By Charlene Muhammad CHARLENEM
LOS ANGELES–Activists like 14-year-old Thandiwe Abdullah of Black Lives Matter-Los Angeles are feeling powerful. These young people aren’t waiting to be saved, they are engaged and working to change reality–in particular when it comes to ending violence.
“Children aren’t dumb. We pick up on things, and we’re afraid,” said the teenager who spends time between school, family, and organizing against police violence.
The daughter of Black Lives Matter-Los Angeles chair Melina Abdullah is humbly but boldly stepping into the spotlight as a young leader in the peaceful protest movement.
“I think the youth role and my role is to bring awareness that children are needed and impacted by police brutality, racism, hate and bigotry that’s going on right now,” Thandiwe said.
She is working to build the Youth Vanguard branch of Black Lives Matter, which includes reaching out to other young people through social media and hosting events such as an upcoming children’s march.
She feels activism has always been a part of her life. “It’s not something that needs reward. It’s not something that you’re doing to get on the news, or for the clout. You’re doing it because there are people dying. You’re doing it because people’s lives are being affected,” Thandiwe added.
Her peers are coming to understand that being an activist and young are not contradictions or abnormal. “Before, it was taboo to talk about politics or to question authority, but now the youth are really beginning to wake up and we’re beginning to have conversations in schools about colonization instead of what your favorite color is, or, that boy who was killed yesterday, instead of I love candy! Stuff like that, and it really warms my heart,” she said.
Mei-Ling Ho-Shing was thrust into the national spotlight as an advocate against gun violence after Nikolas Jacob Cruz, a former student, killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., in February. The mass shooting riveted the country and helped ignite a national conversation about changing gun laws, curbing access to firearms and keeping schools safe.
“If we’re going to talk about gun violence, we need to talk about the whole spectrum, because when we start thinking about nationally, and what nationally we could do, you forget about the communities that have to deal with this on a normal basis, when we should be covering every nook and cranny so people don’t slip through the cracks and people die,” Mei-Ling told The Final Call during a summit highlighting the work and rights of women in Los Angeles.
The 17-year-old’s mantra, “pain is pain,” comes from memories of stress and anguish suffered by families and children after the school shooting incident and other fatal gun encounters. Sybrina Fulton lost her son, Trayvon Martin, to “wannabe cop” George Zimmerman in February, 2012 and Fred Guttenberg lost his 14-year-old daughter Jaime to a boy in Parkland, Fla., with an assault rifle, she observed. But both are parents who lost children to murder, Mei-Ling added.
It’s grief and it’s all the same, no matter what skin color or other different characteristics people have, she said. And, the young woman added, at the end of the day, she and her peers want people to stop dying.
Nationally, 86 percent of Black homicide victims are killed with guns, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Violence Policy Center. Statistics indicate that Blacks are only 13 percent of the U.S. population, but they represent 51 percent of homicide victims.
Such numbers are part of what motivates Mei-Ling’s work to help politicians and others. The violence problem is not just about mass shootings. “An innocent life is an innocent life. It doesn’t matter what demographic you come from and that’s what people need to understand,” she said.
Isaiah James, 25, enjoys working with young people. Whether he’s showing up to support their poetry performances, joining them on stage to recite poems with them or mentoring them through the Annie B. Jones Community Services, Inc. in Chicago, he gets a sense of joy.
The young activist and poet, who is also known as “Advurb,” works with children from fourth to eighth grades in Chicago’s South Shore neighborhood. He helps with in-class tutoring, gives one-on-one mentoring time, and invites teens to his performances and summer activities.
“I’ve seen those students continue to strive to be in those programs, continue their dedication to those programs, and to keep coming back, because of the things they’re offered,” Isaiah said.
“I gained exposure, and because I gained exposure, I became more hungry to look at life differently, other than what was going on in my neighborhood,” he explained.
His, like many neighborhoods, is in a state of emergency, which is what drives Pastor Victoria Brady to continue her family legacy as president and CEO of Anne B. Jones Community Services, Inc. The organization has helped thousands of teens age 14 and up throughout Chicago and other parts of Illinois, she said. Children receive job training, employment, help with therapy or treatment for emotional trauma, she added.
Her organization partners with many groups and organizations, such as the Nation of Islam at nearby Mosque Maryam for street peace outreach efforts, she shared. Hopes are to bring back “Salaam Day-Peace Day,” held last in 2014 to foster unity, celebrate youth, promote peace, organize residents, and combat violence in South Shore, Pastor Brady continued.“When I look in their eyes, I feel like they want to believe that we can have change in our community, but I don’t think that they’re sure that it’s possible. … I know that they want it,” she told The Final Call. And, Pastor Brady said, many youth have expressed a willingness to help younger children survive and thrive.
Brother Ben X, a 24-year-old activist and Muslim, uses social media to spread the life giving teachings of Nation of Islam patriarch Elijah Muhammad and guidance and solutions from Minister Louis Farrakhan, who guides the national movement.
