In March, on a Saturday during spring break, more than 400 young people and some adults attended the youth-sponsored forum “Gang Wars and Community Violence” at Little Village Lawndale High School. Adults were the minority at this event. Young people were concerned enough about the issue to come to this conference on spring break.
More than a quarter of the attendees were African Americans in this primarily Latino community. People came from as far as South Holland and Maywood. The forum was brought to life by youth leaders and about 20 organizations to fight for the cause of stopping bloodshed in our communities.
Usually when this many youth are in one place, someone, often an adult, will expect violence. But we saw none. Nobody was “representing” or “throwing down.” Youth got together to talk about the issues. We haven’t given up on ourselves, even though others have given up on us.
Even though the forum focused on gang wars, our aim wasn’t getting rid of gangs, but getting rid of the violence they cause. We’re not anti-gang. We’re anti-violence. If gangs left our community, they would spread violence to another.
Our major goals are educating our peers about gangs, stopping violence and putting an end to recruiting youth for violent purposes. Most gang leaders are adults and use youth for their purposes. We believe focusing on our peers is a better strategy for countering violence.
Adults who are upset about violence among youth are usually waving fingers as a form of criticism, instead of helping and listening. This is why most young people shut out adults and rely on their friends and other youth, which allows peer pressure to build into gang recruitment.
We believe that the best form of help is when a young person relies on another young person for advice about gangs. This way, we are adopting a strategy the gangs use. Adults don’t usually know or completely understand the problem. Even though they were young at one time, times are different and they don’t know the problem as it is now. As a result, many adult-driven conferences are not as influential with young people because only adults “run it.”
But when youth have control to shape and host a forum like ours, it shows that we have a voice and we can make a difference.
Gangs can cause multiple forms of violence. Historically, adults in gangs use racial mistrust to recruit young people to commit violence based on hatred. Gangs are behind the artificial separation of races in Lawndale. They even separate young Latinos from each other like a border patrol.
Our group, SITY Ollin (Stop Ignoring the Youth Movement), wants to bring diverse youth together. We want to unite African Americans and Latinos to stop violence. Separate, blacks and Latinos are considered minorities. But together, we become a majority. By unifying, we can speak out about the separation of races and the violence that uses racism in our community. We can challenge larger forces that oppress both of our communities. With this Youth Forum, we showed the world that it is possible for young people to work together when adults can’t or won’t.
If adults give young people a chance, we can show how we can work to change our future.
The next phase of the youth-led forums campaign will begin this summer, when many people think young people aren’t doing anything useful. We expect to raise other issues in our community that are sources of violence, such as domestic violence, dropping out of school and schools without enough supplies, strong programs or good teachers. We are looking to reach beyond our community.
Our forum proved there are a lot of young people and youth groups working on stopping violence. But not many adults are paying attention to us. Instead they are marching and complaining about us.
Influencing just one mind—a young person, parent, teacher or even an elected official—gives us a fighting chance to succeed. We can spread positive signals to end the curse of violence that has been placed on us.
Ernesto Morales, 17
Pernell Baker, 19,