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EYEJ Impact 25 Youth Council members drum up support in D.C.

August 17, 2018

EYEJ Impact 25 Youth Council members drum up support in D.C.

By Chantal Brown, Special to The Plain Dealer

On April 30,  the Empowering Youth Exploring Justice EYEJ Impact 25 Youth Council, a group of youth from all over the Cleveland area gave a presentation to the Cleveland Police Department, members of the Cleveland Browns, and more than 100 other financial heavy-hitters in the region with an “ask” amounting to $140,000.

What cause could a bunch of teenagers think was worth that much?

Simple: a better relationship between the community and its police department.

A room filled with the region’s most influential organizations sat and listened to our plans to provide Cleveland youth with more life skills training; tools to deal with toxic stress; luncheons and other activities to build relationships with police officers; and support for expanding more activist groups like ourselves.

See all of the Youth Council’s recommendations here

Even though we felt we were promised more, the response hasn’t been what we expected. [EYEJ says the Youth Council’s initiative has gotten some “support letters” and spurred conversations with some agencies but no financial commitments have been made to support the ideas presented in April.]

Read previous coverage of the council’s work

On a quest to take action, members of the youth council, as well as supportive members from Plymouth Church in Shaker Heights, and Mai Moore, founder and director of EYEJ, decided to raise money to visit senators and representatives from Ohio in our nation’s capital.

We went to the District of Columbia with a question in mind: How much does our government really listen to young people?

“Parkland caused young people to be listened to,” Shomari Figures, one of Senator Sherrod Brown’s liaisons explained during our visit, after we gave him the rundown of the youth council’s mission.

We used our initial meet-and-greet to tell him about the different conditions in each of our communities, and to plead why we wanted to prevent them from becoming another Parkland, where a student last year shot and killed 17 students and teachers.

To outsiders, it might seem like we were crying out to Figures because of the tone of voice we used to get out point across. But we were not aggressive, we were upset and we felt that’s what we literally needed to do to be heard.

Our first meeting with the Ohio Senator was in a big multi-purpose room with dozens of other lobbyists and citizens in a coffee meet-and-greet. Later, another one of Senator Sherrod Brown’s liaisons, Charles Williams III, and Leah Hill, a legislative assistant for Rep. Marcia Fudge, joined the conversation.

From schools not allowing protests against gun violence in the community to every day lack of effort to provide young people with the life skills that they need, we told them all of our frustrations with our city.

Most of these concerns were met with a blanket version of: “We’re taking it incredibly seriously.” But no answers on what was being done to improve these conditions.

Eventually we did rub elbows with Senator Brown.

The introduction the group made to him about our goal could have been stronger if we were not starstruck by his charisma. (You cannot blame him too much for it. How else would he get elected!?) He nodded his head in support of our ideas of the facilitated police luncheons at different schools and our emphasis on how important it was to teach the youth about the resources they will need when it is time for them to strike out on their own.

His advice to us? Vote.

Brown explained how voting is the number one way to get our voices heard. Apparently if 18-year-olds vote and start asking questions, politicians will say “Oh my, young people care?!?!”

Even though we’d heard that message before, it is important to keep in mind.

Later that morning, we went into the details of everything in our plan in a small conference room.

The first thing we discussed was the concept of toxic stress.

Our key point was that 100 percent of the youth council members suffered from toxic stress. America already spends more than $500 billion a year to help fight things that contribute to that stress, such as child poverty, poor health, getting involved in the criminal justice system and dropping out of school, according to the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity.

Our first proposed solution to this was incorporating life skills classes into school curriculums, similar to what EYEJ does with its current in-school discussions. We proposed to start with three test schools and teach concepts that young people will need to know as they transition into adulthood, such as how to manage stress, money, deal with LGBTQ and other issues we knew were important from the months of meetings we had to come up with our recommendations.

As they the aides nodded their heads, Williams interrupted and said, “Okay, what we would like to do now is go around the table and have each of you state a life skills issue that you’re dealing with right now.”  

“Well, not just one issue. It’s a combination of things that they deal with everyday.” Moore, the executive director of EYEJ retorted.

“We would still like to know what is one thing that you think in your mind, ‘Oh, if I only had this things would be better.’”

We could not pinpoint one thing, we explained. There were so many.

Moore talk about how toxic stress is composed of number of factors in a youth’s community and just trying to fix one thing is not the solution to the problem. The world is much more complex now.

What we heard in response from Figures, the aide, was that since the government distributes money for specific projects, the council would have to apply for financial support — grants — that way.

Going back and forth took up the rest of our 30-minute time slot with them. Pretty much, it was spent with the officials trying to put a label, and subsequently a dollar amount, on the troubles we were describing. The message we heard: The government does not just hand out grants for teenage activists.  

(They did send out a couple more of their representatives to spend an additional 45 minutes with us after this meeting to go into detail about the police-youth relationships portion of what we were recommending.)

We thanked them for the courtesy and headed over to our next meeting scheduled with Senator Rob Portman of Ohio.

Portman sent one of his legislative correspondents, Sam Hattrup, to meet with us. After waiting for him for over 15 minutes, we were able to share with him all of the topics in a pamphlet we had printed out of our presentation from April summarizing all of our key proposals.

One of our members, Corrin Cooper, 16, spoke about some bad experiences she had with police and why better relationships are needed.

In the end, Hattrup only had one question:

“So why did you guys join EYEJ?”

After getting over the surprise of how that was the first thing that came out of his mouth, he followed up with, “So what kinds of grants did you guys apply for?”

Our last stop was to Rep. David Joyce’s office.

Like a true Ohioan, he had a bunch of mini vintage car models, articles about the Cavaliers and Indians, and a signed football from the Browns on display in his office.

Kendall Kalagher, his legislative director, met with us in the hallway outside since a meeting was going on. By the time we started this last discussion, you could see the exasperation on the council members’ faces.

“Basically, I am going to get straight to the point since I have said this so many times,” Corrin said to her as she explained our mission.

Even more curtly, Moore expressed to Kalagher, “They’re not here to just build awareness. They’re here to actually make change.”

Out of all the people we met with, Kalagher was the most attentive and understanding of that mission.

She seemed to be the most understanding about the concept of toxic stress.

Of course, in the end, she was the same as all of the other people we talked to. Her first question was how far we got with funding and receiving different grants. She was also the only person to give us the name of someone who has a role in how money is appropriated to Ohio, though she did warn that funds will be “tough to get since there are probably similar organizations like us.”

Before we met with the Washington officials, youth council member Maranda Priah, 17, said she hoped to gain experience that could carry her throughout her life.  

One thing that we certainly could carry with us was the feeling of knowing we presented ourselves in an articulate way in front of the people who help run our country.

Other than that, progress still awaits.

We’ve seen no signs of action, other than the “letters of support” to make sure our mission turns into progress.

We aren’t the first to feel ignored like this. But as a community we feel we need to continue to put pressure on our mayors, principals, superintendents, police departments and others to be supportive either financially or to participate in our project.

We believe the problems in this city are everyone’s responsibility.

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