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#OTGYpsi: Former Ypsilanti juvenile offender starts nonprofit to assist at-risk youth in their daily lives


Concentrate Ann Arbor

Rylee Barnsdale's Feature Article: After going to prison at 18, Ypsi man launches nonprofit to prevent local kids from doing the same

Underdawg Nation

Underdawg Nation on Facebook


Josh Hakala: You were listening to 89 one WEMU. I'm Josh Hakala, and this is On the Ground Ypsi. It's a program intended to bring you the stories of the Ypsilanti community, and we bring you On the Ground Ypsi, in partnership with the reporting team at Concentrate Media. Today, we are going to be talking about the local nonprofit, Underdawg Nation, that is working to support young people who are impacted by violent crime and all the ripple effects that come with that. Today, I'm joined by Concentrate Media reporter Rylee Barnsdale, whose online news site is reporting this week on Underdawg Nation. Thanks so much for being with us.

Rylee Barnsdale: Thanks, Josh.

Josh Hakala: And joining us over the phone is Deshawn Leeth. He is the executive director of Underdawg Nation. Thanks for being with us.

Deshawn Leeth: Yes, sir.

Josh Hakala: Well, I will get to you in just a bit. I want to have Rylee set the table for us. Rylee, you wrote this story. And tell us why you decided to write about Underdawg Nation.

Rylee Barnsdale: Well, part of the reason is Underdawg Nation is this really wonderful nonprofit that is only in its second year, and it's already grown and gone on to do so many wonderful programs and events for local Ypsi kids and young folks and offering mentorship and tutoring and all of these other really great things that maybe we don't some of us don't always think of when we're thinking of our young folks. You know, there's an idea that kids should just be kids, and they get to go to school, play, learn, etc.. But that, unfortunately, isn't the reality for a lot of kids, especially kids in our neck of the woods. So, the work that Deshawn is doing with Underdawg Nation is really providing and creating these safe spaces for kids to be kids and, you know, hopefully get them away from crime, violent crime, violence in general, and really show them that there are other options and opportunities and ways to come out of things, like poverty and crime, and do some really amazing things.

Josh Hakala: So, this isn't the only community organization that has working to reduce violence in the area. We've talked to some of them on this show, but one theme I see is that the need for what some would call wraparound care. It's one thing to help a person deal with a situation where they were the victim of violent crime or maybe they were the perpetrator of the violence. There are oftentimes so many other root causes that lead up to that moment that need to be addressed.

Rylee Barnsdale: Mm hmm. A lot of kids, and especially Black and Brown kids, are forced into becoming adults very quickly, you know, regardless of if they get entangled into things like crime and the juvenile justice system and the work that Underdawg is doing as well as, you know, like you said, some other a bunch of other different organizations in the Ypsi area. You know, we also spoke with Our Community Reads and with Community Leadership Revolution doing these programs and these events that really are to create safe spaces. So, if there are kids out there that feel the need to commit crimes to support themselves and their families because they're stuck in this survival mode mindset, these spaces that these really wonderful folks are creating are, you know, intended to get them out of that mindset, so they can just be kids.

Josh Hakala: And, Deshawn, I was wondering if you could maybe paint a picture of your childhood. Where did you grow up? And what was your family situation like?

