At 5 a.m. during the week, Detroit Mercy student Jeremiah Steen walks the Dequindre Cut. The two-mile greenway through the heart of the city is just across the street from his home and provides an ideal space for quiet reflection.
By 6 a.m., the 20-year-old is back home and ready to tackle an onslaught of altruistic responsibilities that require his time and focus through the evening.
“It’s never about me,” Steen said. “If I see an issue, I want to do everything I can to solve it, no matter what time I need to wake up. It’s all about serving my community and ensuring that there are sustainable opportunities for the folks that I’m serving.”
A junior, he is pursuing a degree in communications and working as a full-time development associate for the National Audubon Society, a nonprofit environmental organization.
He also devotes much of his free time to numerous extracurriculars. Steen serves on an advisory committee with the Detroit Historical Museum and on the president’s youth council at the Skillman Foundation, which this year named Steen one of “20 Black Detroiters Making History.” Nearly four years ago, he established the Steen Foundation and currently serves as the nonprofit organization’s president and CEO.
No matter how many hours in a day he works, he knows he can’t do it alone.
The improvements he hopes to see in Detroit and around the world require the effort of countless others, no matter the age. That’s why Steen recently penned an article for The Varsity News on why youth voices are necessary in philanthropy.
“In so many cases, adults are consistently planning events and activities for you without any form of youth counsel for advisory,” he said. “The goal of philanthropy is to ensure a sustainable future for others. Youth should always be taken on as advisors and counsel when giving in that space.”
They need to take advantage of the opportunities to get involved and give back, just as Steen began doing a few years ago.
Practice What You Preach
Steen’s commitment to philanthropy began when he was a student at University of Detroit Jesuit High School. After he lost a student election for vice president, he was distraught, searched for other opportunities worthy of his time, and applied to be a national fellow with the Jane Goodall Institute.
A few weeks later, he was accepted into the yearlong program, where he underwent service-learning training, visited the United Nations, learned the power of storytelling and spent time traveling with Goodall herself.
“It was a life-changing experience. It made me want to work harder,” Steen said. “Before COVID, she actually traveled 364 days out of the year. She was always on the move. I thought to myself, there is no way I could do that. But knowing how hard she works to push for peace and sustainability and advocate for others, it just inspired me to try and do the same [in Detroit].”
After completing the fellowship, Steen started his foundation using the $3,000 he received from the Jane Goodall Institute and got to work.
When Detroit Public Schools underwent major budget cuts in 2018, several local organizations stepped in to fill the education void. Afrofuture Youth, Black to the Land Coalition, Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit Teen Council and the National Audubon Society worked with the Steen Foundation to developed art and STEM programs.
“The Steen Foundation provided funding, consulting, volunteers and access to our network of community stakeholders to ensure these programs were successful,” Steen said.
A Commitment to Detroit
Born and raised in Detroit, Steen was encouraged to go away for college. He initially enrolled at a university in the south but had a change of heart on his move-in flight.
“I wasn’t done in Detroit,” Steen said.
He then enrolled at Detroit Mercy, understanding it as a place to further foster his philanthropic pursuits.
With an expected graduation date of December 2023, his experiences have exceeded his expectations thus far.
“It’s like a second home,” Steen said. “After leaving the University of Detroit Jesuit High School, I felt like there was a piece I was missing. It was great to have that filled by coming to Detroit Mercy, especially the way in which they were able to adapt during COVID.
“A lot of other universities had gaps, but Detroit Mercy was able to adapt and ensure that there was still a sense of community during those times.”
At Detroit Mercy, Steen has also developed as a writer and storyteller. He frequently contributes to the Varsity News, writing about philanthropy, leaders who’ve inspired him, and other topics that interest him.
Steen’s pursuits also closely align with the expectations the University has set for him and all of its students. That is to learn in a diverse and urban setting and prepare to be “men and women for others,” which comes from its Jesuit and Mercy traditions.
“Detroit Mercy is successfully ensuring that I will have a balanced future,” Steen said. “They’ve afforded me a lot of opportunities to make a lot of great things happen.”
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