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Youths take action to promote healing, peace

7/29/2016, 7:22 p.m.
When Alton Sterling was killed by police July 5 in Baton Rouge, La., the nation watched as his 15-year-old son ...
Emporess Benniefield and Oryan Law perform “Tears of a Nation” during the open mic session at ART 180’s Black Lives Matter Youth Forum last Friday. Photo by Sandra Sellars

By Leah Hobbs

When Alton Sterling was killed by police July 5 in Baton Rouge, La., the nation watched as his 15-year-old son cried inconsolably at the loss of his father.

A day later, in Falcon Heights, Minn., Philando Castile was shot and killed by a policeman while a 4-year-old girl watched.

Richmond’s children and young adults are not immune to such tragedies. Just days before Christmas, 12-year-old Amiya Moses was killed by a bullet while playing with friends in North Side.

ART 180, the Neighborhood Resource Center and Central Montessori School hosted events last Friday for children and teens to discuss issues of violence and policing while also working toward healing and peace.

ART 180’s poetry workshop and Black Lives Matter Youth Forum drew comments from about 30 teens and adults who shared their frustrations about seeing police brutality on television and social media.

“If this is all we see, but no one is taking it into consideration, then it feels hopeless,” said one teen.

Another teen echoed those sentiments.

“People only care about the issues on social media. We need to have real conversations.”

The purpose of the forum was just that — to go beyond the virtual world and take action in the real world. The teens shared what was on their minds and learned to direct their feelings to be a part of the change they want to see.

Michael Guedri, ART 180’s program manager, said it is crucial that teens are given the opportunity to promote positive change.

“Teenagers are not far from running things in just a few years,” he said. “It’s important in the long-term game that they start to strategize, communicate and have dialogue to promote positive change.”

Robert Dortch, director of community innovation for the Robins Foundation, helped facilitate ART 180’s youth forum. When tragedies occur, children’s voices often go unheard, he said.

“Adults need to step back and allow them to be heard,” said Mr. Dortch. “Teens bring a valuable perspective that adults may miss. They have a powerful voice. It may not be the traditional way. History is filled with that.”

The teens at ART 180 vowed to act by not tolerating prejudice when they hear it and helping to educate people about societal injustice.

“Most people who say ‘all lives matter’ don’t understand that we’re in crisis right now so we need an emphasis on black lives,” said one teen.

Prior to the youth forum, ART 180 held a poetry workshop with John Blake, a poetry teacher and National Poetry Slam finalist. Mr. Blake encouraged them to write courageously.

“We’re having this discussion before writing so you understand you’re not the only one feeling this way,” he said. “Writing enables us to survive. Sharing helps others realize they’re not the only one who’s going through this pain. Sometimes we hide our pain so well that we don’t give ourselves permission to hurt and then it comes out in other ways.”

Two teens, Emporess Benniefield and Oryan Law, performed the song “Tears of a Nation” during the open mic session. The song was written after Miss Benniefield saw her mother’s emotional reaction to Mr. Sterling’s son’s grief. She realized the tragedy could happen to anyone.