Washtenaw United: Elevation Youth Corp mentors and guides Ypsilanti's at-risk kids with the use of multimedia
"Hello, my name is Keith Ragland! I am a Professional Photographer and Multimedia Specialist. My Talents also include Studio Recording & Engineering. I look forward to working with our Youth Members and giving them the tools needed to further explore the Creative Arts & Multimedia!"
"Hello, my name is Yolanda Ragland! I'm so excited to hit the ground running with this Non-profit. Working with Teens & the Creative Arts have always been my passion! I have years of experience in the Fashion & Entertainment industry. I've served my community previously as a Head Coach for The Michigan Warriors Cheerleaders. Currently I enjoy volunteering for my UAW Local 3000, CBTU - Canton and especially my duties with Elevation Youth Corp! I look forward to bringing the gap of fun & hard work with our Summer Youth Programs, Events & Fundraisers!"
David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and today we're going to explore how creative arts can play a role in giving at risk youth, a purpose and direction. I'm David Fair, and welcome to Washtenaw United. It's our weekly look at equity and opportunity in our community. Now, you are likely aware that funding for at-risk programs and the arts are at a premium. That leaves service gaps where there is need. Filling some of that gap as part of the mission of Elevation Youth Corp. Under the guidance of Keith and Yolanda Ragland, the Corp is also seeking to elevate the human spirit with empathy and compassion at its center. The Raglands are co-founders of the Elevation Youth Corp and our guests today in Washington United. And thanks to both of you for dropping by our studios. I appreciate it.
Yolanda Ragland: Absolutely.
Keith Ragland: Thank you.
David Fair: Well, creative arts--that covers a rather vast world. If I'm not mistaken, you both have backgrounds in the music realm, right?
Yolanda Ragland: Yes, we do.
Keith Ragland: Yeah. That's correct.
David Fair: What do you do with music?
Yolanda Ragland: Oh, we're recording artists. Keith is an engineer/producer.
Keith Ragland: Yes, we do it the whole thing with music from start to finish. We do the recording, we do the actual writing, the artist part, we do the music videos and everything around the music scene.
David Fair: So, Yolanda.
Yolanda Ragland: Yes.
David Fair: How has your personal experience in music and the creative arts kind of guided the way you approach your work at Elevate Youth Corp?
Yolanda Ragland: Oh, I'm very passionate about it because I was a recording artist. It actually had open doors for us to bring in different workshop leaders that we have worked with in the past. I'm very excited to bring aboard Joshua. He was one of my Afropunk dancers on several occasions, so he came right in, was very excited to work with our dance class and just being very creative with how I put things together from start to finish. I've put together shows myself, and that's the same passion that I put forward in creating our workshops.
David Fair: And, obviously, this is very much about taking and channeling energy into positive ways. Keith, how have your experiences in the arts translated into other positive parts of your life?
Keith Ragland: Yes, my experience with music has come from more of like the rap scene, like more of the trap rap, you know, what they call gangsta rap scene. So, I spent a lot of the time recording a lot of the young artists that had, like, the wrong outlet, and they want to display themselves. So, I had an open studio where people actually came to pay to record. And the majority of our young artists are doing the negative type of rap, you know, the rap that they feel is popular. So, I've seen a niche for them needing to recreate the story of it because I see a lot of the negative things coming from that style of music.
David Fair: And I do want to talk about turning negative into positive. This is WEMU's Washtenaw United conversation with Keith and Yolanda Ragland. Keith is president and Yolanda, executive director, of the nonprofit they founded called Elevation Youth Corp. I want to mention that Elevation Youth Corp was created in memory of your son, Brandon Cross. Yolanda, what happened to Brandon?
Yolanda Ragland: Brandon was caught up in a very unfortunate situation where he was gunned down in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Very tragic event. Took us six, seven years to go to trial for that. There were no winners in that. He had a one-year-old daughter, Tyler Cross, at the moment, and he was actually, just as well as us, an aspiring rap artist and recording all of his own music, paying for everything from studio time to music videos himself. We wanted to open doors to other artists in the area that were doing music and do something positive in his memory, so that, you know, his memory can live on in a positive manner. Like he said, there are a lot of young people out here that are recording and wanting to get their music out and not understanding that it can be a business, you know? So, we wanted to spark that interest in the youth and do something positive at the same time.
David Fair: Keith, when you were looking across the glass at someone who is doing their first recording or trying to learn about how to record, do you sometimes see Brandon?
Keith Ragland: Always. You know, that's one of the things that me and Brandon the most together was record the music.
Yolanda Ragland: Right.
Keith Ragland: And like, especially as he got older, he was, like, 19. So, when he got older, he still came back home for that. We all stood in a basement, so it was like one of the biggest memories I held with him. And, you know, we all had the dream of how you should be a rapper. Everybody thinks like what you see on TV is the reality. So, we even played that role as even with each other. You know, he had the music videos with the money, the music video with the negativity in it, and a lot of it caused people to see him a certain way. And I think some of that led to the some of the things that happened later on. And so, after seeing it and almost being a part of that, it made me want to change that direction for a lot of artists, saying that you don't need to live out the story, that you're seeing, that you don't need to portray the things that you're portraying to still be a good artist. And so, a lot of what we do is in memory of Brandon and trying to almost in a way, correct things and try to put things in a better because, you know, when you see the result of something, that changes your idea of something.
David Fair: I'm interested in what those conversations sound like because gun violence continues to be a national issue. We're still seeing far too much right here in Washtenaw County, particularly on the eastern side of the county. Yolanda, how are you incorporating that philosophy of nonviolence into the messaging and work you do with the people in the program?
