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Letters from elected officials arrived by the handful, a pile of promises from Illinois’s governor, state representatives and Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, assuring youth organizers that they would attend a weekend meeting at Dyett High School, on the city’s South Side, to discuss the city’s mounting student death rate.
With four dozen young people murdered during the last year (more than quadruple the number of Chicago soldiers killed during the war in Iraq), and another 500 wounded, teen shootings have become so commonplace in the nation’s third-largest city that they barely rate news coverage. A serious problem, the officials had written, promising to listen to the young activists.
But only one showed up, joining a lone bureaucrat sitting at a table set up for six.
The message – that young people don’t matter – was not lost on those 300 teens and college students who attended the Youth Town Hall on Nov. 15.
“When are we as a people going to realize that just talking about it and thinking that youth are always the problem is not going to cut it?” said Brandi Wilson, 15, to the teenage audience, many of whom knew the two students most recently added to a roster of the dead this fall: Corey Harris, 17-year-old captain of the Dyett High School basketball team, and 16-year-old Martell Barrett, also from Dyett.
“The parents and families of those victims want change,” Wilson continued. “The suspects’ families want change. But mostly, our youth want change because we don’t want to grow up in this kind of living.”
Although frustrated, Wilson and the other organizers were not daunted by the officials’ no-show. In numbers that appear to be growing, they are instead rousing themselves from trauma to action, and using the wave of teen deaths as leverage.
Most of those at the Illinois Youth Town Hall were young people of color from low-income communities. And while some might treat news of student deaths like business-as-usual during the school week, at the Sunday afternoon meeting, they voiced their outrage, demanding solutions. Tops on the list: convincing legislators to permanently fund youth employment programs and provide 20,000 jobs for teens next summer.
“All the data shows that when young people don’t have opportunities they end up in compromised situations, from sexual promiscuity to drugs and violence,” said Bryan Echols, executive director at Metropolitan Area Group for Igniting Civilization (MAGIC), one of a half-dozen organizations that joined forces across the city to host the town hall. Last summer, 30,000 Chicago teens applied for a paltry 12,000 available jobs, Echols noted. “This means so much more than just employment,” he said. “These jobs are about economic opportunity, education, even housing – all this stuff attached to that one thing: a job.”
The logic is simple to teens: “The more the youth are out on the streets, the more they’re likely to join a gang, especially if they have nothing to do,” said Fermin Joaquin, 15, a student at Theodore Roosevelt High School who became involved with organizing this fall. “My cousin was once in a gang, and my dad offered him a job in construction, so he went from the streets to working all the time. He left the gang and started thinking, ‘Man, I made a mistake joining a gang. What’s wrong with me?'”
Echols believes that officials are mistaken to underestimate youthful organizers, with their stores of passion and energy. Brandi Wilson, for one, devotes most of her after-school hours to working on youth campaigns as a paid organizer with the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization. Sometimes she gives up weekends. Often, she takes her lunch break at school to do research or type speeches.
“We’ll be demanding another meeting, putting more pressure on, and sending out youth ambassadors to look for allies statewide,” Echols vowed after assessing the lackluster adult turnout. “The more we equip our young people with the ability to pressure decision makers, the better off we’ll be.”
Meanwhile, overall investment in Illinois youth has plummeted. The state budget for 2010 slices mentoring and student assistance by half, on top of significant cuts to services for teen parents, homeless children and delinquency intervention. Keep cutting young people’s programs, the town hall teens said, and keep reaping more violence. They sat crowding the bleachers in Dyett’s echoing gym, listening to their peers plead for attention.
A high school sophomore said that with her mother supporting five children, a job of her own will be the only way to save enough money for college. A young woman attending DePaul University said her debt to the school now prevents her from registering for classes next semester, but with a mother facing eviction back home in Washington, D.C., there is nowhere to turn for help.
Almost no one with decision-making power heard these stories.
“There’s really a lack of investment in youth throughout Chicago and the country in general,” said Robert Aspholm, an organizer with MAGIC. “Young people know that. They’re not slow. They’re not dumb. They see how society values them.”
That is not to say young people have been crushed into apathy. Wilson, involved in organizing since she was 14, joins an army of youth across the country agitating for reform in public education. Last year, as part of the group Voices of Youth in Chicago Education (VOYCE) she helped to survey 1,300 Chicago students about why young people drop out (half the kids in Chicago’s public schools fail to graduate). Afterward, they convinced the school district to put $130,000 toward funding student-proposed solutions.
Nationally, more than 100 community-based efforts are engaging thousands of young people in campaigns for environmental justice and prison reform, among other issues. The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, for instance, is training a dozen Oakland youth to hit the streets, engage residents and identify grassroots solutions to local concerns. In Albuquerque, young people aligned with the immigration rights group Somos Un Pueblo Unido have marched to protest the Real ID Act, which would impose new, federal standards for getting a driver’s license.
“Youth organizers have become a lot stronger over the past few years and they’re beginning to use strategies to really affect public policy,” said Jay Travis, executive director of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, a grassroots group that helped organize the town hall meeting at Dyett High School and the VOYCE campaign.
“I’ve seen many adults, including me, attempt to move Chicago Public Schools, and these students were able to do it fairly quickly – like at record speed,” she said. “So they’re for real. These are savvy and experienced youth leaders, not a group of novices by any stretch, and they’re very serious about creating a statewide campaign that brings real resources to neighborhoods.”
Travis credits national efforts such as the Equal Voice for America’s Families campaign – which united 30,000 low-income Americans in a family-led movement for change – with providing young people a powerful example for bridging divisions to tackle common issues.
The prospects, however, are not rosy. Of the half-dozen elected officials who promised to attend Chicago’s Youth Town Hall – including Governor Pat Quinn, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, State Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, U.S. Senators Dick Durbin and Roland Burris and State Comptroller Dan Hynes – only Giannoulias showed up, and he is running for higher office.
“Quite frankly,” Giannoulias told the town hall crowd, “the first step is having elected officials come here. We need elected officials to understand the challenges young people here face today.”
To learn more about youth organizing in Chicago and get involved, contact the following organizations:
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