If there’s any doubt that District youth want to quell violence in their community and boost civic engagement among their peers, young people at a local recreation center are slowly but surely laying those concerns to rest, all the while sharpening their leadership skills.
Since launching the #OurLivesMatter campaign at the FBR Branch of the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Washington more than a year ago, this special group of students has engaged 600 middle and high schoolers in discussions about systemic inequality, cultural heritage, conflict resolution, and other topics. With the guidance of adult leaders, they act as ambassadors to the movement by spreading the word about their efforts and participating in intergenerational gatherings.
“I had the skills but didn’t know what to do with them until I came to the Boys & Girls Club,” Jazmine Jones, a student at Kipp DC College Preparatory in Northeast and “Our Lives Matter” representative, told AllEyesOnDC. As director of community service for Keystone, the Boys & Girls Club’s premier leadership program, Jazmine organizes citywide service trips. She said that since assuming this role, her confidence has boosted and she’s thinking more about what the future holds.
“I’m learning how to raise funds and plan events,” Jazmine, a Southeast resident, said. “[In the future], I see myself getting my mentoring program off of the ground. I want to get this message out to [students in] my school. Right now, I don’t have that much of an influence but I still want to be a leader. The Boys & Girls Club can help me get there,” Jazmine added.
Jazmine and her colleagues introduced the #OurLivesMatter campaign to visitors at THEARC during the 2015 Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday weekend. Events on that Monday morning took place amid an ongoing national discussion about police brutality in communities of color in the wake of Mike Brown’s police-related death in Ferguson, Missouri. The youth town hall at THEARC featured a collective of young activists and leaders who weighed in on issues of public safety, employment opportunities, and political awareness.
These topics reappeared later in the year when District homicides reached record numbers and residents, community members, and public officials called for a swift action from the Wilson Building. In August, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser proposed a set of polarizing crime prevention measures including police foot patrols and increased supervision and post-release searchers for returning citizens. Black Lives Matter DMV and other grassroots advocacy groups railed against the plan, calling it discriminatory against poor black residents and ineffective in addressing economic and social causes of violence.
For LeVar Jones (no relation to Jazmine), teen program director at the FBR Boys & Girls Club and adult lead on the #OurLivesMatter campaign, changing the status quo means allowing young people to speak freely about their problems. He says that environment will help them overcome societal pressures to fulfill negative stereotypes and perpetuate cycles of violence. Earlier this month, participants looked back on the first year of those efforts to raise the youth’s consciousness during a host of Martin Luther King, Jr. events.
“How do we create spaces where young people could exist as they are? Since last year, we’ve started this conversation and took it to other places like Baltimore and New Jersey where the young people are involved in activism,” Jones told AllEyesOnDC. “It’s about getting our young people passionate about movements they care about and showing them their lives matter because they engage in positive things. The good inside us unites us while we allow all that other stuff to corrupt us. There’s a healing that has to take place. The youth have to honor who they are.”
The installation of a state-of-the-art recording studio also provides such an opportunity for the lyrically gifted men and women who frequent the halls of the FBR Boys & Girls Club. This recent development followed the introduction of photography and other graphic art mediums into the program. Erikah Moore, a member of the “Our Lives Matter” campaign since last September, said she grew in her role as head of the media crew and member of the Alloy Achievers, FBR Boys & Girls Club’s STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) program, by using these resources.
“We work to get the teens in the neighborhood to come here to find the things we found in this program,” said Erikah, a student at Banneker Academic High School in Northwest. “As youth, we all have to come together because we’re the majority. It makes no sense for us not to band together to help bring awareness to issues about young black men and women being attacked in the streets. This is a nonviolent movement.”
The urge to avoid a turbulent atmosphere compelled Darren Gibson to stay at FBR. Since meeting Jones three years ago, he has been involved in a bevy of extracurricular activities he said exposed him to another world. Gibson recounted connecting young brothers to similar opportunities years later.
“The whole experience put me in a different environment. Here, I learned the importance of my voice and how it could make a difference,” Gibson told AllEyesOnDC. “Right now, I’m helping a young guy get into music, especially since we just built a studio. We’re not just rapping but going into different genres of music. I see nothing but motivational music coming out of that studio.”