In The News

Time for adults to pay more attention to the nonviolent 99%

By September 29, 2014 Comments

Commercial Appeal, Sunday, September 28, 2014, David Waters, Columnist

watersYouth violence. Is it the biggest problem in Memphis? Or is it the most overreported and overwrought? Both of the above?

In a typical year, more than half of those arrested for committing violent crimes in Shelby County are ages 15-24. On the other hand, there are about 120,000 young people in that age category each year in Shelby County. About 1,200 are arrested for violent crimes in any given year.

One in 100. So that means 99 of every 100 young people ages 15-24 are NOT being arrested for violent crimes in any given year.

We members of the local media devote a lot more time, ink and air to the 1 percent. I suspect many of you spend a lot more time wondering and worrying about the 1 percent.

So where does that leave the 99 percent?

Inside a Downtown meeting room on a sunny Saturday morning, trying to organize a response to a community problem that doesn’t involve them but does implicate and impact them — because of their age, race, and proximity.

“People have negative stereotypes about Memphis youth,” said Anita Norman, a senior at Arlington High School. “We have to stand up and show adults that we are more powerful. That we are the real Memphis youth.” Norman was one of 10 Shelby County high school students invited by Mayor A C Wharton to organize a series of four Youth Empowerment Forums to be held Oct. 7-18.

They were nominated by five local organizations that will host the forums: Bridges, First Baptist Church Broad, Memphis Athletic Ministries, Memphis Ambassadors Program and New Direction Christian Church.

They met for the first time Saturday morning at Bridges, guided by James Nelson, director of the city’s Office of Youth Services.

Wharton stopped by to check their progress. He asked a couple of questions, but mostly he listened. “We want to hear from you,” he said. “We’re not going to be in a hurry just to have an event. We want you to help us understand the problem so we all can come up with long-term solutions. Talk to us.”

The teens talked for more than two hours. They talked about the need for more parents to spend more time monitoring their kids. “Parents need to get more connected to their schools. They need to pay more attention to what their kids are saying on social media, who their friends are, and how their friends’ parents are,” said Mikal Tyler, a sophomore at Craigmont High.

They talked about the need for more adults to spend more time mentoring kids. “Most of the kids I know who are in a gang aren’t jumped into it or blessed into it. They are born into it,” Tyler added. “We need adults who made it out to show that’s not the only way to make it or get respect. Show them there’s another way.”

They talked about our need to pay more attention to the 99 percent, to understand their challenges and to trust their abilities. “If people could just understand, it’s hard being a teenager in Memphis,” Norman said. “It’s a struggle every time we wake up, put on our clothes and step out the front door. It’s hard. But we’re here in this room. We’re being given the resources and responsibility and encouragement to do something to help. Other youth need that opportunity.”

During the meeting, the teens decided they don’t want adults to participate in the forums, but they do want them nearby, standing by in case they need some guidance.

They decided they want large- and small-group discussions at the forums to be confidential and social-media-free, a safe place where they can chill and talk. They decided they want to do more than talk. They want to reach out to the 1 percent, and to those kids who are at risk of becoming part of the 1 percent.

“A lot of youth join gangs because it makes them feel part of a family,” said DeAnna Black, a senior at Central High. “They don’t have a family. We have to be their family.”

Jasmine Clark, who attends New Direction, nodded her head in agreement. “We have to be the examples,” she said.

They already are.  We might think that the 99 percent who don’t commit violent acts of crime, who don’t assault or rob or shoot others, who don’t run amok through parking lots or school cafeterias — we might think they don’t need as much of our attention as the 1 percent who do. Not only do the 99 percent need it. They deserve it.

Middle school and high school students are invited to attend one or more of the following free Youth Empowerment Forums.

Tuesday, Oct. 7, 3-5 p.m., at New Directions Christian Church, 6120 Winchester.

Wednesday. Oct. 8, 3-5 p.m., at Memphis Athletics Ministries Grizzlies Center, 2107 Ball.

Thursday, Oct. 9, 3-5 p.m., at Bridges USA, 477 N. 5th.

Saturday, Oct. 18, 10 a.m.-noon, at First Baptist Church Broad, 2835 Broad.

For more information, or to register, call the Office of Youth Services at 636-6264 or visit