Monday, May 18, 2009

A Broken Network Can’t Pull it Together: Why our Youth are Killing Each Other

Hip Hop, if we’re serious about saving young lives, it will take more than a superficial “Stop the Violence” campaign. On a policy level, the fragmented approach to serving vulnerable youth is wrong. While cities and law enforcement, states, and school districts collaborate in the identification, tracking, and targeting of these youth (through free lunch programs, test scores, and gang databases), they have shown a consistent unwillingness to apply the same collaborative efforts toward providing real solutions. We cannot tell the youth “Stop the Violence,” while relying on these agencies to help and heal them, especially not while they are closing our schools, mismanaging our youth service funding, and building a new jail.

“They don’t care about kids of color; they don’t care about poor kids. They don’t care about anyone who’s different than somebody who makes $75,000 or more a year.” These were the words of NAACP Seattle President James Bible after being removed from a Seattle School District school closure hearing. View the rest of his impromptu speech on the video here. Mr. Bible’s frustration was shared by a packed room of others who challenged the sincerity and secrecy of Seattle’s recent school closure process in the midst of last year’s youth violence spike. While the district bureaucratically steered clear of accountability on the issue (they maintain they are separate from the police department and the city of Seattle), they also emphasized that the closure plan was developed based on feedback from the community.

It seems that the district either has an irresponsible disconnection from reality, or other interests to satisfy. We know that that the scores of wealthy white parents who fought against the closure of their schools had a hand in the outcome. But what about the Gates Foundation, who after postponing the renewal of grants to the district for 3.5 years, finally awarded 7.5 million after the closures were announced? This money, which could have kept the schools open and programs running at least for a while, will go to more ability tracking and testing.

Now let’s talk about the Mayor’s Youth Violence Prevention Initiative, which has also been shrouded in secrecy. The initiative allocates money to select NGOs to contract out services for youth without oversight or any specified benchmarks for tracking success. This approach is justified by a flimsy report of four model programs, but a brief inspection shows the data to be riddled with incomplete or inaccurate information. To top it off, the city has tasked the Urban League, little known for any actual work in the community, with helping to solidify its “network,” while keeping community leaders who are effectively active in the work out of the discussion. Ironically, the most critical network for violence prevention, one that places the school district, the city and law enforcement in a collective state of accountability for the safety for our children, is absent.

Unfortunately this disconnection is a convenience that youth don’t have. When the schools fail them from 9:00-3:00, and the youth initiative fails them from 3:00 to 10:00, the only thing that won’t fail is the new jail. The city is putting $110 million up for this project, plus committing another $15 mil a year for operation, which is quite an investment. Perhaps they are banking on their failure to our youth?

Whatever the case may be, it is time for us as Hip Hop artists, media producers, educators, and activists to step up, beyond the superficial message of “Stop the Violence.” We must unite, collectivize our skill sets and resources, and create an alternative solution: the seamless network, rooted in culture and community that our young people need to survive.

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