OPINION | Engaging youth In violence prevention


As we participate in Minneapolis Youth Prevention Week (March 18th-22nd), we should acknowledge that there’s an important, untold story about reduction of violence in the Twin Cities.  As President Obama did on his recent trip here, we need to acknowledge and engage youth in helping to reduce violence in our communities. Instilling a culture of peace among youth and utilizing their ingenuity to create solutions with adult decision-makers are some of the best ways to reduce violence across generations. 

Recognizing that young people have 2,000 hours of discretionary time – nearly twice the time they spend in school, Minneapolis wisely has helped curb youth violence by emphasizing the central role of youth engagement and high quality out-of-school time programs.

The peak hours for youth involvement in violent crime — both as perpetrators and as victims — are between 2 and 6 p.m. A California study of afterschool programs showed that violent acts decreased by more than 50% for youth involved in afterschool programs. Closer to home, we have seen a reduction in youth violence in recent years. The Minneapolis Blueprint for Action on youth violence has helped strengthen protective factors for youth, through involvement in intervention programs and connections to caring adults. 

This broader way of thinking about the time youth spend after school can help reach the young people who are most at risk of causing or experiencing violence. A good example is the award-winning Brotherhood Inc., a Saint Paul nonprofit that helps young African American men ages 16-24 who are involved or are at risk for involvement in gangs or the criminal justice system. 

Brotherhood recognizes that African American males have moved from being at-risk to being in crisis. They face the highest rates of unemployment and homelessness, and the greatest high school drop-out frequency. As Nekima Levy-Pounds of Brotherhood Inc. explained, African American males represent 7.4 percent of Minnesota’s overall juvenile population, yet account for 38 percent of total arrests for violent crime and 65 percent of arrests involving curfew, loitering and runaway infractions.

With Brotherhood, these young men build leadership skills through employment in a social enterprise and meetings with policy makers in government and law enforcement to provide input and insights. Sharing their unique perspectives as young men who have been in the system, the youth train new police recruits, engage in public speaking, perform plays based on their experiences, and work with policy makers to identify alternative approaches to interacting with African American youth.

Another nonprofit, La Opportunidad, is helping to achieve the same goals in the Latino community, working with youth to develop strategies for peace such as healthy relationships, anger management, conflict resolution, and positive family relationships. La Opportunidad focuses on youth at high risk of gang involvement.  It plays an active role in the life of a young person, intervening at the first sign of their becoming at-risk and providing positive opportunities, particularly after school.

Youth play a central leadership role in La Opportunidad.  As Eloisa Echavez of La Opportunidad explains, for 13 years, high school Latino youth has organized a Latino Youth Peace and Leadership Conference which now involves students from 15 high schools. Youth meet weekly for ten months to plan and develop all conference elements and play a central role in managing the event. Like Brotherhood, their work is grounded in understanding and promoting the strengths that come from their culture.  

Solving the problem of youth violence requires a multi-prong approach. While efforts to limit youth access to guns will certainly help, an emphasis on creating enriching opportunities that empower youth to realize the role they can play in developing a better world for themselves and their communities is essential.

Wokie Weah is the president of Youthprise, an intermediary that champions learning beyond the classroom for all Minnesota youth. She serves as co-chair of the Minneapolis Youth Violence Prevention Commission along with Mayor Rybak and Ben Knoll of Greater Twin Cities United Way. www.youthprise.org