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Youth-led Klondike-Smokey City peace rally strengthens community in wake of tragedy

By Cole Bradley, High Ground News

On July 28, the Dave Wells Community Center at 915 Chelsea Avenue was alive with music, dancing, food and games alongside a critical message — it’s time to stand united against violence and celebrate the vibrance of the Klondike-Smokey City community.

“This is a call to action,” said 16-year-old Lexus Carter of the student-led Stop the Violence rally organized by the Girls Apprenticeship Program, a mentorship program for girls and young women ages 15 to 20 who live in the area.

She and other organizers planned the event in response to the May shooting near Crosstown Concourse, which involved two cars of local youth firing at each other’s vehicles and resulted in deaths of 18-year-olds Deandre Rogers and Dejuan Hill as well as the injury of four other teens.

Several of those involved were from the neighborhood and friends with the GAP apprentices.

“We’re tired of [the violence]. I’m pretty sure everyone else is tired of it. We’re trying to come together for a good reason, something other than a funeral, to raise awareness that it needs to be stopped,” said Carter.

Their call to action included a pledge to end gun violence and an effort to connect attendees of the Stop the Violence rally with resources for education, jobs, and housing; numerous studies have shown that instability in these areas can be a determinant of criminal behavior and recidivism.

Residents had the chance to meet with more than a dozen organizations including youth football and cheer programs, the North Library branch, churches, and the local neighborhood watch.

Participating organizations wrapped around the needs of the neighborhood as there were opportunities for attendees to learn about earning their high school diplomas, find employment, or receive assistance with school uniform procurement and school transportation. Parents could meet school officials, register their children, and get help with school supplies for a successful start to the year.

Attendees also connected with friends and celebrated with performances by the Dynamic Diamond majorettes, food, games, and a live DJ.

The GAP program began in 2016. Each cohort spends five months learning about entrepreneurship, civic engagement, and art as a social enterprise. It is is facilitated by the Klondike-Smokey City CDC along with core collaborators, Cathedral of Faith and Whole Child Strategies Inc., and additional partners like the Family Safety Center.

“We all work in collaboration together because we recognize that no one entity can do this work alone,” said Connie Booker, head of the Cathedral of Faith’s civic collaborative.

Related: “Klondike/Smokey City students fight gang violence through art

Carter’s cohort started in March, and she graduated from the program on July 21.

In addition to the rally, the GAP apprentices created new signage for the community garden on Alma Street and developed a design for sidewalk and crosswalk improvements near the garden that they will help implement in the near future.

The apprentices also joined the Klondike-Smokey City neighborhood council. The council is in its second year and is comprised of residents, community and faith-based organizations, and business leaders working to address the area’s concerns. The council’s primary focus areas are crime and safety, mental health, transportation, and school and family relationships.

The recent shooting prompted the GAP apprentices to join the crime and safety subcommittee.

According to the apprentices and their mentors, the Crosstown shooting involved students from both Humes Preparatory Academy Middle School and Manassas High School, both of which serve the students of Klondike-Smokey City. The majority of the nine apprentices attend or are alumnus of Manassas.

“This is a result of that committee wanting to respond to the violence [involving] those students at Manassas and Humes,” said Natalie McKinney, executive director of Whole Child Strategies.

“The girls see it takes a lot of hard work to pull something off…This lets them know that you only get out of it what you put in it…This lets them know hard work pays off,” said Booker.

Cortney Thomas with Whole Child Strategies Inc. explains the Klondike-Smokey City community asset map and asks residents to check it for accuracy. (Shelda Edwards)

Related: “Grassroots efforts in Klondike Smokey City stem from one woman

“A lot of times when you’re young you feel like what you do doesn’t matter or you’re not able to make an impact on [your] community. You see things that need to be done, but you don’t feel empowered that you have the right resources or know the right people,” said Tiena Gwin, a project coordinator with the Klondike-Smokey City CDC.

Gwin said the experience of planning and putting on a community event taught the apprentices that you need the right idea not all the right answers. Sometimes knowing the right people can make your dream a reality.

For example, a 15 year-old girl can’t offer transportation to help their friends stay in school, but Memphis Lift can, and they were thrilled the apprentices asked them to participate.

Memphis Lift is a citywide nonprofit organization that offers help with transportation assistance and navigating the school system, as well as classes that teach parents to advocate for their children.

“We have a fellowship program where we teach parents how to advocate for their kids and how a great school’s supposed to look for our babies,” said parent outreach specialist Marquita Finnie.

Related: “Klondike Smokey City improves education outcomes with with wrap-around neighborhood support”

Nonprofit HopeWorks was also eager to participate.

The organization helps adults earn a high school diploma or equivalency and offers job training, tutoring and counseling.

They have an office on Summer Avenue but meet remotely at 21 locations across the city and are currently looking for space in Klondike-Smokey City.

“There are over 47,000 people in Shelby County that don’t have their high school diploma…If we get them through their high school diploma, we can put them to work, and that opens other doors,” said LyTania Black, curriculum coordinator for HopeWorks’ adult education program.

At the rally residents also had the opportunity to lend their own expert knowledge towards a community asset map facilitated by Whole Child Strategies. The map catalogues neighborhood amenities from food pantries to playgrounds and shows gaps in those amenities. People at the rally were encouraged to correct and build on the map originally drafted by stakeholders at neighborhood council meetings.

“This community is engaged in self-determination,” said McKinney.

The GAP apprentices want to see an end to violence that claims their friends. They want to see a thriving community that comes together to connect and support one another. The Stop the Violence rally was their way of taking action to see their dream become reality.

“Children have voice, you have to give them voice just like we have to give the disenfranchised adults in this community voice, and this is a way to do it and work together,” said McKinney

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