Sirrita Darby, Executive Director, Detroit Heals Detroit

This high school educator has dedicated her career to helping Detroit youths confront and heal trauma.

Detroit Heals Detroit

Most psychologists will agree that a great deal of the baggage we carry around as adults stems from improperly healed trauma in our childhoods. And when that child is Black and existing below the poverty line, the would-be bumps and bruises of normal adolescence can turn malignant if we don’t catch the problem early.

It’s why educator Sirrita Darby heads Detroit Heals Detroit, an organization developed by Detroit high school students that creates a space in which they can support and guide one other toward dealing with and healing trauma. Whether it’s race-based stress, the threat of community violence, or, lately, COVID-related strain, the youths prop up and lean on one another through healing circles, mental health check-ins and the like.

Formed in 2018 as an expansion of a class project Darby facilitated with her students at Detroit Collegiate Preparatory High School, the buzz has since carried to other schools and throughout the community. They’d been holding twice-monthly healing circles during which the students would sit together and talk – or just listen to others – and support the navigating of illness, grief, loss and other life challenges.

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But, Darby says, “We had to adapt to COVID.” Physical healing circles have evolved to virtual meetings, and they’ve developed the COVID-19 Detroit Youth Taskforce to specifically address the difficulties brought on by this crisis, like the loss of school as a refuge to those whose homes may be unhealthy.  

Darby says Detroit Heals Detroit encourages the students to speak and write about their trauma. “It’s the first step toward recovery and healing,” she says. “If you own your trauma, then you don’t let it own you. If you say, hey, this is what I’ve been through, this is how it affected me and this is how I’m going to move on, it’s just taking ownership of it so it doesn’t haunt you.” That first wave of students published a book in 2018 with Darby’s help called Forbidden Tears, a collection of essays, poems and narratives penned by the youths.  

Detroit Heals Detroit relies on four pillars of impact to initiate real change:

• Access, to healing, liberation and new possibilities

• Literacy, for the ability to deepen knowledge and advocate for themselves and others

• Consciousness, in the youths and those who serve them

• Healing Justice, to center the emotional, physical, spiritual, environmental and mental wellbeing of Detroit youth

“I always call myself a social justice educator; I always teach with a social justice lens,” Darby says. She recognized early on that the area code – or even the ZIP code – in which you grow up has everything to do with whether you’ll be equipped with the tools and desire to succeed, which is why she chose to teach in one of Detroit’s toughest neighborhoods.

Darby is in Lansing now working towards an educational leadership doctoral and researching trauma at Michigan State University. She doesn’t know what’s next, but she knows she wants to continue working directly with children, preferably in Detroit. “If it was up to me, I would be a 58-year-old English teacher still in the classroom, because I do believe teachers can still make impact without leaving the classroom.”   

The Detroit Heals Detroit kids are planning a youth speak out event slated for June, during which they’ll speak with legislators about access to literacy, mental health, the cost of college and more. Darby says, “We want to emphasize that healing is not just clinical – it’s political. There are political systems that are in place that prevent students of color from healing. So, we want to heal the system as well.” 

Darby says young people of color are not ordinarily encouraged to lean into their grief or pain – especially when they’re Detroiters. They’re expected to be strong and suck it up, and conjure that Detroit grit. She says that’s a tired dismissal of the problem. “They inherently have grit and resilience. They were born with it. Their ancestors had it, and they now have it,” Darby says.

“Their parents die, people in their family die, and my students show up to school the next day.” They’re plenty tough, but that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve a safe space in which to heal, and where their trauma is respected and not trivialized.

Pamela Alexander, director of community development for Ford Motor Company says …

Ford salutes Detroit Heals Detroit executive director and high school educator Sirrita Darby for dedicating her career to helping Detroit youths confront and heal from trauma. Ford Fund believes that investing in the needs of our youth is an essential step toward empowering our communities for a promising future. On May 27, Ford funded an online summit focused on the impact of COVID-19 on teens’ mental health.

For many years, Ford Fund has worked to transform pain into power through collaborative efforts with our longtime partnerships with Vista Maria, an organization that serves youth and victims of human trafficking, and HAVEN, an organization that helps victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. Ford is proud to recognize Sirrita Darby in her quest to offer hope and the promise of fulfillment to high school students silencing their pain.

For more information about Detroit Heals Detroit, to get involved or to donate, visit detroithealsdetroit.org

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