Last week, I was asked to spend time with an incredible group of 4th graders from North Philadelphia at the Horizons camp at Episcopal Academy. This group chose to do a project on solutions to violence in their community – a topic that no child should have to ponder, but is front and center in their lives. The resilience of this young group, combined with their enthusiastic determination to change their community is a story worth telling.
As a criminologist and social justice advocate, I consider myself an extremely socially conscious individual. I’ve pissed a lot of people off with my outspoken nature (putting it mildly), passion for equality, and wicked debate skills. I wear social justice shirts, share basically every Shaun King/MIC/anti-police brutality article possible, attempt to educate people about the plight of the less fortunate, and am raising mini advocate children. I am a credentialed expert in criminal behavior – but a few days with these children taught me more than any classroom could have.
Their stories broke my heart.
They told me of their experiences with gun violence with the nonchalance of my children telling me they are going to walk the dogs. Bullets hitting the ground inches from their feet while at the playground. Fearing death while walking to pick up some milk from the corner store. Classmates bringing weapons to school. Being burdened with constant dread that each gunshot you hear has erased the life of another loved one.
These stories were spoken to me from the mouths of these precious children who have developed a concerning sense of detachment from the shock that one would expect to accompany stories of such ordeals.
I think of my middle-class children and their middle-class friends, and how vastly different their perceptions and depictions of similar experiences would be. What these children from North Philly experience on a daily basis would wreak havoc in our lives if they happened even once. We would crumble. We would get sympathy when we told our harrowing stories of terror and survival. Yet this group of children involuntarily exists in these menacing realities without sympathy. Much of society remains blissfully ignorant to this tragedy.
These children are living casualties of our nation’s violent communities.
Their innocence is being stolen on a daily basis because they were born into these environments. This is no fault of their own. Their first breaths were suffocated by their dismal environments and blunted futures. They reside, play, and get educated in war zones just conveniently located outside of our daily routines. We mow our lawns and pay our mortgages, while they dodge bullets on the playground and in their own houses. They cry when they hear the sirens of an ambulance or police car when their family isn’t home – not because they need comfort, but because they fear that death has ravaged their lives yet again.
What these children want is not unreasonable. They crave safety. Peace. A future. THEIR LIVES. It’s that simple. Do they not deserve the same opportunities as my children? Your children? Their goals and dreams have validity and importance. None of these children aspire to be criminals. They dream of being nurses, teachers, actresses, and sports players, just like our kids do…but there is a blunt difference. My children know they can be whatever they want to be, simply because of their parentage. These children know deep down that survival is their primary goal, simply because of THEIR parentage.
All too often our focus is thrust on the politics of adult criminals, the unemployed, the welfare recipients – hardened products of the same disheartening environment that these innocent children have interpreted to me. Those adults were once innocent children, too. Born into poverty and violence through no fault of their own. And these children will soon be adults. We have an obligation to help these children break the cycles of poverty and violence.
My time with this group has taught me that violence isn’t just statistics, Dateline episodes, or stories we see in the news. Violence is a 10-year-old running to lock doors and windows, hiding under the couch to avoid gunshots outside their home. Violence is an 11-year-old knowing what objects can be used as a silencer. Violence is being shot at while playing on the playground. Violence is seeing your 10-year-old friend’s body superimposed on a casket as a threat on social media. Violence is fearing the termination of your existence every second of every day.
An individual’s socioeconomic status at birth should not predetermine their path or limit their opportunities for success. Additional funding of social services like healthcare, education, after-school activities, and mentoring programs, helps reduce the immeasurable challenges that plague the lives of children in poverty. These children light up when they talk about their aspirations just like any other 4th grader would.
In the words of Beyoncé, these kids “…just might be a Black Bill Gates in the making.” Let’s work collectively as humans to give them a safe space to thrive.