Youth Enrichment Services teens explain how to deter gun violence
A column of nine cursive names is pasted on a pale wall in the Youth Enrichment Services office in East Liberty.
These are the teenagers the organization has lost to gun violence in recent years, including its own members and their friends and relatives.
The wall was designed by Matthew Steffy-Ross, a 17-year-old who joined Youth Enrichment Services [YES] in 2015 and over the years has become a mentor to his peers. He had barely completed the wall when he was shot and killed in April during a party at an Airbnbwhere another teenager was killed and at least eight others were injured.
“I don’t want to attend the funeral of another of my children,” said YES CEO Dennis Jones. “I don’t know. I don’t. I can’t.”
YES students are keenly aware of the toll of gun violence in Allegheny County – they mourn the loss of families, friends, classmates and neighbors who were caught in the crosshairs of the shootings. This month, the organization released the report “Reducing Gun Violence in Our Community: Teen Voices and Visions,” which includes ideas from teens for reducing gun violence across the county. The report is the culmination of a year-long effort by the organization to train teenagers to heal from the trauma of gun violence and become activists promoting solutions to the crisis.
“Nothing will get done if you don’t act,” said 15-year-old YES member Takara Pack. “You can’t just sit and watch all of this happen. You really have to step in and do something.
From January through November, there were 23 homicide victims age 18 or younger in Allegheny County, representing approximately 19% of all victims.
City officials believe the shootings are often catalyzed by tensions between cliques of teenagers and young adults, whose fights on social media escalate into gunfire.
At a Dec. 2 press conference, Mayor Ed Gainey said young people across the city are inheriting the “culture of violence” created by previous generations, which, coupled with the availability of guns, perpetuates the cycle of armed violence. “If a kid can get a gun like they can get chips, then we understand what the end result is.”
Picking up the coat
Tya Carter, 16, is tired of seeing the headlines about people losing family members to gun violence. “At this point for me, I’m just over it.”
These headlines are a reminder of what she could have lost. One of her younger brothers was shot twice and she is “surprised he is alive” today.
She and her fellow YES teens believe their advocacy is not an opportunity, but a necessity. For the county to move the needle toward gun violence reduction, youth voices must be heard.
“It’s something we have to do because no one else is doing it,” Pack added.
In November, nearly 40 teens from the group gathered for a three-day retreat in Seven Springs, where they worked together to identify the root causes of youth gun violence, including poverty, unresolved trauma, cultural influences, neighborhood disputes, limited social opportunities, limited training in conflict mediation and barriers to sustainable employment.
They then offered practical ideas that ministries, educational institutions, businesses and non-profit organizations can implement for prevention. The organization synthesized recommendations from adolescents in the report, including:
- Create programs for adolescents to develop skills in mentoring, conflict mediation, listening and empathy
- Increase teen engagement with law enforcement and launch a teen-specific gun buy-back program
- Generate opportunities for local business owners to network with their communities and help teens build their employable skills
Teenagers in particular wanted to create safer spaces in their communities where they could participate in after-school activities. They believe that few of these spaces exist today as many recreation centers have limited their operations due to the COVID-19 pandemic and lack of staff.
Teens also want to see more programs to help them and their families heal from the trauma of gun violence, including bereavement counseling programs. Carter specifically wants to create a program to help teens through depression. “It’s basically a safe place or area where people can come and do their thing to help them feel healthy again.”
Jones said the report’s findings are “not anomalous.”
“These kids want to be kids,” he continued. “They want to have enough food. They want the ability to walk around the neighborhood without getting shot, and want the ability to get treatment for the trauma and pain they carry with them.
He said he hoped the report would provide gun violence prevention actors with the building blocks needed to prioritize the perspectives of young people as they seek solutions to the crisis. “We want people to look at it and see areas where they can take it and work with it,” he added. “Nobody can say, ‘We don’t know what the kids want.'”
Jones began pushing to create the report in July after YES hosted its Teen Violence Prevention Summit, which brought together teens with researchers, law enforcement and community leaders. . In the coming months, the organization will begin seeking partners at local, state and national levels to begin implementing the report’s proposals.
Collaboration, he said, could help them overcome the biggest challenge of implementing prevention initiatives: securing funding.
“That’s the crux of the matter: are we ready, as a city, as a community, as a region, as a state, to invest the level and magnitude of resources needed to solve the problem? ?” said Jones.
‘Someone believes in you’
The YES report is the culmination of the organization’s mission to amplify teen advocacy throughout what the organization has dubbed “the year of peace and non-violence in our neighborhoods.”
Since its creation in 1994, YES has worked with adolescents affected by armed violence. Jones recognized the need to make violence prevention advocacy their flagship project after a friend of one of the organization’s members was shot dead in September 2021. Shortly after the decision was announced , two other teenagers – friends of YES members – were shot, which Jones said only validated their decision.
“We have such a 100% saturation of gun violence on our kids, there’s this constant trauma,” Jones said.
Jones wanted their approach to gun violence prevention to be proactive, providing opportunities for teens to engage with positive role models and activities. Throughout the year, the organization created educational opportunities for teens to seek solutions to gun violence, and teenagers connected with mentors who helped them develop the tools to take care of their mind, body and emotional well-being.
They also connected teens with jobs that helped them learn technical and leadership skills. It was this opportunity that brought 15-year-old Sarah Nervais to the organization, and she stayed because of the friends she made. “I walked into the office and everyone here was so loving,” Nervais said. “They are like a second family.”
At their November retreat, the teens attended healing circle discussions and workshops on music therapy, meditation and peer mentoring. Since then, Pack has started incorporating breathing exercises into her daily routine and tries to meditate every day.
“I struggle with both depression and PTSD, I also have really bad anxiety,” said Pack, whose brother was shot and whose uncle was fatally shot. “When I was told about the breathing circles and meditation, it really helps me relax and find myself.”
Jones said he hopes to teach teens the most essential skill to protect them from gun violence: resilience. A combination of information, preparation, and community “allows them to reach out to their peers, lets them feel they have some agency.”
The trust YES places in each member is what gives them the confidence to pursue their goal of reducing gun violence while working with YES and in their daily lives.
“It feels good to know that someone believes in you,” said 16-year-old member Will Sheffield. “And they can do it in other places if you allow it.”
As the organization looks to 2023, Jones hopes the training they’ve given teens to become informed, responsible and empathetic leaders will amplify their activism and empower them to bring their ideas for solutions to life.
“We will do our best.”
This story has been verified by Sophie Levin.
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