an opportunity to have everyone’s opinion and voice be heard, peace was possible.”

Gracious Space

Creating Gracious Space - where people are invited to listen and learn from others who may have a different background or perspective from themselves - is also a core part of the work the BGCBH staff does with youth.

“I talk about the opportunity for everyone to be themselves,” said Liji. “We have to make sure that opportunity is there. If you want to dress the way you want and talk the way you talk and be who you want to be, that can’t be so big that the person next to you can’t do the same.”

Every Wednesday is "Shirt & Tie & Dress or Skirt" day at BGCBH

Walking a Little Taller

Through their experiences at the Boys and Girls Club, youth are empowered to become leaders not just within the club but in their schools and outside communities as well. Club members are student council presidents at their schools, captains of their sports teams and leaders of their church groups. Several members were chosen to attend a leadership camp this summer, and Gates Millennium Scholarship recipients are regularly youth from BGCBH. One former Boys and Girls Club member is now a local councilman - elected to public office in his early 20s.

When young people have the opportunity to grow as leaders, it has a lasting impact far beyond the walls of the club.

“When adults engage youth in a way that allows them to have a space and an opportunity to be heard and take on leadership roles, it shows that we care,” said Liji. “And caring - you have to show that to kids. You can have all the information in the world, but that information is nothing if the person that you’re trying to give the information to isn’t poised and ready to listen.”

Youth spending time at BGCBH

“I know for a fact that there are young men and young women who come to the club because they have an opportunity to be heard, an opportunity to use the skills that they want to use and that they are not being told that they matter because, ‘You do what i tell you to do.’ They matter because we want them to do what they believe is best. Young people walk a little taller. Every time the future is walking a little taller and the light is in their eyes, we’re all better off.”

A Living Embodiment of Community

One staff member at Boys and Girls Club Benton Harbor captured this spirit perfectly, said Liji. Lisa Marie Daniel, who recently passed away, was part of the Community Learning Exchange from the beginning and made it her mission to put collective leadership into action.

“We lost someone very close to us,” said Liji. “At her funeral and memorial service, there were so many people there. Not because they were sad but because they wanted to tell the world that this person always respected them, always showed them love and accepted them for who they are.”

“It was beautiful to hear people stand up and talk about this living embodiment of community. She was community. She always made everybody feel welcome. People were allowed to be themselves, and they were allowed to grow when they were in her presence. I think that if everyone did that, the world would be a better place.”

The next Community Learning Exchange is in Seattle from May 15-18, 2014 - learn more.

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Comment by Rituu B Nanda on April 20, 2014 at 8:34am

Great piece! It embodies what we at the Constellation called SALT; use SALT when we approach the community- S- Stimulate, share

A- appreciate

L- learn from and listen to the community

T- Transfer

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