The way I made it through were programs and opportunities that were specifically afforded to me because I was a youth, because I came from a low-income house, and because my neighborhood was a rough place. After more than 20 years working with youth, and 10 years working nationally to support youth involvement, I have seen repeatedly that the answer to youth violence is not more severe punishment, heavier enforcement, or stricter parenting. The solution does not rely on just schools or just churches or just African Americans. Ending youth violence is not just a political pipe dream, either. Instead, I know today that ending youth violence requires youth involvement. Radical, democratic, educational, and intentional youth involvement.
Now, I am not talking about your run-of-the-mill youth involvement. What I am talking about has to be real. It has to address real situations in real time in order to be as effective as possible. Research shows those effects include impacts on adults, organizations, communities, and non-involved young people, as well as the youth who are involved.
Oftentimes, youth involvement activities and programs are created as special asides in regular organizational operations. There are youth councils and youth forums, youth art and youth offices. Occasionally they get closer to integrated, but still not fully normalized, through youth representative positions on boards and youth-led media. However, the challenge with these opportunities is that they do not go far enough. After more than 30 years of experimentation with youth involvement, today we know that authentic youth engagement happens when young people report there is a high degree of involvement, so much so to where young people are actually completely equitably involved within a historically adult-driven organization.
Today, my colleagues at the Institute for Democratic Education in America (IDEA) shared a trailer for a new documentary about youth violence in New Orleans called, Murder through the Eyes of a Child. Listening to the stories shared in the trailer, I recalled experiences I had in junior high and high school, and I remembered the times that I got caught and was thrust into violence that felt far beyond my own control. I also recalled the most powerful examples of youth/adult partnerships I have seen, stories from Hampton, Virginia; Memphis, Tennessee, and the Bay Area in California. These organizations actively turn the “youth-as-recipients” model on its head by actually engaging youth deeper than simply seeing youth-as-partners; instead, they fully engage very violent, very depressed, and historically very neglected communities in change initiatives by creating equitable, sustainable, and substantial roles for young people in social change.
Luckily, IDEA agrees with me. Soon after posting the trailer they followed up with a more hopeful link to a film about an organization called Kids Rethink New Orleans. These folks are doing the hard work I’m talking about. Take a read of this chunk from their website:
We are a group of students in New Orleans who want to rethink and rebuild our schools after Hurricane Katrina. Our vision is simple: a great education for every kid in our city, no matter the color of their skin, what neighborhood they stay in or how much money their parents make. No one deserves a voice in rebuilding New Orleans schools more than the students who go to these places every single day. That means us!
Youth involvement can STOP youth violence.
CommonAction staff is available to train on Ending Youth Violence and much more. Contact me to talk about the possibilities by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or calling (360)489-9680.