Yolanda Ragland: Well, it's interesting you did ask that. We do have an anti-violence initiative with Elevation Youth Corp. So, in every workshop, we are bringing an anti-violence message, whether it's painting, we're talking about Black Lives Matter, and just bringing out things artistically in our dance class. You know, we take a moment--the instructor does--with the youths and talk to them about how you can express yourself in a positive manner through dance. We're always talking about in video production. You know, it's not just going in and doing video production. We're actually acting out scenes from violent situations and how we can solve those situations in a positive manner if you're ever faced with violence. So, every workshop that we present to the kids, they all come out with the anti-violence message.
David Fair: One of the results of these conversations and interactions was creation of the anti-violence podcast called "Let's Talk About It."
Yolanda Ragland: Yeah.
Keith Ragland: Keith, how did you help your mentees apply their interest in the world of multimedia communication into an important community discussion?
Keith Ragland: Yes, that's actually awesome how it happened. We actually go to ACCE High School every Thursday to do a podcast with their students. Like, Ace is an alternative school, so when some kids basically had troubles with their real high school, they kind of go to ACCE to try to finish out and get their higher education.
David Fair: Yeah, I could have used that.
Keith Ragland: Yeah, yeah, yeah, exactly. Me too. I was actually an alternative school myself in high school. So, that's where I actually have a passion for being there. So, I was offered to go to different high schools, but I liked Ace because I was that type of student myself. And I feel like they don't really have the funding, so they needed some program that they can give for free. So, we offer our program completely free to ACCE. Going there, the students love just being seen. You know, it's a social media world, you know? So, they like being seen. So, we already know that part. So, we had this guide to what they were going to be seen doing. So, we all came up with the topic of "Let's Talk About Together as ACCE," and we all just all kind of got together and thought of the topic. And what we do is we like to show real-life situations, and we act them out. That way, not only do they get a chance to see all of the whole thing as a big picture because they will write the script and then act out the script and then we'll sit back and talk about the script. So, let's say we had an episode about domestic violence. And we did it as far as high school kids. You know, they have girlfriends, boyfriends, and they still start early. Now, after they did the scene, we'll sit back as a group and analyze the video and talk about as, like, a panel. You know, just to go over and make sure they understood the lessons. Each student walked away with a different feel about that topic.
Yolanda Ragland: Yes.
Keith Ragland: And we did it with several topics. And there's just like almost drilling in their head in a way. It is pretty successful, actually.
David Fair: We're learning about Elevation Youth Corp with its founders Yolanda and Keith Ragland on 89 one WEMU's Washtenaw United. Yolanda, so how is Elevation Youth Corp going to expand and reach more with its multimedia workshops and the various events it hosts through the year?
Yolanda Ragland: Well, we're really excited, like you said, about working with the high school students. We're hoping that more high schools reach out to us, or we can do the video production programs in the "Let's Talk About It" podcast. We're looking to get a facility, so that we can have our own video production and utilize not just students, but our own EYC students, to come and film in touch as many households as possible, putting the anti-violence messages out there in their own way, you know, in their own way, and just really communicating with youths from their own perspective. So, it's all really about the video production, multimedia. Of course, we still love the dance, the hip-hop, the painting and the fashion. But as far as expanding, we really think that we can expand our message to the video production process.
David Fair: And, sometimes, those messages are easier to expand when you have a place to go.
Yolanda Ragland: Yes!
David Fair: You are renting facilities and working in various parts of the community. Keith, what is the plan to bring Elevation Youth Corp to a permanent location?
Keith Ragland: Yeah, we had a five-year plan. I can say that we are ahead of our five-year plan. I can honestly say that. You know, we are, like, three years ahead of our five-year plan. So, everything's been great with the thanks to United Way. They have given us a big boost on what it is we can do. But facility-wise, we are still in limbo, you know, and we plan on doing so much, you know? So, we rent spaces on Saturdays. We rent spaces for our events. But the goal is to have like a regular after-school program, a regular daily program, and a regular place for students to come and be a part of what we do. So, that is the ultimate goal. We are working on that currently. It's just we were waiting on funding like so, so much. We are all volunteers. Everybody inside of our organization is complete volunteers--no pay staff, no anything. So, our goal is to have a facility first before anybody is going to get anything. So, I think it's just to be a part of the community in a better way.
David Fair: And I want to be among the first visitors when those doors open.
Yolanda Ragland: Absolutely!
David Fair: I want to thank you both for making time for us today and sharing your story. Not an easy story to tell in many respects. So, thank you so much for being here and being so open.
Yolanda Ragland: Absolutely. Thank you for having us.
Keith Ragland: Thank you.
David Fair: That is the Raglands, the founders of Elevation Youth Corp. Keith serves as president and Yolanda executive director. Visit our website at WEMU dot org, and we'll get you connected to where you need to go. Washtenaw United is produced in partnership with the United Way of Washtenaw County, and you hear it every Monday. I'm David Fair, and this is your community. NPR station, 89 one WEMU FM, Ypsilanti.
Most recently, Elevation Youth Corporation has received a $15,000 award from the 2024 cycle of United Way of Washtenaw County’s Opportunity Fund—a resource for local organizations and groups whose efforts address poverty, racism and trauma: root causes of systemic oppression that hold opportunity at bay for all people in Washtenaw County.
Elevation Youth Corporation used their investment to pilot an after-school program that helps students from Achieving College & Career Education (ACCE) High School and EYC members learn about content creation (film and podcasting). Since the launch of the program, participants have created the anti-violence podcast, Let's Talk About It!
WEMU has partnered with the United Way of Washtenaw Countyto explore the people, organizations, and institutions creating opportunity and equity in our area. And, as part of this ongoing series, you’ll also hear from the people benefiting and growing from the investments being made in the areas of our community where there are gaps in available services. It is a community voice. It is 'Washtenaw United.'
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