Im sitting on my brothers back porch north of Seattle. Inside, I hear my 14-month-old nephew testing his consonants "b, b, b, ball!" The dogs have found a spot in the sun and are collapsed on top of each other. Its family. Im grateful for itbecause it could have been otherwise.
Not long before the visit to my brothers house, I attended a presentation, called "A Reality Tour of Youth Violence in Washington, D.C.," sponsored by teenage organizers in my neighborhood. They were also talking about family, violence, and a culture of neglect.
The Youth Action Research Group (YARG) interviewed black and Latino youth all over D.C. to get their perspectives on youth violence and youth-based solutions. At least 22 young people died as a result of gun violence in D.C. in 2004, reported YARG. Four kids were killed in gang-related violence within blocks of the YARG office.
"[S]ome people are in a gang because it is like a family for them," one teenager reported to 16-year-old YARG researcher Denisse. "They dont have no family, they dont have no supportso they get that support from the street...and they join a gang. Because youre in a gang, you shouldnt just get locked upthey just need help. They need love."
The youth involved in YARG also make the connection between the "war on terrorism" and the war on them. On a community list serve discussing gangs, one respondent wrote, "Ive already posted the solution [to gangs]. Treat gang members and suspected gang members as terrorists and gang activity as terrorism. Label them terrorists and they wont be on the street. Theyll be held down in Gitmo. If they are labeled as terrorists we could get federal funds and federal agents to get in here and get them out of our neighborhoods." Another neighbor added, "The police have my blessing to kill them off one by one."
These youth are also sharp on the gentrification issue, which they see as a root cause of violence. "Its hard to see your apartment building closed," said LeKeisha, "for a Starbucks to move in."
"No one ever bothers to ask for the youths input on violence," said Denisse. "We care because we are the ones getting shot every day.... It hurts to watch the news hoping and praying that we dont see someone we know. We dont like seeing our same friends who were supposed to graduate with us behind bars."
LAMENTATIONS SAYS that when children and youth are weak and discouraged it is from the failure of Israel to keep Gods covenant. According to the text, the prophet Jeremiah came out of retirement to sit in a cave near Jerusalems gate and sing funeral dirges for the cityfor her women and her children. Tears run down his face. "My children are desolate," he says (Lamentations 1:16). "Lift up your hands toward the Lord for the life of the young children that faint for hunger in the top of every street" (2:19). And, most poignantly, "The children ask for bread, and no one breaks it for them" (4:4).
I hear the voices of the YARG youth. "Discouragement destroys my spirit little by little," said Denisse. "When other people dont believe in you," said 16-year-old Sukeria, "then you feel like you are not worth anything at all."
YARG member Maria (aka Ghost) closed the evening with a poem she wrote for founder Natalie Avery. "She showed me a new place within my barrio where youth could fight for their beliefs by creating a space for my world, enlightening a change."
Families are fragile. They cant take the pressure that, as a society, we put on them. Children and teenagers are not terrorists. They learn what we teach them. Lets teach them well. Break bread for them when they ask. Listen when they have something to say. Create a space where they can fight for what they believe in. Help them "enlighten change."
Rose Marie Berger, an associate editor of Sojourners, is a Catholic peace activist and poet. To learn more about YARG, call (202) 462-5767.