Deshawn Leeth: For me, I was born in Detroit, Michigan, on the East Side in 1994, on May 1st. I'm the youngest of five children. Growing up was definitely a rollercoaster ride. I had a mom that had a strong heroin addiction. Not a lot of stability. There was no life structure growing up. So, I got into that survival mindset at a young age. It actually started at a young age when I was eight, when I was at a grocery store. And there's this meat market. And she asked to get some meat and told me to walk out. And I didn't understand that, but I knew it was a point where when I went home, we end up eating that same meat. And I had to think about, like, if I steal this world and bring, you know, back home later, it'll make my mom happy and I'm going to be home real soon. So, that mentality right there was not a bad head mentality. As a kid in this is the environment that I'm was growing up with, I took on to that survival mindset. So, that survival mindset led me to doing criminal activities into the streets at a young age, because that's the first thing I saw growing up and living in Detroit on the East Side, young like that, it was always violence around, I think, drug problems around, it was just the structure of the environment that I was involved in. So, growing up, high school, middle school, my education was great. I loved school. When I didn't have school, I had to go home. And it was just that the survival mechanism that I had to live every day with. I don't have food, I have basic clothing. My sole provider for to keep a kid going on. I would have been a kid every day. That was a struggle because I don't believe at 12 years old, a kid doesn't take on adult responsibilities because things are not being provided for me or my family structure. I went into that way of living my life, and it highlighted so many obstacles of trauma of being in the street, getting molested by male figures, having neglect child abuse. I'm waking up numerous times. My mom is not the house. It's 2 or 3:00 in the morning and I'm only a young kid. I'm wandering the streets trying to find my mom. She's out there doing dope. I'm just trying to be a kid in the streets trying to survive. So, I had opportunities growing up as a kid to get into programs that made opportunities seem like it was easy, but they didn't really understand any of my family dynamics of me and my mom's relationship, how I had to make sure I was a provider. I also protected her at a young age, so I risk finding my mom when I was in programs or leave the programs because I already moved from the family standpoint, I had to be there to support her because she didn't have the support. So, I went to Ann Arbor Public Schools, Clawson Middle School, I went to Eberwine Elementary. I went to some good Ann Arbor schools, but I also went to Ypsi Schools and Detroit Schools, Flint schools, actually. I never had like a school structure of schooling because, like I said, the home balance was unbalanced structurally. So, Ann Arbor, Ypsi, and Detroit, they've seen my life on the most. But the criminal system has seen my life at the most because, the majority of my childhood, I was on juvenile intensive probation, or I was in a juvenile detention center.

Josh Hakala: What was your first your first experience with the criminal justice system?

Deshawn Leeth: Okay, my first interaction with the criminal justice system was when I was 11 years old. I actually went into Kmart and stole a bike because, when I was walking around my neighborhood, a lot of kids in the community had bikes. And I ain't had no bike. So, I went inside Kmart, and I stole this bike. And I rolled it out of Kmart. And I went back into the hood, and I rode the bike in circles around my kids when I came back. I had the best bike on the block now. While I'm celebrating, I got, like, seven police cars coming after me. I'm letting you know all I did was steal a bike. And they surrounded me. They surrounded me. The supervisor at the Kmart was in the backseat with a video camera and said, "Yep. That's the boy right there that stole our bike." That started my whole, like, paperwork. I'm in the system. I may have got caught for doing a criminal activity. I'm stealing a bike at Kmart because everybody else had a bike, and I wanted one.

Josh Hakala: You're listening to On the Ground Ypsi on WEMU. I'm joined by Concentrate Media's Rylee Barnesdale and Deshawn Leeth, the executive director of Underdawg Nation, a nonprofit that focuses on supporting kids impacted by violence. And now, different people have different reactions and different approaches to being incarcerated. And, needless to say, prison isn't easy for anybody. But can you tell us about your journey from the day you walked in there until the first time you got out and how that changed you?

Deshawn Leeth: [00:08:53] The juvenile center I went in to was Washtenaw County Juvenile Center. So, I went in there. At first hand, you know, I'm 11 years old, and I'm being taken away from my family. I'm getting taken away from everything that I love then being in a cell. As a kid, at 11 years old, like who wants to be looking at walls. The stigma. Now, you've made a criminal mistake. You're a bad kid. You're not going to be nothing in life just because you got a criminal record. In the juvenile detention center in Washtenaw County, from my experience in there, it was moments that do not save my life because it was certain COs in there that actually gave me real-life conversations that helped me pause when I did go back out into the community. But that was it. The juvenile detention center, as a whole, it made me feel like the criminal system was inviting me in because the responses of me didn't catch with my crimes and stuff. I'm not saying harsh punishment is the key for kids. Certain kids need certain things more intensified than others to help their minds from doing criminal activity. So, me, at a young age my whole juvenile detention center at Washtenaw County, it was a daycare center. So, if I go there for committing a crime, come back then get an ice cream and Taco Bell, it makes me want to commit crimes even more. I don't get that food from my mom already. So, it made it suitable for me to like committing crime. But it was like the infrastructure of the building, it definitely helped me not lose my life. So, there were moments when there was a lot of things going on that could have lost my life. The program inside didn't really help me because it was in-person programming. It wasn't like that real peer-to-peer, I'm gonna tell you what wrong is, conversation about your lifestyle--

Josh Hakala: Kill them with kindness? Is that kind of what it was?

Deshawn Leeth: Yeah. It's kind of like Candyland for me because the counselors are treating me like they were inviting me more into the system because if I get caught with a gun, I'm going to go get some Taco Bell and ice cream, you know?

