“The success of this summit is in all our hands,” Rep. Danny K. Davis said at the Emergency Summit on Urban Violence held at Chicago State University last weekend. Though an uplifting line it offered little solace to a summit that had already disappointed me so greatly.
As I sat across from an eleven-year-old young lady this past Friday at a Starbucks in Logan Square I was reminded of why I had felt that way.
This was the first time I had met this young lady. Our fathers, who are co-workers, thought it would be a good idea if we could get together so I could encourage her to continue learning Mandarin Chinese. After five years of learning the language I knew I had some solid advice to share with her. Because this young lady was also African American I could talk to her about how she had to gain confidence when learning a foreign language and culture when you are sitting in a classroom where none of your classmates look like you. Plus in the process I would have the opportunity to order a grande caramel frappucino. Seemed like a win-win situation.
I had similar high expectations when I arrived to the violence summit held by the Congressional Black Caucus, which was organized with the help of Congressman Bobby Rush of Illinois, Congressman Davis of Illinois, Congresswoman Robin Kelly of Illinois and Congresswomen Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas. When I first heard about the summit on the news I knew I wanted to be a part of it. As a Chicagoan I felt the responsibility to take part.
The summit focused on four types of violence plaguing our urban cities: domestic, gang, youth and gun violence. During the town hall portion, which was moderated by political director to Russell Simmons and co-president of GlobalGrind.com Michael Skolnik, the causes for this violence, its repercussions and possible solutions to curb it were presented. The congressmen and congresswomen answered questions from the audience after they shared their personal stories with violence.
Granted there were some — albeit long-term — solutions offered. Despite not directly answering the question, each politician brought up familiar names of children who were affected by urban violence. Blair Holt. Derrion Albert. Hadiya Pendleton. The list goes on. Some names we will never know. But Rep. Davis zoned in on an important lesson: it is important to listen to the youth and give them voice. My two friends I was with (one of them 19 and the other 20) and I latched onto this idea. We delighted in the fact that one of our congressmen recognized the importance of listening to us because oftentimes our voices are not heard despite day after day of people our age making headlines for falling victim to or perpetuating a violent crime.
Rep. Rush suggested that on August 28, which is the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, we declare a national day of non-violence. It would be a ceasefire of sorts. It could turn into a day where we write our legislatures, encourage peace on our Facebook and Twitter pages or buy another ticket to go see “Fruitvale Station.”
Though each politician emphasized again and again the importance of giving our children more of our time and not just additional policies, at the end of the summit when my friends and I went to thank the politicians for their time they were not there to listen to us. Instead all the adults rushed the stage with their business cards as we tried to push forward to speak with them. And what did they say about listening to the youth? Seems like they had forgotten already.
I was so disappointed because this summit had so much potential to channel the voice of the youth who could provide the most direct changes to the problems we are facing today.
I could feel the potential. I really could.
It was the same potential I felt when sitting across from this eleven-year-old at Starbucks. Though our conversation began with a discussion about learning Chinese it morphed into something more meaningful.
She shared her fears about starting sixth grade, her anxiety with learning how to open the lock on her locker, her wish to visit her cousin more and her desire to become a chef/baker/artist/world traveler all at the same time. The young lady told me stories about her and her friends and though I didn’t know any of the people she was referring to I wanted to keep listening. This was her life. She wanted to share her story with me. I felt honored to be in the position of listening.
In the same vein, I’m also going to listen to Rep. Rush and so on August 28, I’ll encourage my peers to be non-violent, I’ll encourage them to love one another, treat each other with respect. But I feel like the summit really missed the point: how do we bring love to the community for those days in between?
But sitting across from this eleven-year-old young lady this past weekend offered an answer to that cyclical question. By taking the time to listen to her — truly listen and dwell on each inquiry she had and learn from each story she was willing to share with me — I was giving back to the community in a way that I often don’t do. Like Rep. Davis encouraged I took the time to listen to the youth though I’m a youth myself. We can’t always rely on the adults to do all the listening because even when they have the best intentions in mind they won’t listen, they will say they don’t have the time, that they’re focusing on the “big plan.”
Luckily for my friends and I, being 19-years-old sets us at that interesting age in between kid and adult. We don’t nicely fit into either category anymore. That is why I want to seize this opportunity and this time in my life now to pave a new way of community building. A 19-year-old should be able to meet with (and have my voice heard by) local representatives, feel the responsibility to mentor youth who are continuing down the road toward higher education, while also bringing together these two groups to seek out better avenues for change in our communities.
Though I believe the summit was not a success, I don’t have to wait on the next planned summit to begin changing the problems I see. I can go to a Starbucks and meet with a girl who finds comfort in sharing her stories with someone older. The connection and relationship that grows over the difference in age, zip codes and experience is just enough to jumpstart change.