A teen activist talks about Safe & Peaceful grantee Kids Off The Block's 24 Hour Peace Jam, the organization's presence in his life, and his determination to bring about positive change.
In Roseland, it can be wild; it's to the point that you can go places, but you have to watch your surroundings, always look over your shoulder. People have to remind you that seeing violence, seeing people fight, hearing gun shots, is not normal. Growing up in the Roseland community, it can be hard to stay away from trouble — there are always people who try to get you to join their gang or talk you into doing negative activities.
I'm not the type to just go out to be out…I'm shy, I don't like to go outside and be around a lot of people, and in Roseland, it's always been rough, so there was really no choice but to be in the house. Friends kept telling me about Kids Off the Block (KOTB), they introduced me to Ms. Diane. She told me if I ever needed anyone to talk to, KOTB was a safe place, and going to KOTB, it wasn't just about hooping, it was about my education and planning for my future.
Ms. Diane helped me see a bigger picture. I was 13, and I hadn't really been introduced to a lot of people like her — most of the people before that, they would tell you what to do, but then they'd be gone. Say, for instance, someone would be like "you can talk to me," but when I reached out, no one would respond, or the person wasn't there. You can kind of tell when someone is fake or not: Other people just say stuff, but the warmth of her [Ms. Diane's] voice made me comfortable. When my brothers and family members had to move away, Ms. Diane was there.
Ever since I joined KOTB four years ago, I felt like I had joined a new family. Most people around me were in the streets; it was a lifestyle for them, and I had a firsthand view of what being in a gang would look like. If I wasn't introduced to KOTB when I was, I think I might have been in a gang, or close to being in one. Ms. Diane steered me from that.
After being in the program for awhile, Ms. Diane talked to me about the first 24 Hour Peace Jam. I wasn't with it at first, but I gave in and decided to attend. The 24 Hour Peace Jam has a really big impact in the neighborhood, the one day of the year when there's no shooting: kids and adults can come outside a whole day and night to just enjoy themselves. We gave so many youth school supplies and book bags, we had food, music, watched a fashion show, had a silent party, gave away so many prizes, played games and danced for hours. This year the Peace Jam was my birthday, and they had balloons, birthday cake…it's love, good vibes, just people coming together and having fun.
Being at the peace jam this year, seeing everyone having fun and not worried about violence or being shot, was everything to me. And it made me wonder, like, why can't it be like this every day? I felt so peaceful and full of joy, I didn't want it to end because I knew we would go back to how it was before, the violence.
I was always talking to Ms. Diane about having a voice, making a difference and being heard. I was always being bothered by police or seeing them do things I didn't agree with. There were predicaments in my neighborhood that I wanted to change: abandoned apartments, vacant lots…
Seeing people ignore us, and seeing people ignore each other.
I wanted the community to be noticed. Personally, seeing the downfalls and struggles of my family around housing, constantly moving because buildings were being foreclosed or having bad landlords…that made me realize that the community needs help. I wanted someone to hear us when we said that we wanted a change in our community: clean the streets, cut the grass (even if you're not being paid to do it).
KOTB had been invited to meet with March for Our Lives. Me being a speaker at the rally, it was just another step of me realizing how, even at my age, I know there has to be a change in the violence that surrounds us daily. The goal of us marching was to get people to join the movement and to take action, that's one way we can all come together.
I'm 17, and already I know of seven people who have been killed or experienced some type of gun violence. Through my writing and activism, I want people to know about my personal experiences, I want people to feel the pain and tragedy of having to go through that, to experience violence back to back; from my perspective, it's sad, and innocent people just get brought down. The stuff that goes on in our neighborhood goes on every day…sometimes we go home and we don't feel safe, we're worried about who's going to hit the corner or come around the block.
The Peace Jam is another important way we can all come together. It was an escape from reality, and it helps us know that there's still positivity in our community, still good people, still people looking out for us, protecting us and fighting for our safety.
This is a story about the Community Safety and Peace strategy of the Partnership for Safe and Peaceful Communities.