Josh Hakala: Once you got through that, you ended up in prison. And how was that different for you?

Deshawn Leeth: Yes. So, from 11 to 18, it was my juvenile record extending. Like, I fought cases. I've been to intensive probation, I've been to regular probation. I've been through every probation you can go through in a juvenile detention. So, I had, from 11 to 18, they have a point system that we kept pace with. They literally track your points. And then, the more cases you crank, the more attempts to find a consequence of a crime you commit at that time. It comes in that placement to determine how much time you're gonna serve for that consequence. So, I had a lot of points added up from that very moment when I call my cases at 11. So, from 11 to 18, I didn't know how many points I had because I never knew about the points system until I got out of prison from 18. When I caught my first case at 18, it was May 12, 2012. I was 18. I end up getting caught on numerous counts of breaking and entering, home invasion, robbing people, and it was a survival mindset. And I got caught at 18, and I did my first prison term from 2012 to 2015.

Josh Hakala: What was that experience like? You know, you went from what you described as this Candyland approach to what I would imagine is quite the opposite.

Deshawn Leeth: Oh, the real prison. It was real. It was reality. At 18, coming in prison right off the street with no kind of respect for authority, nothing. I went in there hot. So, at 18, going into the Michigan Department of Corrections, the whole dynamic of prison, it wasn't like the TV. It was like I was the loneliest person. It felt like you go in prison, you feel like I was the biggest enemy to everybody. That's how it made me feel. Everybody is always watching you. It made it feel like this is where the most ruthless. Like, it gave that atmosphere of it's dark in here. It's these people that got no hope. It's just they gave up on people, these type of people. That was like, again, when I first came in 18, but, also, I'm looking at majority of people that I look at in the mirror and it's Black faces. I'm looking at more Black people than I ever seen in one particular spot--in a prison! So, when I went in prison, I didn't think I could do everything I did in the streets. I can still do inside of prison. I can still have that same street mentality to go round different organization and still the same criminal thinking while I'm inside. Prison only allows, if a person don't take it real, it's only allowed to try to think how to create more creative ideal to be a better criminal. But it's really not given us better criminal ideals. It's to send us down, so we won't make a mistake again. But when we come home, logistically, we're going to be the same (expletive) and come back.

Josh Hakala: You did time and then got out and then you ended up going back in. Can you talk about that?

Deshawn Leeth: 2012 to 2015. I did three years. When I did my three years, I had 68 misconduct reports in MDOC. That was terrible. I was one of the most terrible young people in there. And they still let me go home. I didn't have a high "finally!" Hey, that's what me and a lot of people deferred. I'm not a violent person. So, my first prison bit, I didn't have no guidelines completed. I didn't have no recommendations that the parole board recommend me to complete, except getting my GED. That was the best thing I did in my life. But from 2012 to 2015, three years, I came home. So, I came home, and prison didn't introduced me to programs to help me come home to get myself established, so I don't recidivize any criminal activity or what I'm doing. So, when I came home June 12, 2015, I didn't have no family structure of being provided for like the basic needs of someone. Even from the resources, people really point me to the right direction. So, we come home, 2015, I came home without a pair of drawers. So, my first day, literally, when I came home after my first bit, I had no pair of drawers. I had no underwear. No money. Nothing. So, I end up having to literally put on my nephew's underwear and clothes that first day to get myself feeling comfortable again, to get back in society, to keep my focus to stay off the criminal behavior or stay off the survival mindset that I had. But coming home with nothing, you telling me I've got to get a job. I never got a job. I never got informed, really, directions on how do you fill out a job application or none of that stuff. So, when I came home, 2015, it only lasted about for two days. I'd be like, "Oh yeah, I can go get a job." Then, reality hit again. My family is poor. I don't have resources to help me get established back into the community. So, I had to go back into my criminal mindset of survival mode because I have to take care of my basic needs because I still don't have the understanding of how to get a job to live on a day-to-day basis.

Josh Hakala: So, you basically came back out with nothing to work with. You were kind of just on your own.

Deshawn Leeth: Not a dollar. Not a dollar.

Josh Hakala: And then, you ended up going back in.

Deshawn Leeth: I wound up going back.

Josh Hakala: How were things different the second time around? And how did you get involved with talking to kids?

