Bader Philanthropies recently hosted an event called “Fostering Hope Through Violence Prevention” for youth to say what teens need to succeed. Will the adults follow the youths’ lead?
Larry Dorsey is hard to miss, standing 6 feet, 5 inches tall with a huge Afro.
“People always ask me if I play basketball. I do, but I love other things too, like chess, school, working, and of course, my family,” said Dorsey, 18. “People never ask me about those things.”
While Dorsey’s height makes him stand out in a crowd, he wants his voice, and those of other Milwaukee youth, to command attention, especially regarding reducing violence.
Teens don’t feel heard. Kids, like adults, need to feel validated and understood. If not, things in Milwaukee will not improve, and we can look at a long, hot summer peppered with violence.
According to the Milwaukee County Medical Examiner’s office, at least 12 kids, 17 years old and younger, were killed in Milwaukee this year. Ten were black boys, one black girl, and one Hispanic boy. This online data does not reflect the most recent homicides, including a 16-year-old boy fatally shot Tuesday, less than 24 hours after a 9-year-old boy died in a shooting.
In the U.S., five children die from gun violence, and 14 more kids, 17 years old and younger, are shot daily. As of July 31, 1,046 children, 17 and under, have been killed in the U.S., while 2,844 children have been shot, according to the Gun Violence Archive.
Between 2019 and 2020, firearms were the leading cause of death in Americans 19 and younger. Firearm fatalities among Black youth also increased 40 percent during this time.
Dorsey was one of four students recently on a panel “Fostering Hope Through Violence Prevention” hosted by Bader Philanthropies. The event was billed as an opportunity for local youth to be heard by business leaders and discuss what they need to succeed.
The teens were consistent in several messages. They agreed that police officers should not be in public schools. They want more mentors, mental health counselors, and programs at community organizations.
When I talked to Dorsey after the meeting, he said teens must be included in conversations when it comes to things concerning their lives.
“When we are omitted, the things grown-ups come up with usually don’t work. For example, we have been vocal about having more Black teachers, and I don’t have anything against white teachers, but I know I would have had a better school experience had I had more teachers who look like me,” he said.
Why enforcing curfew might not work as hoped
Youth want and deserve a seat at the table. How would that help? Dorsey’s take on the latest police effort to combat violence offers some clues.
Operation Summer Guardian is a revived initiative by the Milwaukee Police Department to combat violence in neighborhoods. Police Chief Jeffery Norman said units will be assigned to specific communities. Since those officers are already familiar with the residents in the area, the hope is to build trust along with faster response times to fatal, non-fatal shootings and shots-fired incidents.
Norman said there will also be a renewed focus on enforcing curfew at 11 p.m. for minors and “parental responsibilities.”
While it sounds like a good idea from an adult perspective, Dorsey the program doesn’t take into account is that many youths are unsafe at home.
“They stay on the street because they don’t want to be at home because of abuse or neglect,” said Dorsey, who will attend the Milwaukee Area Technical College in the fall.
He said a better plan would involve youth working with organizations and the police to develop a restorative justice plan that brings together those harmed and those responsible.
Restorative justice can proactively prevent crime and conflict and repair harm where it has already occurred. We never get to this level of prevention because youth are often left out of the conversation.
We need to talk to youth to discover why so many carry guns. We need to ask them why they steal cars. We need to find out what they need to be successful. If their parents are not involved, we need to talk to them to see if a mentor could be the solution.
“If they never ask us, they will never be able to fix the problem,” Dorsey said.
We all suffer when pleas are ignored, trauma persists
I was touched personally by violence when I was working on a project, “What Happened to Us,” to see how much things have changed for third graders at Samuel Clemens Elementary School since I was a third grader there in 1978.
I interviewed Nevaeha Ware in 2017 when she was in third grade. She was one of five children I spoke to in the school library as part of the project.
When I asked Nevaeha if she knew anyone killed by gun violence, her eyes watered. She told me her brother, Qwaishaun, had been shot and killed over the weekend before we spoke.
“I don’t know what happened because I was at my auntie’s house when it happened,” she said.
Qwaishaun, whom she called Qwaish, had been shot in the head. He died in the hospital a day later.
Nevaeha only missed two days of school. Her mother allowed her to stay home, but she wanted to go.
Her teachers knew something was off when Nevaeha failed a math test. She never told them about the mental trauma she was experiencing. Like most schools in Milwaukee, Clemens doesn’t have mental health counselors on staff.
Nevaeha said she wanted to become a doctor when she grew up so she could help children suffering in silence.
“I want to be there for them. We all need someone to talk to. Sometimes we need to cry,” she told me.
Three years later, Nevaeha snuck out of her house to see a boy. She called friends for a ride home. She never made it. She got in the backseat when her friends arrived. The driver got into an altercation with another driver. Shots were fired at the car and she was struck in the chest. She never made it home.
What I remember the most was her cries to be heard going unanswered. She wanted someone to listen to her. Today, too many teens’ pleas fall by the wayside.
What happens when we fail to treat the trauma that comes from witnessing so much violence? A range of bad outcomes, from suicide and self-harm to depression, isolation, or acting out in negative ways. This is another area where adults are not listening.
Teens want more therapists in school, not police officers
All of the panelists at the Bader Philanthropies event stressed that trauma-informed care, as it is currently offered, is insufficient to meet the needs of kids crying out for help. This is where school plays a vital role.
Each youth on the panel said they want more school therapists and resources instead of having more police officers in the building.
This is a case where the exact opposite is happening. Legislation that passed as part of the state budget mandates the return of school resource officers in Milwaukee Public Schools, even though the school system didn’t ask for them and wasn’t consulted throughout the process. Lawmakers didn’t provide additional dollars to pay for those officers. Meanwhile, the governor’s lofty ambitions to invest $500 million in mental health programs was dramatically scaled back by lawmakers.
“When things happen in the Black community, a person loses a mother, father, cousin, brother, or sister to violence or prison, and there is no help for the youth to deal with the mental trauma of that loss, it’s going to come out negatively,” Dorsey said.
Sharlene Moore, executive director at Urban Underground, who was in attendance, said the youth have spoken. Now it’s up to the adults to address their concerns.
Urban Underground differs from other youth programs by turning 13 to 18-year-olds into change agents in their neighborhoods. It teaches the power of their voice and vote by educating on the political process and how to de-escalate conflict in their neighborhoods.
“The time is now to do something,” she said. “If we don’t give these kids mental health counselors, mentors, and more teachers of color whom they can relate to, what are we doing?”
She’s right. Our youth need a permanent seat at the table regarding decisions that impact them. We need to listen to them and enact things they say will work.
They are much closer to the situation than we are, and judging by the spike in youth violence, it is evident that what adults are doing is not working.
If we don’t start listening, more blood will be shed on the streets this summer, and our prison system will be filled with the unfulfilled potential of our city’s young people.
James E. Causey started reporting on life in his city while still at Marshall High School through a Milwaukee Sentinel high school internship. He’s been covering his hometown ever since, writing and editing news stories, projects and opinion pieces on urban youth, mental health, employment, housing and incarceration. Email him at email@example.com; follow him on Twitter @jecausey.