In thinking about what to say tonight I couldn’t get this idea out of my head. This notion that sometimes when you meet someone you have this overwhelming thought that “if given the chance this person could change the entire world.” I sincerely feel that way every week when I am around these teenagers. There is a notion in many of our communities that violence, specifically gun violence, is normal. So normal that it almost seems silly to try to work against something that is so powerful. We, all of us in this room, are working to shift that mindset.
We talk so much in our society about the importance of education– we always tell you all to prioritize school over everything else but it’s also important to unlearn things. That’s a lot of what we’ve done this year. We have had to unlearn our ways. Unlearn our norms, change what we think is normal so that we can make better decisions. We’ve had to help each other make better decisions and in turn help our neighbors and then, eventually, the world. We had to unlearn the stereotypes we held about each other. Unlearn our reactions to things- remembering to pause before we react.
The thing is — unlearning takes a lot of learning.
The youth organizers came ready to learn. They are fierce and loyal and sometimes really harsh and occasionally so loud that I can’t hear myself think let alone talk but above all they are powerful. More powerful than gun violence and more powerful than stereotypes about teenagers. I always try to sign YO S.O.S. related things with the phrase “Youth Power” because I believe in it. I personally believe youth have more power than we give them credit for and less than they deserve.
We watched Antoinette transform in front of our eyes into a peace maker: on more than one occasion coming in and telling us about breaking up fights, We heard Angelica say time and again that she is proud of her big dreams and won’t let anything stand In her way, We listened intently to Mike’s incredibly mature insights.
We watched Stephanie remind her friends I be respectful of each other. We heardJason say, out loud just how “AWESOME” he is. We listened to Chris as he spoke to complete strangers on the street about attending positive community events, We laughed as Lance shared his clever and unique observations, We gasped listening to Bernadette as she fiercely shared her powerful opinions, we were in awe as Irena started participating more and more letting us see her sweet self. We were so appreciative as Arianna shared her thoughtful considerations of a topic at hand, we sometimes couldn’t and can’t stop laughing (staff included) at Claudlin’s hilarious antics.
We centered ourselves listening to Mariama talk about kindness and supporting each other. We learned as Joshua shared his always creative view of things, We watched as Nicole took on more and more over the year, maturing every step. We cherished seeing Eli go from “the one with the eyes” to an active speaker with confidence and humor. We heard Beverly speak eloquently about her passions, We watched Victoria who came her knowing no one make friends so quickly, We felt it as Isis spoke time and again of how personally important this work was for her. We saw T’rea come out of her shell with a biting ability to speak truth, We finally got to see Shaquana’s smile and listened as she spoke about her transformations this year.
We reveled in Helen’s poetic movements and dramatic expressions while listen listening intently for her wisdom, We are proud of the work Imani has done I not holding back when being tasked with a project. We saw Karina shine in her role as a leader, taking it on without holding back. We were challenged by Leann’sopinionated stances and powerful voice. We shared laughs with Rachel, a natural organizer and fast friend to so many. And we were listening to all of Rezzy’s VERY loud and very powerful declarations about violence, friendship and literally anything else that popped into her head.
These teens took on topics that many adults struggle to grapple with. There are lots of adults that will not talk about gun violence. They spoke candidly and with respect about the realities of gun violence in their neighborhoods. They decided it was their issue, they decided to take it on and become advocates for change. They didn’t hold back. They had disappointments and successes all year. This is not always the issue that people want to tackle head on so sometimes asking your friends in high school to participate in anti-violence work is incredibly difficult. They did it anyway. If that’s not power I don’t know what is. THIS is youth power. This is youth. This is power. This is YO S.O.S.