Deshawn Leeth: So, the first time, when I came home, I didn't come home to nothing. So, I only lasted 56 days before I had to catch another case to go back to prison. So, my first day, I got caught October 12, 2015. When that happened, I was in the back of the police car for committing a crime, and I got caught. And I told myself, "If I keep doing this lifestyle, it's going to be the same outcome." And I had to think about my mom again. And if I go back to prison, I'm going back to prison again, I think I might lose my mom this time. It's just the life you live. So, I had to do something when I came back inside prison. So, when I came back to prison, I had a little shift in my mind, like, I have to start thinking about who I really want to be in, how to survive, but without committing crime and going into the streets. So, I took my second turn. When I get locked back up, you know, I ended up five and a half years. So, I open my eyes again, and I just thought with the old habit of being back in and all that stuff, and I told myself, "All right! I can be a regular citizen. I can go get me a job."

Josh Hakala:I understand you had an opportunity to meet with kids and then to be a sort of mentor of sorts when you were inside.

Deshawn Leeth: When I came back to prison, like, two years after I started my five-year bit, I just start getting a little bit more spiritually. And God was really just pausing me, and it just opened my eyes. I got into, like, this fellowship to help kids restore hope. And it was, like, kids would come in back in 2017 when I got to Muskegon Correctional Facility. I got to have the perfect time. I've been going around the yard creating my own program of just grabbing young people, going on the yard, grabbing the table, coming out there, helping them go sit. They see this smart sheet. Just things I created on my desk, helping them have hope when they come home because a lot of kids, usually, didn't have a lot of hope. They had these guys doing, you know, 20, 30 years, life. And I'm just trying to give them a little bit to keep them on the agenda they got going on.

Josh Hakala: Sounded like you were laying the foundation of the program you would later go on to found.

Deshawn Leeth: Yeah. Yeah. Like, I was just testing myself. I can tell young people whatever you're going to do your time in there, it's what you're going to do when you get home. Well, I had to set that example in there to even need to come home, to be able to have an interview, that I can even do it. If I can help kids in the worst spot they can be in and help shift their mindset, I know I can come out here and do it. So, that was like God telling me back in 2017, he was going to make me shift generations of youth to just give opportunities to go through what I went through. So, like, from 2017, it was me creating the transformational restorative circles inside of prison, just looking up stuff, reading books and stuff. Not nobody telling you nothing. No program in there talking about helping kids. My out day was January 5, 2021. So, I had to go to parole board again with recommendations to get my things completed and all that garbage. So, I ended up doing all that stuff.

Josh Hakala: You're listening to On the Ground Ypsi on WEMU, I'm joined by Concentrate Media's Rylee Barnsdale and Deshawn Leeth, the executive director of Underdawg Nation, a nonprofit that focuses on supporting kids impacted by violence. And, Deshawn, you got out and you were able to get a job at a 7-Eleven at Ann Arbor. And that's kind of where it seems like your vision for Underdawg Nation started to take shape. Am I right?

Deshawn Leeth: Yeah. So, when I came home on January 5, 2021, I didn't come home, to a lot of resources, but I came home to find in the resources all myself, just going online and connecting to certain type of people. A Brighter Way was one of the people or the organizations that help me directed to giving me an opportunity to see a better future. So, when I came home, my first job was in April. So, my first four months, I didn't have a job because when I came home from prison, they didn't have my Social Security card, none of that stuff ready. So during COVID, the Secretary of State, appointment line was months behind. So, I started off at the Harmony House. The Harmony House in Ypsilanti. The parole board sent me to the Harmony House. That's the worst hotel you can go into in Washtenaw County, I believe. I had bed bugs. But the first day out there, I'm trying to do the right thing, but I got so much telling me get back out in the streets. So, my first job started in April--7-Eleven in downtown Ann Arbor. It's right in the center of the University of Michigan campus. I walked in the store one day. And one of my guys, I want you to highlight him. His name is Topaz. I walked in there, and I asked him if he could get me the job, and he actually talked to the manager the next day. Two days later, I'm working at 7-Eleven. I get a job and maintain myself, so I won't do any criminal activities.

Josh Hakala: So where did you...I mean, because you came out of prison, like you said. You never started an organization before. I mean, not a formal one, necessarily. You said you were doing some things in prison.