Brother Ben X is part of a national barbershop tour aimed at bridging the gap between elders and youth working to stop violence. The tour is hosted by the Peacekeepers, founded by longtime Nation of Islam member Dennis Muhammad. The Peacekeepers train men and women in different cities on conflict resolution and community advocacy.
According to Brother Ben X, the effort is inspiring youth, who often don’t see how much work elders are putting in. Part of the problem is much of what older activists do isn’t shared on social media, which is a major information source for young people, he said. Youth have been flocking to participate in tour stops since he’s been promoting the peace work online, according to Brother Ben X. “We did one (video of a barbershop session) that hit 300,000 views in less than 24 hours,” he said. “One of the things that they (youth) said is they can see the drug dealers. They see the people doing negative things, who’s trying to put them on, but the businessmen are too busy or the people who are doing positive things, they’re not showing them how to do something positive.” He hopes to keep inspiring youth by showing positive activity.
Diane Latiker, founder of Kids Off the Block, just wanted to keep up with her 13-year-old daughter so she would graduate high school and go to college. She strived to keep her child and nine of her friends between ages 9 and 15 busy and off the streets on the Far South Side of Chicago.
On her mother’s urging and, reluctantly at first, she started an organization in 2003 to help the group of girls and boys avoid gang recruitment and other problems. She opened her home to young people ages 12-24. They talked about their problems and fears, did homework, went skating and had a safe place to hang out.
Her work grew from 10 children in her living room 14 years ago to helping over 3,000 KOB participants to date. They do peace marches, basketball tournaments, Thanksgiving dinners and everything in between. “They wanted to get out of gangs. There were drop-out kids who wanted to go back to school. There were homeless kids, who we were allowing to sleep on our floors, so once the word got out, in the span of almost three months, there were 75 kids or more in my house day and night,” Ms. Latiker recalled. There were so many children, they could hardly get in her home. This year, the program plans to move into a renovated building next to her house and open a technology, entrepreneur, and career center. It will offer youth ages 15 to 24 programs that run 10 to 12 weeks that offer life skills, clothing design training, arts, education and training and house a music studio.
St. Sabina Catholic Church, in the Auburn-Gresham neighborhood, drew people from around the country to its June 15 end-of-the-school-year March for Our Lives rally in Chicago. Chance the Rapper, R&B singer Jennifer Hudson, Grammy-Award winner Will.i.am, former U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords, teachers, students and survivors of the Parkland shooting participated.
Father Michael Pfleger, St. Sabina priest and social activist, told the crowd youth are the most prominent tool available to combat violence. “We want peace now, we want our children safe now!” declared Father Pfleger as the crowd cheered his every word. “I love you [youth] because you say what’s on your heart and what’s on your spirit, and that’s what America needs right now. It needs your impatience and it needs your unfiltered response to say what you think and believe. We need you young people!”
Trevon Bosley of the youth-led and violence prevention organization BRAVE (Bold Resistance Against Violence Everywhere) said youth tirelessly fight against violence in ways people tend to miss. “People do think that no one is fighting for change. The reality is there are a lot of people fighting for change. You just don’t always see them on the news,” he told a local newspaper. “Some people have become so desensitized to it, the violence. And if you’re no longer caring about the violence, then you most likely don’t care about initiatives to stop the violence.”
Such rallies are a staple for St. Sabina alongside weekly Friday night community peace walks, and youth programs.
Selah Youth Choir member Tumelo Franklin called the peace rally invigorating and inspiring. “I really like to see that people get together and actually care because sometimes people don’t really care; they just go on with their daily lives like it’s nothing,” she said. The March for Our Lives rally trended for hours on Twitter, engaging marchers and viewers in hopeful conversations.
“The young people will win. The peace march today at St. Sabina was another affirmation,” said Jessica Disu, a member of Good Kids Mad City, a student-led advocacy group that developed after the shooting in Florida.
Chance the Rapper talked about the goals of March for Our Lives. “We want peace, we want safety from gun violence and violence of all kinds, from our peers, from civil service, from our government, from each other–we just want peace,” said the 25-year-old.
Salim Adofo, 40, champions peace, in part, through education in his Congress Heights community in Southeast Washington, D.C., and as the National Black United Front’s national secretary.The nationalist group’s N’Joya Weusi After School STEM and Cultural Arts Program has helped to alleviate some of the problems youth face around violence, he said. Since last year, the program has held Tuesday STEM classes every week at the Barry Farms Recreation Center.
“One of the things that we do is teach our children how to be producers and just not consumers,” Mr. Adofo stated. “We try to instill in them a high self-esteem, a high sense of purpose … but not only are we working with the children. We’re working with the families, because the culture and the value system we’re trying to instill in the children needs to be reinforced by their extended family as well,” he explained.
Using alternatives to violence–discussing conflict resolution, knowledge of self, history, culture, science, and mathematics–decreases the chances of them being engaged in troubling activity, said Mr. Adolfo.
(Tariqah Shakir-Muhammad contributed to this report from Chicago.)