Nicole Smith* said she never felt quite comfortable with herself until she stepped on a stage and belted out a song in front of a small audience at BloomBars in D.C.
A victim of bullying and sexual assault, Smith said she spent years feeling herself slip away until she was introduced to arts education and emotional literacy programs while attending Ballou Senior High School.
“Wow,” Smith, 19, of Southwest said she remembers saying at the time. “This is what I’ve been missing. This is what I needed.”
Smith is part of a growing group of young people in the District using the arts to express themselves and a deterrent from violence. She joined about 300 other teens, community leaders, and cyclists for the third annual Peace Ride event on the National Mall on Sept. 29 to raise awareness about youth violence art programs, peace education, and social-emotional literacy.
During the event, attendees pedaled their way around a six- to 19-mile course along the National Mall and Virginia. Young people staged musical performances, while other teens were treated to yoga classes as a DJ spun dance hits.
“We’re showing [young people] that another way is possible,” said Hawah Kasat, executive director of One Common Unity, a D.C.-based nonprofit that organized the event and is dedicated to breaking the cycle of violence and building healthy communities. “[The event and art education are] constructive instead of destructive.”
Young people who attended the event Saturday said they were concerned about the uptick of violence in their communities and wanted to show that peace is possible when youths are given opportunities and alternatives. The number of homicides in the city this year, 121, is up more than 40 percent from this time in 2017, according to Metropolitan Police.
Tiarra Diggs, 19, of Northeast said the shooting along E Street in Northeast on Sept. 28 that injured a 9-year-old girl was in her community; months earlier she said she attended a vigil for Makiyah Wilson, a 10-year-old girl who was fatally shot in Northeast in July.
“I’m upset that we have to accept that there is violence in our community — it could have been me,” she said. “I think riding sends a message. It’s important for kids like myself to look forward to being a part of something.”
And having a life path continues to be crucial for young people like Delvin Douglas, 19, a junior facilitator who originally joined the organization as a student while enrolled at Bell Multicultural High School in Columbia Heights.
“School nowadays is so boring. Kids are not interested,” said Douglas, who lives in Southeast with his parents and siblings. “They don’t teach you how to survive in the real world — not peace education, not how to save money, not how to do your taxes.”
Douglas attended the Peace Ride hoping to inspire others to be more productive and engaged in their communities. He said he remembers himself as a wild and anxious teenager before taking part in One Common Unity’s Fly By Light program — where he said he finally became comfortable rapping and playing the drums in front of an audience.
“They teach you how to center yourself, which is great as you’re transitioning into adulthood,” he said. “One Common Unity gives you the space you need to express yourself.”
Still, Douglas notes that even with a new sense of purpose, the violence that continues in his community remains inescapable, citing a February 2017 outing to Eastover Shopping Center with his sister during which six teenage boys suddenly attacked him.
“I have to look over my shoulder to make sure nobody is sneaking up on me — it’s very uncomfortable,” he said.
* Not her real name