Marquetta Atkins is executive director of Destination Innovation
Marquetta Atkins is executive director of Destination Innovation, an umbrella organization for programs that work with youth to develop leadership and advocacy skills. (Fernando Salazar/The Beacon)

When Wichita native Marquetta Atkins merges her activism and entrepreneurship, the result creates pathways for youth from underserved communities to thrive.

Atkins is the executive director of Destination Innovation, a hub for three programs that focus on youth — Progeny, Camp Destination Innovation and Root the Power. In 2015, she founded Camp Destination Innovation,  a summer camp geared toward showing teens in Wichita careers outside of traditional norms with a focus on entrepreneurship. 

The idea came from Atkins’ work with the Wichita State University Center for Entrepreneurship. Atkins watched as businessmen attended events with their sons. That helped lay the foundation for them to form a mindset of success and opened doors to resources and networks that would help when the children got older. But Atkins also noticed that those pathways to success weren’t available to all children in Wichita. 

Atkins has been able to combine her activism with entrepreneurship in a way to connect underserved communities with resources through Destination Innovation’s three programs. She said the programs go hand in hand for youth in marginalized communities that don’t have access to resources and opportunities to succeed. 

The Wichita Beacon asked Atkins about the work she does connecting youth with resources in Wichita, the impact of Destination Innovation and her hopes for a community task force created in the aftermath of Cedric Lofton’s death. The interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

What is Progeny and what is your role in it?

Progeny is a youth-adult partnership. In this program we work with young people touched by the juvenile justice system. We teach them leadership. We teach them organizing and advocacy skills and how to change the system in the way it impacts them. To go deeper into that, we do not only teach them, we also give them a seat at the table that allows them to change those systems. Even if they don’t want to do systems work, we create pathways to let them know that their stories are bigger than the box people try to put them in, and that the experiences where they come from don’t have to be there forever. We put them in powerful situations and sit them at different seats at the table so we can build up their resume and enhance their speaking skills. So these young people understand policy, they understand systems and how they work.

The name Progeny was chosen four years ago when the group was created by youth, and with it they are basically trying to tell the world, “We are because you created us.” So when you are wagging your finger at young people for all the mistakes that they are making, usually we are holding young people accountable for systemic issues. We are holding young people accountable for bad and poor decisions made by adults, and so they want to send a message, “We are what you created, and you guys have to take accountability for that.” 

I am Progeny’s executive director, and it’s a part of what I call a hub — Destination Innovation. We are home to three programs and Progeny is one of them.  

How do you divide your time between your activism and entrepreneurship?

To me they go hand in hand. Activism is about advocating for better for your community. Entrepreneurship is the key to having a thriving community. Most of the time young people don’t have those resources to understand entrepreneurship and get them into those doors. So how do I divide that time? Well, now I have something I didn’t have when I started these programs. Now I have staff and to me, it is all about paving a way and getting out of the way, creating spaces for other young leaders to come in and learn how to run these programs, learn activism, learn entrepreneurship. So how I divide the time is that I have the staff that allows me to free more of my time and they are all equally important to me.

What changes have you experienced in Wichita as a result of the work you do with youth?

Oh, my God! So we’re at the space now in our work where we get to see the outcome. Our young people are graduating, and we are being made to honor the promises that we made. So I think the most important work specifically with Destination Innovation camp, all of them across the board, is we sell them this dream. Can the dream be realized? And so now that we have our kids that are graduating, they’re using us now more as adults than they did in the camp, which is powerful. So I have young people that will call me and say, “Hey, Ms. Marquetta, I want to do this. I want to meet this person. Can you make that connection?” I would do my best to make that connection for them.

We had a participant, who is a young man that was in the camp and he was our first YEC (Young Entrepreneurship Challenge) winner, but he utilized me as an adult in a way that was powerful. He wanted to buy his first investment property. “Can you connect me with mentors?” I connected him to some local investors. He bought his first investment property when he was 19 years old. He also works for a local property management company. And he now owns about four or five properties. And he’s only 21 years old. 

