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23rd Annual Dance 4 Peace Set for Saturday

August 5, 2018

LOWELL -- Ivy Ngugi was blown away. Attending the annual Dance 4 Peace at Lowell Memorial Auditorium last year, she was truly impressed by the youth anti-violence forum.

More than 1,000 people attend the event, during which youth from the Merrimack Valley perform dance, music, spoken word and comedy -- all around a theme that promotes tolerance and peace.

“It was so powerful, and just shows if you give youth the right tools, we can do it,” said Ngugi, of Dracut. “We can educate the community, and make a difference.”

Ngugi, now 15, made sure to be part of the planning for Dance 4 Peace this year.

The theme of the event had been narrowed down to racism and school shootings by the time she joined the debate at Lowell Community Health Center’s Teen BLOCK program, the free after-school and summer program for local teenagers.

“Everyone was really welcoming, no one was judgmental,” Ngugi said. “It was an actual safe space, which is really important.”

The group decided that racism and racial profiling should win out for the upcoming event -- a theme that affects youth the most locally and nationally, they ruled. The slogan at the Aug. 10 Dance 4 Peace, its 23rd year, will be “Racial Profiling, Open Your Eyes, Don’t Let Racism Rise.”

“We focus on what’s affecting young people the most,” said Eric Johnson, Teen BLOCK’s youth violence prevention coordinator. “We debate and discuss what’s the most pressing issue to address now for our youth.”

Since 1988, Teen BLOCK (formerly the Lowell Teen Coalition) has helped thousands of teens succeed in school and beyond while making healthy choices and learning the nuts and bolts of civic engagement.

The program is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year.

“It’s about building a community of acceptance among young people,” said Teen BLOCK Program Manager Ruth Ogembo. “It’s about engaging young people in the community, and learning about different community challenges.”

When Teen BLOCK was founded, Lowell was at the top of the state list for teen birth rates. It has done a lot of work on teen pregnancy prevention and reproductive health education.

The city has seen a major improvement with this issue since Teen BLOCK started engaging teens.

The program also focuses on different cultures that are reflected in Lowell, including the Cambodian community. Teen BLOCK encourages youth to explore their cultural identity and history.

When it comes to Cambodians, the program goes over the impact of the genocide there, and how to interact with family members who have PTSD.

Irena Voun, 16, of Lowell, joined Teen BLOCK when she was 14. Her doctor at the Lowell Community Health Center recommended the program, saying she would be a good fit because she’s fun, creative and likes to dance.

Voun didn’t know anybody in the program, but gave it a try. She ended up joining the dance crew there and became “obsessed” with Teen BLOCK.

“It’s been so helpful to me,” Voun said.

Before Dance 4 Peace on Aug. 10, more than 100 Teen BLOCK alums will gather at the Old Court for a reunion.

As in past years, the Lowell Police Department is part of the planning; officers will perform in full uniform.

On Aug. 10, doors will open at Lowell Memorial Auditorium at 6:30 p.m. The show starts at 7 p.m.

The admission fee is $5. Proceeds go to a scholarship named for a former Teen BLOCK member, Quoc Le, who was killed in gang violence in Boston.

Follow Rick Sobey on Twitter @rsobeyLSun.

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