Southside forum targeted dysfunctional families, changing demographics

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Youth violence—from bullying and verbal violence to crime—is a concern across the city, not just on the north side.

Youth crime isn’t just isolated on Minneapolis’ North Side; it is a major concern on the city’s South Side as well. A mixed audience of about 30 Blacks, Whites, Latinos and Native Americans discussed how to reduce and prevent youth violence in a two-hour forum July 12 at the Midtown YWCA on Lake Street in South Minneapolis.

The event was co-facilitated by Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak and Youth Violence Prevention Steering Committee’s Co-chair Karen Kelly-Ariwoola, vice-president of community philanthropy for the Minneapolis Foundation. Kelly-Ariwoola defined youth violence as “a public health issue” that includes bullying in and out of school, verbal violence and family abuse, as well as robbery, shootings and gang activity.

Government and community both must work together “to head off an epidemic of violence,” said Mayor Rybak. “Nothing can be worse than Minneapolis seeing the next generation killing each other.”

He believes that those youth who are participating in violent activities tend to be early teenagers. “Sadly, it is increasingly kids who are 15, 14, 13, even 12-year-olds who’ve got guns that are illegal,” he noted.

It isn’t mostly males who are involved in violence, said Willie Bridges of South Minneapolis. “We cannot forget our female population, because when we talk about violence we only think about boys,” he said.

One audience member said that there are “informal programs” that do work for some kids, but not all. There are too many “disconnected kids” from existing youth-oriented programs, added another participant.

A woman complained that the media spends too much time reporting youth crime and not enough on positive activities by youth. “I don’t think the media should or can ignore the horrible level of violence we have,” responded the mayor. “I don’t think we should spend less time covering the bad stuff, but we should spend a lot more on the incredible young people we have.”

However, youth violence is more complex than many realize, said Samuel Simmons, a behavioral consultant who spoke passionately to the two co-chairs and the audience. He explained, “We have allowed certain things to go on for too long, and now we want to fix it with the [same] old remedy, and patch it up like we do with old tires.”

Existing programs are not meeting the needs of those families “who are dysfunctional for various reasons,” Simmons continued, adding that schools are not equipped to both educate and aid dysfunctional families. “You can’t expect teachers to do social work when they are not trained to do so.”

According to Simmons, there are too many angry youth: “If [they] can’t deal with anger, then all they have left is violence.” Violence for many of them has become like a drug, he noted: “We got young people who are addicted to the violence.”

The Southside community is changing, Simmons pointed out. “We live in a community that doesn’t want to deal with certain issues or really is uncomfortable with the fact that the color of the community is changing. Some folk are fighting that. But we have to deal with these issues.”

A Latina woman complained of the lack of culturally sensitive youth programs — too many programs “are about fixing us,” she said. Another Latina woman added that she believes that violence in schools between ethnic youth is increasing over such issues as ethnic accents and clothes. “These kids are growing with resentment and racism,” she said.

Bridges said that single families without children also must get involved in solving the youth violence problem. “They [single families] don’t see it as a problem other than when their house is broken into. Then it’s ‘those kids,’” he said.

Kelly-Ariwoola told the audience that the committee wanted to hear solutions as well as concerns. More “youth-specific employment programs” are needed, said one woman. Rybak countered that 2,000 city youth were employed in the City’s Step-Up summer job program.

One man suggested that organizations must “out-recruit” the gangs. Simmons said that more attention is needed for those kids who are not getting into trouble. “We don’t spend enough money on kids who may have a crack mother, who get up every morning and come to school on time, and we don’t support that child,” he noted.

The consensus of the forum was that some local businesses can help reduce youth violence by no longer selling violent video games and toy guns. Rybak told the audience that residents must demand that these stores stop such practices.

Businesses will get involved only if it makes “business sense” for them to do so, said Simmons, adding that they should invest in youth “so that you wouldn’t have to go outside the country looking for workers.”

The 32-person Youth Violence Prevention Steering Committee was created by the Minneapolis City Council and is composed of City officials and members of social agencies and community organizations. Its main purpose is to design a “Blueprint for Action” for dealing with youth violence, said Kelly-Ariwoola, one of two committee co-chairs.

“This committee has talked about big and small issues, but [it] does not have the option of looking away,” she said.

The committee claimed that the July 12 forum, one of two planned for this month, was intended to seek community input, but most who were in attendance either were community organization officials or City officials. Asked afterwards why there was not more participation from ordinary citizens, especially Black Southside residents, Kelly-Ariwoola said, “The committee is talking to a lot of Black people, and there is a lot of Black representation on the committee. I frankly say that we have a pretty good representation of people of color here tonight.

“One of the messages that we have to get out into the community is that this is not just a Black problem,” she continued. “[Youth violence] affects so many of us.”

Rybak agreed: “Three is a lot that government can do, but there is a lot that each of us as individuals in the community have to do.”

Nonetheless, both he and Kelly-Ariwoola were pleased with the turnout on a sweltering July evening. “There is so much about youth violence that you can’t cover in a two-hour meeting,” surmised Rybak. “We’ve got more to do.”

“This is one of many conversations or opportunities for people to come to,” Kelly-Ariwoola concluded.

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-recorder.com.