Guest Blog: Moving Beyond Violence

I am the product of a schizophrenic mother and a sometimes-absent father. I am also no stranger to violence. When I was younger, I envisioned growing up with my family intact and with parents who were active in my life. Reality gave me a much different picture when my family was torn apart due to violence. Growing up in a home where love just seemed lost took a toll on me. Violence was like an additional member of my family - always around, always heard, always seen but never stopped.

Now that I am 18 with a much broader perspective and living in a different, healthier environment, I realize that violence still lives close by; that it lingers in my community and in the homes of close friends. Walking down the street I see familiar faces selling drugs, or on the corner creating mayhem.

In the summer of 2013, an elementary schoolmate of mine was killed. He was only 17 and involved in a neighborhood feud. He was well known and beloved, and now he was dead. He was a victim of violence and the choices he made.

Youth in communities can be affected by violence mentally, emotionally, and physically.  Research shows that the prefrontal cortex, which is still developing, is the region of the brain where judgments are formed, where decisions are weighed as well as the controlling force of impulses and emotions. Many youth who live in environments where the lifestyle often results in early death and incarceration, believe that they cannot beat the odds. Because of this belief, they choose a reckless path that can lead to lives cut short before prom or graduation. Sadly, attending funerals of young people who have never truly lived has become the norm.

In 2011, according to Child Trends, males ages 15 to 19 were nearly four times more likely to commit suicide, six times more likely to be victims of homicide, and seven times more likely to be involved in a firearm-related death than were females of the same age. And the numbers have only increased. The Juvenile Justice Exchange found that the United States has a much higher proportion of its youth in confinement than other developed nations. Out of every 100,000 American youth, 336 are confined —currently, about 70,000 youth are locked up in facilities across the country.  Having known so many young people who are in jail or who never reached their 18th birthdays, I wonder who can actually help at-risk youth and who really cares?

I found the answers to these questions through my Philadelphia Youth Network internship at the Stoneleigh Foundation. My internship gave me hope for at-risk youth. I now know that there are people who invest their time and their money for youth who desperately need help.  This makes me feel like our generation is on the mend, slowly but surely. Stoneleigh’s focus on addressing the needs of kids involved in--or at risk of involvement in--child welfare, juvenile justice and youth violence prevention is vital for youth who are in desperate need of having someone in their corner.  Stoneleigh has opened my eyes to the work it does and to how other organizations are working towards the same goal.  I have participated in meetings that involved projects to help at-risk youth, met with Stoneleigh Fellows and have done research for the foundation that helped me evolve as a student and a person.

In my research, I have come across some solutions for at-risk youth that are already making progress and promoting healthy change. One of them is “My Brother’s Keeper”, a widening initiative by President Barack Obama  to address persistent opportunity gaps faced by boys and young men of color, and ensure that all young people can reach their full potential. The initiative also connects young people to mentoring, support networks, and the skills they need to find a good job or go to college and work their way into the middle class. I also learned about proposed juvenile justice reform legislation sponsored by Senators Corey Booker and Rand Paul which bans the use of juvenile solitary confinement in federal facilities, along with several other reforms that would impact juvenile offenders.

Through my experience with Stoneleigh, I realize that though violence is still a threat to our communities, there are amazing people – organizations, fellows, and others across the U.S –  working hard for change. Although the violence in my life gave me a a tougher exterior, I now have a more hopeful outlook because I know that something is being done. The violence that occurred in my life will not hinder me from working toward the goals that I have set for myself. This fall, I will attend college at Penn State Berks Campus where I will pursue many interests and passions. I know if I can overcome the barriers in my life, we can work together to help other youth in crisis to pursue their dreams.   

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