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April 23, 2008

Youth Creating Solutions about Violence

At a living room dialogue last year on youth and violence, one conclusion was that adults need to check out their judgments about youth with youth themselves and to build solidarity with them. Participants in a second dialogue on this subject in April took a step in that direction.

Three young women from the Network's leadership program for youth – Erica Johnson, Rochelle Wickham, and Mala Cornelius -- facilitated the evening's conversation, which was entitled "Youth Creating Solutions about Violence." Since the fall, they have been preparing to lead several forums for other Harlem youth under the direction of Network staff member Tene Howard.

After brief warm-up introductions, Mala led the group of about 20 adults in an activity called the "human barometer." After the leader offers a statement, those who agree with the statement go to one side of the room, those who disagree go to the other and those who are undecided or who have questions take the middle ground. Frequently used with young people to get dialogue started, this activity worked as well with adults to provoke a lively discussion.

The statements offered by Mala were:

  • Relationships are the main causes of violence among youth.
  • Violence is a big issue in the lives of youth in Harlem.
  • It is important for adults to take action regarding violence youth are experiencing.
  • If you could get rid of guns there would be less violence.
  • There is more youth violence now than there was 40 years ago.

Relationships and Violence

Two of the youth leaders who spoke to the first question had doubts whether relationships were the main cause. One was thinking of dating relationships that break up where one party feels jealous and gets "somebody to fight for you," or when two boys are fighting over the same girl. The other said lots of teens are angry in general because "there's lots going on." Some have low self esteem. For some "it's the way they've been brought up," perhaps to respond to perceived insult with violence more or less automatically.

Adults explored various aspects of the notion of relationships. One began the discussion by asserting that all violence everywhere was caused by breakdowns in relationships, from families to whole countries. There were many questions: What happens within relationships to make them turn violent? What might sexism have to do with boys wanting to dominate girls or competing over girls? What about gangs, friction between ethnic groups, racism? What about structural violence such as poverty?

Pointing to ways adults can help to solve violence, Tene pointed out that when they make positive relationships with youth, they can often intervene in disputes and help the youth involved to make better decisions.

Violence and Youth in Harlem

Everyone either agreed with this or was unsure. Kathleen Kanet, Network's director of our youth program, pointed out that in a survey of youth conducted by Confronting Concerns youth leaders, 43% said violence was their primary concern in their neighborhoods. Some comments by those who had questions were that perhaps it had actually gone down in the last few years, and other pointed out that it depends on who you hang out with.

After one adult asked "Why aren't they at home on a school night rather than in the streets?" and faulted parents for letting young people run wild, Tene made another recommendation that could move toward solutions to violence. She said that she had observed in five years of working with youth in Harlem that some violence could be attributed to poverty; that sometimes there are no safe places for youth to go; sometimes it might not be safe for them at home. She recommended that rather than adults deciding what they think youth should be doing, they should ask youth what they think.

She also pointed out that there are individuals and organizations already trying to make headway against this problem – for instance, making videos about police violence or publicizing the high rates of asthma among youth.

Adults and Violence among Youth

One of the young leaders who weighed in on this question remarked that sometimes when adults step in they are met with disrespect from the youth. Another said it was important for youth to meet them half way, see what the adults are doing and whether it is helpful.

Among the adults, one pointed out that simply taking an interest can help and that opening up dialogue is an action. Another suggested that adults should be addressing structural violence, systems that are creating violence.

Tene's view was that it is more important that young people themselves feel that they are capable of taking action.

Guns and Violence

One young person to speak about this said if there were no guns, people would just find other ways to kill. Another said that if a person has "a violent mentality," broken glass will do for a weapon.

One adult favored allowing people to have guns for protection but thought they should be kept out of the hands of "criminals." Among adults who favored getting rid of guns, one asked us to envision a world where there were no guns anywhere in the world, another thought people are more likely to use a gun because it's easy. Many, like the young people, questioned whether guns or emotions like anger or hate are the problem. One suggested that we should look into ourselves for answers. Pent-up rage that everybody has the capacity for and displaced aggression where the husband beats up the wife, the wife beats up the child, and the child kicks the dog were mentioned.

Increased Violence Today?

Among the adults, one observed that nowadays there had to be security measures in schools that were not needed in the past. However, the consensus seemed to be that it was hard to know for sure but there has always been a noticeable level of violence in this country. More Questions for the Young People Following the human barometer exercise, there was an open discussion. Adults had some questions for the youth. Was there violence in their schools? It seemed it was more common in public than Catholic schools. One reason put forward was that if you acted out in a Catholic school, you would be immediately expelled and would then have to go to public school. A public school student said, however, that you would be expelled from a public school as well for violent activity. However, the public school student said there was a lot of violence "over the littlest things." She also said half the teachers don't seem to care much about the students. They don't talk to you or offer extra help if you are having trouble with your work. "Study halls" should be called "homework halls" because you just sit there and do your homework. When you have a free period there is not usually a teacher available to help you. In the discussion of resources in schools, Tene mentioned that in her school in Brooklyn there were 2 guidance counselors for 400 students, and that her school is considered to be "adequately resourced" according to city guidelines.

Tene asked what places in Harlem offered support from adults for young people. Harlem Children's Zone was mentioned as a place where you could get help with homework and also a small stipend to have as pocket money. One significant person can make a lot of difference, an adult said, and thought support could be found in churches and sports. The young women were asked, What keeps you focused and non-violent? What gives you a sense of hope? What keeps you from entering into a dynamic of violence?

One young woman said that she wants to set an example for her younger siblings. She wants to walk away when she is provoked so she will be a better person. Another said she thinks about her future: she doesn't want to be a bad example and she also wants to succeed in life.

The final question was: How do you compare yourself with others your age? Nerdy? Cool? Something else? Two said mostly they saw themselves as "popular," though some people didn't like them. A third said some thought her "bossy" because she insisted on doing "the right thing."

  • In a survey the leadership team conducted among young people in Harlem, the following were cited as things to be done to address their concerns: Resources and safe spaces for youth: 31%
  • Publicizing youth issues: 26%
  • Get help from adults: 17%
  • Youth-to-youth dialogue: 16%
  • Addressing personal issues: 10%

The group applauded the young leadership team for the fine job they did in planning and leading the meeting. They will be offering several workshops to other young people in the near future.


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