Recent incidents such as the so-called Kroger “Youth Mob” and a similar occurrence at a Midtown gas station has sparked many conversations within the community about how to address the real issues of youth violence and crime. Sadly, many of these conversations have focused on playing into a media narrative that is filled with negative images of our young people along with fear-based and overly punitive solutions which in turn paint our young people with a broad brush as aberrant, aggressive, and hyper-violent. In the face of fear-based messages and images, a community looking for real solutions can often be led astray into pursuing harsher tactics which serve to further institutionalize our youth into the criminal justice system and do not address the root causes of crime.
We as a community must recognize that crime is a very real and very valid concern. At MSPJC, the core of our organizing philosophy is that, to find a solution to an issue, one must organize with those most affected by that issue. In all the discussions and plans and various meetings about how to address the youth crime issue, no one has asked those most affected by the problem: our youth.
How can we solve the issue without the voice of young people being involved in a meaningful way? How can we stop treating our youth as a threat and instead work with youth to create lasting and positive solutions. Simple: we ask them.
On Saturday, March 25th The Mid-South Peace and Justice Center and Bridges USA, in partnership with LeMoyne Owen College and Shelby County Juvenile Court, hosted the Memphis United People’s Conference on Juvenile Justice. This event was a daylong youth-led series of workshops, trainings and dialog sessions around the issues of youth violence, youth crime and the school to prison pipeline.
Attended by over 45 area high school students, the People’s Conference on Juvenile Justice was designed as a launch pad for the first steps of building a sustainable youth led and youth directed grassroots movement to directly address issues of highest priority to our youth. Students, from a variety of schools were in attendance and were joined by young people who were allowed to serve their court ordered community service via Shelby County juvenile count by attending the conference.
Workshop topics included such subjects as Peer mediation and nonviolent conflict resolution, Know Your Rights Trainings and an introduction to community organizing. Each of these areas were designed and facilitated by some incredible young people working as members of the BRIDGE BUILDERS program of BRIDGES USA. Having these workshops and discussions in this way allowed young people present to speak freely about their thoughts and struggles on the subject and begin a conversation about real solutions that they can take the led on creating and directing.
Some of the outcomes of this event were the creation of a Memphis United Juvenile Justice committee made up not only of youth who helped organize the conference but open to all of those who participated in it as well. This group will be meeting monthly to debrief about the issues raised and begin working towards building campaigns for systemic change, while planning a second People’s Conference on Juvenile Justice set for August 22nd. In addition, the group will be working with the Shelby County Juvenile court to perform outreach in the communities with the highest concentration of young people who need service hours to create community partnerships to provide meaningful service opportunities within the young people’s own neighborhoods. Finally, members will be trained on how to host “Know Your Rights” and Peer Mediation/conflict resolution workshops for youth by youth and within their own communities.
If we allow fear to control us, then we view our youth as a problem that must be mitigated instead of as a partner for progress. We cannot address the issue of youth violence or police accountability without also working with those most affected to have community based alternatives to crime, arrest and incarceration.
We at the MSPJC look forward to following their leadership.
If you are interested in joining the Memphis United Juvenile Justice Committee, please contact Brad Watkins at Brad@midsouthpeace.org.