A youth panel moderated by Jamal Holtz at the MLK Jr. Conversations and Crank Conference on Jan. 14 (Anthony Tilghman/The Washington Informer)
A youth panel moderated by Jamal Holtz at the MLK Jr. Conversations and Crank Conference on Jan. 14 (Anthony Tilghman/The Washington Informer)

Throughout the “MLK Jr. Conversations and Crank Conference” on Saturday, the microphones kept switching off; but even as the tech faltered, the speakers — including at-large D.C. Council member Kenyan McDuffie and Emmy Award-winning journalist Anna-Lysa Gayle — did not. Attendees filled every seat in the Center’s black box theater and then some, leaving people standing against the walls and sitting on steps to listen to the wide-ranging conversations about addressing youth violence in the District.

Students from schools around the DMV participate in a discussion at Anacostia Arts Center organized by Don’t Mute DC during MLK Weekend. (Anthony Tilghman/The Washington Informer)

After a series of shootings in recent weeks, the conference felt particularly urgent. Ronald Moten, a peace activist and co-chair of Don’t Mute DC — the event’s main sponsor — illustrated that urgency, both in his passionate remarks and in his determination to keep the conference running smoothly. 

And the conference was, in part, a show: D.C. artists performed musical sets between panels. In keeping with the day’s theme, the music-centered messages of peace.

First Panel ‘Sets the Tone’ by Centering Youth Voices

The day began with an eight-person youth panel, where young people from around the District discussed their own challenges, from gun violence to college applications, and offered their ideas for solutions. D.C. statehood activist Jamal Holtz moderated the panel; at age 24, Holtz was the oldest person on the stage. 

“The great thing about this panel and having this conversation up first is that we get to set the tone that guides the rest of the day,” he said at the beginning of the event. “Historically, [youth] always see policy circles and conversations with policymakers making decisions on behalf of us, but none of us are at the table.”

The idea that young people feel excluded from dialogues about their own lives and futures weaved its way through the rest of the 40-minute discussion. When asked to name some of the biggest challenges facing them and their peers, several panelists mentioned “not being heard” by adults. 

“I think there’s a lot of criticizing and not a lot of help out there,” said 18-year-old Joshuah Davis, a senior at Bard High School Early College DC.

They discussed a lack of guidance from adults in their lives, especially when it came to navigating complicated systems for accessing opportunities like college scholarships. Another Bard upperclassman, Justus Williams, said he had taken pride in completing the application process and getting into a summer course at American University. But he described the experience of applying as “extremely challenging” because he needed to figure it out on his own. 

“I had no idea things like that even existed,” Williams said.

The panel’s youngest speaker, eighth grader Eris Busey—a celebrated youth model and published author at 13 years old—said that adults needed to step up, not just by providing guidance but also by showing young people that people care about them. She said that kind of support could become especially important for young people growing up in single-family households like her own. 

“Kids may feel like they don’t have anybody to go to,” she said. 

At this event, adults certainly were listening. Around 40 people sat in the audience, intent on the conversation and often erupting into applause following the young speakers’ comments. When Ardinay Blocker, 20, responded to a question about what she would do if she were mayor—create a youth office staffed by youth employees—one listener called out, “That’s brilliant!” 

Blocker also suggested youth representatives that could liaison with D.C. Council members or city agencies. She felt previous generations had ignored youth needs and created barriers to their success.

“I feel like they misled us, and I feel like they disappointed us,” she said. 

Positive Mentorship by High School Sports Coaches

 It was the great abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, who once said, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” That quote certainly applies to today’s youth not only here in the nation’s capital, but all across the United States, with one revision: “broken men and women.” 

On Saturday evening,  approximately 50 students, parents, coaches, and community leaders gathered at the Anacostia Arts Center for a panel titled, “Coaching Away Violence.”  

The panel, moderated by WPGC 95.5’s Poet Taylor, explored the challenges confronting today’s inner-city sports coaches and the important roles that they play in the lives of young men and women as much-needed mentors.  

The role of today’s sports coaches often extends beyond sporting activities to include filling gaps in the homes of our young people.  

“Coaching got me to become a better athlete and we all became one as a family and a brotherhood,” said one student panelist who attends Rock Creek Christian Academy, when asked to offer his thoughts on how his football coach has positively impacted his life and that of his fellow teammates.”   

Those in attendance, some shedding tears, remembered 14-year-old Antoine Manning, who was killed in Southeast, D.C. last November. Antoine loved sports, especially football, and is missed dearly by his family, friends, teammates and coach.  

Another consistent theme raised by some in attendance is a lack of awareness of community resources available for families in crisis by the district government and other entities. Moreover, many parents dismiss emotional concerns expressed by their children because they themselves lack the ability to address them.  

One resource organization is the Next Steps Program. For those in need of assistance, including anger management and depression, program officials can be reached at (202) 642-4443 or nextstepsdc22@gmail.com. 

When asked what he had taken away from the students, Moten replied, “I learned to listen.”

Kayla Benjamin

Covers climate change & environmental justice for the Informer as a full-time reporter through the Report for America program. Prior to her time here, she worked at Washingtonian Magazine writing stories...

Austin R. Cooper Jr.

Austin R. Cooper, Jr., serves as the President of Cooper Strategic Affairs, Inc. The firm provides legislative, political and communications counsel in Washington, D.C., for governmental, nonprofit and...

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