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Stand Up and Fight

Seeking to demonstrate the power of civic engagement to young people, Alliance for Children and Families member Matrix Human Services, Detroit, is choosing to meet youth somewhere they already feel right at home—in cyberspace.

Combining historical inspiration with modern-day technology, Matrix established a one-of-a-kind campaign that reaches out to young people and asks, “What are you fighting for?”

The WatRUfightn4? project, which includes a video and interactive website, debuted in September 2009 after years of planning, including guidance, support, and technical assistance from the Alliance’s civic engagement program.

“What began as an effort to pay tribute to a champion of social justice has turned into both a greater awareness of social justice in general and a greater understanding of the importance of fighting for a just cause,” says Jennifer Dale, vice president of marketing and development for Matrix.

Detroit ‘Fighter’ Inspires Project

Inspiration for WatRUfightn4? came from a well-known Detroit “fighter,” Walter P. Reuther, president of United Auto Workers (UAW) from 1964 until his death in 1970.

Reuther believed that the labor movement was a social movement. As president of UAW, he supported the civil rights movement, environmental causes, public housing projects, and health care improvements.

Years after his death, the Reuther family observed that Reuther’s passion for social justice causes, as well as his role in the fight for many of these causes, were not well-known among present-day youth. Seeking an appropriate way to commemorate Reuther and his legacy, the family approached Matrix on what would have been Reuther’s 100th birthday.

The family had a longstanding relationship with Matrix, which offers one of its programs under the Reuther namesake: Walter and May Reuther Senior Services. Founded by UAW as a social program to meet the needs of all retired men and women, Reuther Senior Services promotes physical and mental well-being, as well as financial stability for vulnerable low-income older adults.

Matrix devised a campaign to teach youth about Reuther, while also inspiring them to share the causes they are passionate about.

Two main projects resulted. The first was the production and promotion of a video highlighting Reuther and his accomplishments.

The second was the creation and launch of the WatRUfightn4? website that allows visitors to log on and share information about a cause they are fighting for. They are also asked to vote for the most inspiring cause, and winners are awarded a monetary donation to the charity of their choice.

Funding Comes Through

To gain funding support for the WatRUfightn4? project, Matrix President and CEO Marcella Wilson took up a fight of her own.

Despite three years of rejection from potential Detroit-area funders, Wilson was not deterred. She gained an opportunity to meet with the current president of UAW in late 2008, who provided $25,000 from the Reuther Memorial Fund.

The Alliance civic engagement program also took notice of the project and provided grant support. But, recognizing the project’s great potential, the civic engagement program went a step further by also providing strategic consulting to help Matrix consider all the possibilities in which to leverage and expand its work.

“The civic engagement program views the WatRUfightn4? project as a solid stepping stone for expansion of civic engagement activity in Detroit and beyond,” explains Linda Nguyen, director of civic engagement for the Alliance. “We are impressed with both the creativity and commitment Matrix displayed to this unique project.”

The Alliance provided technical support that consisted of program development assistance, the sharing of research on civic engagement topics, and opportunities for peer learning and training.

“During times of doubt and concern, we were able to tap into Linda’s expertise,” Dale says. “By working with her and the Alliance, we gained a collaborator and partner.”

Wilson and Dale also attended the Alliance’s Civic Engagement Training Institute in October 2008.

“While attending the Civic Engagement Training Institute, it was like a light bulb went off for both of us,” Dale says. “The Alliance and this event were hugely beneficial because we were able to talk to peers who were trying to make a difference in some component of civic engagement and social justice, just like us. We were able to use them and the Alliance staff as sounding boards and gain a wealth of knowledge.”

Success in Partnership

Through a partnership with Wayne State University in Detroit, Matrix engaged Darryl Shreve to produce the video. Matrix also partnered with Basso Design Group of Troy, Mich., to develop an interactive website.

Completion of both was made possible by the guidance of a committee of Matrix staff and community partners, including representatives from its funders: UAW, United Way for Southeastern Michigan, and Wayne State University.

A special kick-off event took place Sept. 10, 2009, and was attended by hundreds. The video, which debuted at the event, was so well received that Matrix quickly ran out of its initial 1,000 copies. Requests came in from nonprofits throughout the community.

Viewers of the video are instructed to log on to the website and share their inspiring stories about the cause they are fighting for. They can upload videos, music, artwork, or an essay to document their efforts.

“Beginning with the event in September, the level of enthusiasm for the WatRUfightn4? project has been outstanding,” Dale says.

In 2010, the video and a companion teaching guide that meets all Michigan education standards will be distributed to civics teachers in all Detroit public high schools.

Future Includes Funding

“Matrix is following Walter Reuther’s belief that if you keep trying, no matter how many doors are shut in your face, you can still make a difference,” Dale says. “This is certainly a long-term project; it is not just a one-shot deal.”

Matrix is now leveraging the successful debut event and the popularity of the video to seek additional funding to continue the WatRUfightn4? project. As the funding becomes available, the project will continue and expand.

In addition, Matrix is engaging other organizations in discussions about leading presentations at conferences and similar events in order to spread the word about the project and how it can be duplicated elsewhere.

“The website will remain for the foreseeable future and, since this is a self-sustaining project, as the funds become available we will complete more activities,” Dale says. “For us at Matrix, the project has translated into an increased interest in civic engagement, an increased visibility and credibility for the organization, and more beneficial partnerships within the Detroit area. Social justice is part of the passion of Matrix. We want people to be involved at every level of making a difference in a cause they can believe in.”

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