As public officials, activists and residents scramble to address the scourge of gun violence in the District, a group of young people affected by the bloodshed have set out to examine the issue more holistically.
Members of Pathways 2 Power, an activist group made up of Thurgood Marshall Academy Public Charter School students and alumni, recently screened their anti-violence public service announcement, voicing their concerns about the gun-related deaths in their communities and weighing in on what they believe to be the underlying causes.
“Materialism makes us rob people who look just like us,” said group member Lauryn Renford, one of the 11 youths behind the anti-violence public service announcement making the rounds on local television and at D.C. Council hearings in recent months. “I think about the mindset of peers who condone violence.”
The standing-room-only event on Nov. 8 in the back of Ben’s Chili Bowl in Northwest attracted D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham, D.C. Council members Kenyan McDuffie (D-Ward 5) and Trayon White (D-Ward 8), and Ben’s Chili Bowl historian Bernard Demczuk, each of whom commended the activists for their efforts to galvanize their peers in the fight against gun violence.
For more than an hour, the youths presented solutions to tackle the poverty, lack of resources, and educational gaps they said created the conditions that led to the killings of two of their peers, Zaire Kelly and Paris Brown, within a four-month span.
“In middle school, I learned Black history beyond when our ancestors were enslaved,” Lauryn said. “It showed me a mirror of myself. Learning Black history is necessary for Black children because it fills your self-esteem. You don’t look at yourself and think about your lineage that was enslaved, you think about greatness.”
Before the conversation started, guests watched the public service announcement, which featured scenes filmed in neighborhoods throughout Anacostia. In the video, the young people, standing in front of houses and landmarks, spoke about how gun violence affected their lives and issued a call to action for their peers to organize against it.
The film project, supported by GroundMedia, a Southeast-based strategic creative studio, coalesced in the aftermath of the murders of Zaire, 16, and Paris, 19, two Thurgood Marshall students who were fatally shot September 2017 and January, respectively.
In the months after the deaths, the number of homicides for 2018 surpassed that of the previous year. As of this week, 145 gun deaths have been reported.
Amid the ongoing violence, members of Pathways 2 Power brainstormed ways to examine the epidemic in their city.
“This public service announcement came together [because] we wanted to express our opinions,” said RuKiyah Mack, a member of Pathways 2 Power. “We created a script that reflected the changes we wanted to see. The scenes were shot around historic Anacostia. Violence stems from poverty — if you’re someone without and you see someone who has it all, you ultimately resort to gun violence.”
For some of the young filmmakers, curbing violence means strengthening police-community relationships and infusing funds into citywide programs with a proven track record of helping disaffected young people.
“When we have honest dialogue with police officers, we can make change,” Keron Campbell, Thurgood Marshall student and one of two D.C. youth mayors, said during the screening event. “We only come together when there’s conflict. I fear for my life sometimes going to 7-11, and I live in a community with violence two blocks away from the police station. We can do more things by funding more programs like the Marion Barry Youth Leadership Institute.”
White, who legislates on behalf of residents living near Thurgood Marshall, said he wants to take steps that will better allow those students and other young people in Ward 8 to tackle gun violence and other issues.
After the screening, he conferred with Pathways 2 Power members who expressed interest in participating on a youth advisory council.
“We have to be in a place where we change from us talking about the youth as the problem, to us talking about them as the solution,” White said. “They know about the problems before us, and we should empower them to become their own solution.”