Deshawn Leeth: God gave me a name. Underdawg Nation. A lot of kids in my environment, I mean, Brown and Black, we go to a lot of underdogs, only to beat the odds in a crisis when we wake up. So, Underdawg Nation came from that. So, me and my guy Todd, he's a University of Michigan student. He's going for graphic design, and he ended up doing a logo for me. And I'm like, "All right. We got Underdawg. We got the logo. So now, we need the kids and we need the people to help partner with it and stuff. So, at 7-Eleven, I can start telling people. Somebody told me how to create an Instagram. And social media, like, that's one way to tell people about your business I start creating the Instagram. And, the next thing I know, I was just telling people, "Hi, my name is Deshawn. Do you want a free Slurpee? And you can follow my page: Underdawg Nation!" From business executives, from the college players to the football players, everybody come to that 7-Eleven. So, it was a marketing strategy that I didn't even know I had accumulated by doing it. And the people that take interest with the people that see the content of pictures of me really going out there after work--working from 9 to 5--it's really going out there in the community helping these kids, turning me to help these kids, not doing it for a paycheck, not doing it for no pictures. I'm really trying to help these kids to not go through what I went through. And certain people, when I see that content, they see it real. They see it as authentic. They want to buy in. So then, people start buying in. Certain students start believing in it more. And then, I start asking them to volunteer to do the events with me. It grew into, "Hey! Underdawg Nation helps average kids! They do a lot for kids in Washtenaw County!" Like, they bought into in it. It's me walking into businesses saying, "Hi, my name is Deshawn. Do you want to help donate to this back-to-school event." That's how I market it. That's how I got donors. I put the boots on the ground. No matter if people told me they could donate, no matter if they didn't believe in a vision. I went on the ground with it.

Josh Hakala: So, you put on a lot of community events, a lot of them having to do with sports and trying to just to draw these kids in and doing different things as well, like reading programs and things like that. But then, once--

Deshawn Leeth: Not just focused on sports.

Josh Hakala: Once you did that, what did this program look like? How did you go about doing it? Is this a one-on-one situation? Is this a group situation?

Deshawn Leeth: Like, it depends on what kind of kid I'm helping because every kid don't have the same trauma. Every kid don't grow up in the same household the same. But the majority of kids that grow up in low poverty community, the mentality of "I'm poor. We have to struggle." That's a consistent flow. So, me helping kids, I got to do three different things, so I got to do a community engagement just to have kids have an opportunity to have fun. Because, where I'm from, a lot of times these kids can't even go to the court because it's a high risk of violence where something will happen. So, when I do an event, I know they're going to be safe because the partners that I got partner with me--and me myself--are going to make sure they're safe because I've never had an incident happened at none of my events. No guns, violence, none of that. When I work with them, I got to, first of all, know the situation of the kid. So, it's not hard to identify a kid that's in poverty that's struggling. For myself, for me, because I put myself into that kid's atmosphere. So, like with the average kid, their moms DM'd me on social media knowing I'm a positive impact person. And they informed that I created the one-on-one relationship and find out how they can identify the factors that helped them having employment, education, and feeling safe.

Josh Hakala: How many kids are you working with right now?

Deshawn Leeth: Okay, right now, I got ten kids that have been impacted by the system. And I do day-to-day checkup on them. I call them and things like that.

Josh Hakala: What do you see as the future of Underdawg Nation?

Deshawn Leeth: The whole concept of Underdawg Nation is to identify the basic needs of kids around this country and to be a service provider for organizations to help their basic needs, to be able to perform at a quality life, to maintain themselves in an environment that they grow up in.

Josh Hakala: Well, it sounds like you're off to a good start, and there's more to come, I'm sure. Deshawn Leeth from Underdawg Nation. As always, Rylee Barnsdale from Concentrate Media. Thank you so much for both of you for joining us today on On the Ground Ypsi.

Deshawn Leeth: Thank you for having me.

Rylee Barnsdale: Thanks, Josh.

Josh Hakala: If you'd like to listen to past episodes of On the Ground Ypsi or would like to listen to an extended version of today's interview, you can find it on our website at WEMU dot org. This is On the Ground Ypsi. I'm Josh Hakala. This is 89 one WEMU FM Ypsilanti. Public radio from Eastern Michigan University.

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Josh Hakala is the general assignment reporter for the WEMU news department.
Concentrate Media's Rylee Barnsdale is a Michigan native and longtime Washtenaw County resident. She wants to use her journalistic experience from her time at Eastern Michigan University writing for the Eastern Echo to tell the stories of Washtenaw County residents that need to be heard.
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