buildOn & UAW-GM: Partnering for a Better Detroit

Before Georgi-Ann Bargamian began her first mentorship session with buildOn students from Western International High School in Detroit, she thought she knew what she was getting herself into. “Because of what’s baked into that term ‘mentor,’ I was under the impression that I would be teaching or modeling or conveying some words of wisdom to my mentee,” Georgi-Ann recalls. “Instead, I quickly learned that in fact I was the one being schooled.”

Georgi-Ann is part of a group of UAW-GM employees who are participating in buildOn’s Partnership Program, a unique and immersive service program that allows companies to partner with buildOn students to share skills, offer mentorship and serve their communities in solidarity. Over the course of six months, UAW-GM and the Detroit students are teaming up for monthly sessions aimed at helping students gain critical tools for their future while addressing the needs of the Detroit community.

Even though Georgi-Ann and her colleagues are only three months into their current Partnership Program, Georgi-Ann already feels that the experience has been transformational. “It just reconnects me to that hope, to that sense that anything is possible that I see in the students, even given their challenging circumstances. These students see so much beauty,” Georgi-Ann says. “They have just reminded me that there is possibility and there is a way forward if we work hand in hand. I wouldn’t have encountered that in my day-to-day life without buildOn.”


Above: Georgi-Ann (center) is participating in buildOn’s Partnership Program for the first time. “The program gives you a reset. It helps you to be responsible to these kids and get on the positive wave length that the kids have. You can’t help but be changed by that,” Georgi-Ann says. “There just becomes this sense of the possible. You can’t help but bring that into the other areas of your life.”  

This is UAW-GM’s second consecutive year engaging in the Partnership Program at Western International High School. Like all of buildOn’s Partnership Programs taking place in cities such as Chicago, New York, and San Francisco, UAW-GM mentors partner with buildOn’s service learning experts already working in buildOn’s partner high schools to coach students, one-on-one, on a topic of the mentors’ choosing. In each Partnership Program, buildOn provides the curriculum and structure for the sessions, while the mentors provide expertise. The program culminates with mentors and mentees creating a service project together. Topics include career development, financial literacy, technology and college readiness.

However, when UAW-GM first decided to try the Partnership Program during the 2015-16 school year, UAW Vice President Cindy Estrada wanted to create a new topic to collaborate with buildOn on — civic engagement. The civic engagement track was so successful in its first year that UAW-GM has returned this year to participate in the program again with a whole new set of students and mentors, and it is now an option for other Partnership Programs around the country. “I asked our GM partners to get involved with buildOn because I was so impressed by the leadership-building component of the program and very excited that buildOn was willing to work with us to experiment with a civic engagement focus for our first cohort of mentors and mentees,” Cindy Estrada says. “We are all energized by the direction our participation is taking and the impact the civic engagement focus it is having on the mentees and their community work.”

Carla Underwood, a junior at Western International who participated in the program last year, also found it energizing. “The partnership program was really great because of the members of UAW-GM,” Carla says. “They were from the suburbs and we got to teach them about Detroit, and we got to plan a service project about something we were passionate about.”


Above: Mentors meet with students one-on-one for six months to cover a topic of the mentors’ choosing. 

Each Partnership Program culminates with mentors and mentees creating a service project together, and Carla and her mentor planned a food drive for a local food pantry. Carla wanted to keep the goal for the amount of food the drive raised low so that it would be easily obtainable. But when Carla’s mentor urged her to set her sights higher, Carla’s entire perspective changed. “Ever since she told me that, I’ve had high expectations for everything,” Carla says. Their food drive ended up collecting over 1,000 cans of food for the pantry to give to families experiencing food insecurity in Detroit.

As UAW-GM is in the middle of its second Partnership Program with buildOn, Cindy Estrada thinks that other organizations would benefit from the program. “I would definitely recommend the Partnership Program to other companies. It’s so important for us to share our resources, ideas and guidance with the young people coming of age in a world that is changing rapidly and can seem very unstable and scary sometimes. It’s also important for us to listen and be open to the fact that as adults, we don’t know everything and can learn so much from our mentees,” Cindy says. “I think that openness and interchange is not only good for the students; it’s also good for the mentors personally and for their daily work.”

Georgi-Ann agrees with Cindy. “It’s something any for-profit or nonprofit should think hard about doing. This program is so well worth it because of the ripple effect it has across the community. It is an incredible investment in youth and ourselves,” Georgi-Ann says.

She also feels that the students have taught her so much in the sessions they have had together. “Sometimes I have to wonder who the mentor is and who the mentee is. I think we are constantly switching roles. That was unanticipated and has made the Partnership Program so rewarding.”

Learn more and find out how you or your organization can participate in buildOn’s Partnership Program.

Below: This is UAW-GM’s second year participating in buildOn’s Partnership Program and mentoring students from Western.