We have a girl, who started off with Camp Destination Innovation. She now sits on the (Sedgwick County community task force). She sits on a task force for Johns Hopkins University on a national level. She is also on so many national boards, and she is a powerful voice right now when it comes to work around the juvenile justice system. These are connections that were made through Destination Innovation. 

So that network, that mindset that we instill in these young people is actually being manifested. And the beautiful thing is that some of our youth went away to college and they cycled back last year as interns. So they came back to work for the camp and they were pouring into the next generation of kids. And also one of the former participants is my board member. So essentially a young person that I mentored, basically I now work for him because he sits on my board, and that is the most powerful thing to me in the world, that he’s in a space where he can help move this program forward.

Based on your experience working with youth from underserved communities, what else do we need to do in Wichita to retain and support young talent?

We need to create spaces for our young talent when it comes to the quality of life. I love Wichita, but we are slow to make change. And our young people are telling us they’re going to these bigger cities because there’s more stuff to do. There’s more job opportunities. There’s more spaces for them to thrive. And like I told these young people, when you go to these bigger cities, the reason why these cities are so great is because there are people like you that are coming from all these different small towns and making those big cities what they want and need. So what happens when you do that for your own city?

I feel like Wichita needs to open up spaces to get those young voices in. And I’m not talking about moving older voices out of the way. That’s not it. We work in partnership to bring those young voices to the table and really have deep conversations about what is the Wichita they want to see, what do they feel like Wichita is missing? What things can we do to make you feel safer in this community and feel like Wichita is the community that you belong to?

Once we start having those types of conversations and not for show, but for real, that we can make so much impact in the future of Wichita, that quality of life factor, making sure that we’re creating or bursting the bubble, because we do have some fun stuff to do in Wichita. But sometimes it seems like it’s exclusive and it’s only for one group of people. My world changed tremendously when I joined the entrepreneurship world. And I’m like, ‘This is fun stuff that I didn’t even know existed.’ But young people don’t see this, and so …  if they don’t know these pockets exist, they don’t know that this quality of life exists in Wichita. So we need to stop living in silos. We have to open up space so people realize that you can have fun in Wichita and have a good time.

You are a member of the Sedgwick County task force formed to review policies at the Juvenile Intake and Assessment Center. What do you hope to see happen as a result of this task force?

My hope is that we change policy in a way that is so impactful and so strong that … we’re not looking at incarcerating our young people all the time. We’re creating a space that we’re holding young people accountable for systemic issues that are wrong, that are catalysts for young people to make bad decisions. So my hope is that we create policy that changes, that cares about the young people. That we are addressing mental health issues. That we are creating more job opportunities for these young people. That we are being proactive and investing in grassroots organizations that directly impact communities that can kind of act as a buffer to young people that are starting to make poor decisions. That we’re funding nonprofits and organizations that work to make a better quality of life for young people and that we are creating environments, because sometimes, oftentimes when things go wrong, as they did with Cedric Lofton, we like to blame the people involved, but we don’t blame the culture that is created in those systems.

So if you look at (Kansas Department for Children and Families) we are creating a culture where we have social workers that are underpaid, overworked and not being properly invested in, especially when it comes to their own mental health. So we are creating a culture that’s toxic. And if we create a culture that’s toxic, eventually it trickles down to our kids and mistakes are made. Let the left hand know what the right hand is doing. We need policies that make sure that everybody in all these pockets understand how these systems are moving and how we’re impacting these young people. And the biggest thing is — and I always like to center this — my hope is that we create policies that are so powerful that not another child dies in this system. It’s a shame that in order for us to get this reaction that a child had to die and again, those are adults making poor decisions that impacted that child.

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CLAUDIA YAUJAR-AMARO is the Community Journalist & Engagement Bureau Manager for The Wichita Beacon. She has a background in broadcast journalism and is passionate about diversity and community engagement....