One word sums up what youth say they need to avoid the violence that’s claiming so many of their young lives.
One in three young people doesn’t have a mentor in their life, said Amaya Bauldwin, 18, of Mentor Greater Milwaukee, an organization missioned to increase mentorship opportunities for youth.
That’s crucial for young people who are facing challenges in life and don’t have support systems to overcome them. That’s where mentors come in, she said.
“They will have someone to talk to,” said Bauldwin, who will attend North Carolina Central University in the fall. “They may not be able to talk to their mother or father. So a mentor is someone they can talk to, take them to places when needed and just be there for them in the end.”
Bauldwin was part of a youth violence prevention panel Wednesday hosted by Bader Philanthropies and Sojourner Family Peace Center. The event brought Milwaukee teens together to get their perspective on what works and doesn’t when it comes to preventing youth violence.
It’s a vital issue in Milwaukee. This year, 10 children — ages 1 to 17 — have been victims of homicide.
The youths touched on a myriad of issues and solutions regarding violence including the need for equitable funding for education, making positive choices and the need for Black male teachers.
The panel discussion was the second in a series of events Bader Philanthropies is holding around youth violence prevention. Spoken-word artist Jonah Denae, 17, a student at Milwaukee High School of the Arts, performed at the event, at the foundation’s headquarters at 3300 N. King Dr. The organization plans to host future discussions, including one on mentoring.
Here are some takeaways from what the young people had to say:
Mentors need to be culturally competent
Being a mentor represents hope for a lot of young people, said Luis Parra, 17, a Marquette High School student. In a lot of privileged areas, kids see doctors and lawyers — people they can aspire to, said Parra, a member of Casa Romero Renewal Center, a faith-based youth service organization.
Parra said if youths had someone with a similar “upbringing, making it, being successful with it and seeing themselves in that position,” that would make all the difference.
While mentors are needed, they must be relatable and understand where a student comes from, said Deanthony Monroe, 14, a graduate of Rufus King Middle School. Monroe participates in Project Ujima, a violence intervention program for individuals affected by gun violence that’s operated by Children’s Wisconsin and the Medical College of Wisconsin.
“They could be from a high and mighty place, while the other person is from a down and broken place like the projects,” Monroe said. “So they really need to understand what (youth) are saying and how they feel about certain things.”
Added Bauldwin: “Kids don’t want to go anywhere where they feel like they are going to be judged or (be in) tokenism places where (people) use kids for pictures to say, ‘Hey, this is what we are doing,’ but are not actually getting to know these kids.”
Youth want more teachers who look like them
The best way to keep students, especially young Black males, engaged is to have teachers who look like them, said Larry Dorsey, 17, who’s headed to Milwaukee Area Technical College in the fall.
“Going to a teacher who isn’t your same skin color and the things you go through when you go to school, you cannot relate to that person,” Dorsey said, apologizing to whites attending the discussion. “You cannot relate to a white teacher who hasn’t been through what you’ve been through and they are not going to.”
The first Black male teacher Dorsey had was Derrick Portalatin, who he called his biggest role model at South Division High School.
“He taught me so much. He put me on so much game,” he said. “He told me once, when we have more Black teachers, everything would change.”
Dorsey said having teachers youths can relate to helps them academically, socially and emotionally.
Youth also need equitable education, Bauldwin said. Resources for education should be distributed equally, regardless of a student’s ZIP code, she said.
“Some youth simply because of where they live determines their future and they face things like the school-to-prison pipeline that other schools might not face,” Bauldwin said.
She noted a legislative proposal to put police in schools will only exacerbate that school-to-prison pipeline.
Kids want programs other than basketball and football
Youth want more diverse programming offering a range of creative and challenging activities, from sports to the arts. But a lot of times, they said, programs can become stereotypical, only offering basketball and football because adults feel that’s what kids want.
“We are much more than that,” Monroe said. “We can do way more than just basketball and football.”
Youth, he added, need to be pushed out of their comfort zones to experience new things so they won’t get bored.
When Dorsey got connected with Running Rebels, a Milwaukee community organization for youth, he said they embraced youths’ interests.
“If I kid wanted to do art, they can do it. If they wanted to be in the kitchen, they could cook. If they wanted to play ball, they can do that. If they wanted to do graphic design, they can do that,” Dorsey said.
“It really just helped kids push for their dreams and their goals.”
And these programs should be a safe space for youth but also authentic and welcoming, Bauldwin added. Some programs, she noted, claim to serve youths just to get grant funding, but don’t use the funds to actually help them.
Bader Philanthropies funds a lot of initiatives that help young people. But president and CEO Daniel J. Bader said it was important to hear directly from teens about what they need, instead from the nonprofits that serve them. The discussion illustrated how much teens value and want mentor programs, he said.
“We know mentors is a big big deal,” Bader said, “but to hear directly from the youth that it is a big, big deal to them, then that helps me think about our grantmaking and helps prioritize it.”