Accompanied by six current students, I spoke to the Rotary Club of Jackson about the project on July 17, 2017. I focused my speech on YMP's effort to help lead a community-wide effort to reduce youth crime. Here is my speech in its entirety:
Good afternoon, Rotarians, and thank you so much to Neddie Winters for getting me here today. I’m thrilled to be with you to talk about the Mississippi Youth Media Project. I’ve brought a few of this summer’s 29 students with me today: meet Leslyn Smith of Callaway High School; Maggie Jefferis, Chloe Bishop, Sonni Presley and Jeffrey Caliedo of Murrah; and Maisie Brown of Jim Hill.
I’m also thrilled to see the director of the Mississippi FBI here as well. Special Agent in Charge Christopher Freeze just came from the Youth Media Project where Leslyn and her crime-prevention team interviewed him for their YMP Youth Crime Lab project. He is also the reason I’m here to talk to you about YMP today, as well as the need to provide other opportunities for young people that, in turn, will lower crime in our community.
I met Christopher Freeze a few months back when he got in touch out of the blue—which made me a bit paranoid, you know. It’s not every day that an FBI leader reaches out to me. He told me he had read some of my Preventing Violence work for the JFP, especially about the causes of violent crime in Jackson, and possible solutions, and wanted to talk more. We met and had a marathon conversation about youth crime that made me believe him when he says that he wants to help prevent crime among young people so they never get to law enforcement like him when they’re older. And that it’s a vital part of his faith to help children. I’m with him completely there.
SAC Freeze then invited me to come here for his talk to you in April on the same subject. First, he told you he said expected things about violence in Jackson: It "takes a toll" on businesses, the community and "especially your children," he said, adding that “strong, law-abiding families” are needed. Of course that’s true, and we hear it a lot.
But then the FBI leader said something less expected: “It would be easy for me to stop right there," adding that if he did, it would "only be addressing part of the problem." He then went on to talk about helping “our children”—meaning the kids who get in trouble, too—and said it is in our moral interest to help them. He talked about the need to feed, educate, love and install hope in all our young people, even those without great parents.
Then Freeze stated something that should be obvious: police cannot solve the problem of violent crime; they are only a piece of the puzzle. "We cannot arrest our way out of this law-enforcement problem. ... (We) must be involved in programs that provide escape," he told you that day.
I, with a lot of help, designed the Mississippi Youth Media Project over many years to be a program that provides escape and much more for the young people of Jackson—and not just the usual “good” ones who already stay out of trouble, although they’re vital members of YMP, too.
YMP, as we call it, has three main goals: First, we want to change the negative narrative about young people, especially those in poverty-stricken areas or with single parents, that pushes the perception that they can’t, or won’t, be helped; that they don’t want jobs; that they are destined to a life of crime. All of those things are myths.
Young people tell me constantly that they want to help stop the crime cycle (and that includes those who have been in trouble; especially them, in fact). They want to work, but can’t get jobs in their own neighborhoods and often don’t have reliable transportation. They want opportunities. They want what we want. And they believe that “real” stories about their lives, even if they’re difficult to hear, are “positive” instead of all the stories blaming them and their usually hard-working parents. They also all worry about their younger siblings and cousins having better choices.
Second, we believe in teaching all young people the tools for greatness, whether it’s how to use technology, how to network, how to greet people and thank them later, how to have confidence to ask questions, how to do research, how to write well and rewrite, how to focus and manage their time, how to plan complicated projects and collaborations, what it takes to start a business or a nonprofit (which I’m learning too), how to write a SWOT analysis.
These students are doing and learning those things six hours a day, five days a week for two months this summer. They are finishing strong, they are publishing at jxnpulse.com. They are winning awards and doing public appearances and TEDx talks. They are mentoring other YMP students. They are interviewing mayors and FBI leaders.
That leads me to the third goal: We want students to stay in school, and do well there. That sets them up for better jobs and careers, which helps our economic development. It also makes all of us safer. SAC Freeze mentioned the BOTEC reports on Jackson crime when he talked to you. That was such a bi-partisan effort it’s not funny. The Legislature allocated $500,000 for a study of Jackson crime and the attorney general contracted it. It’s a remarkable resource that I talk about all the time. It has causes. It has solutions. It has stories.
BOTEC warned that there two top precursors for young people later committing violent crime. One is dropping out of school, or missing a lot. This summer, Mississippi Public Broadcasting joined YMP as a collaborator bringing not just cool video cameras and trainers, but its focus on reducing dropouts, a natural fit. I’m happy to report that research shows that students training in media skills increase their school and college readiness, especially their reading, writing and critical-thinking acumen.
I mentioned two precursors to crime, though. Most people guess dropouts, but the other one is a young person being arrested or being put in the back of a police car. Research shows that contact with the criminal-justice system too often puts a young person into a downward spiral throughout their lives. And once they go to prison and get out, the lack of adequate reentry resources keeps them in the cycle, as Mississippi Department of Public Safety Commissioner Marshall Fisher so wisely points out.
The answer to that precursor is, often, well, that kid shouldn’t have gotten in trouble. Granted, but many adolescents do stupid things, and often the earliest mistakes aren’t that bad when it comes down to it. There’s still hope, or should be.
Allow me to tell you about a teen named Zeakky who was in YMP last summer. I met him when I was interviewing teenagers in the Washington Addition who had been in trouble and were trying to do right. Zeakky was a 17-year-old high-school dropout who had been in and out of juvenile detention. He didn’t even have an ID.
Zeakky was put in a cop car for the first time when he was in the fourth grade. He and his little friend broke into their elementary school and tried to steal a computer. Why? Because they wanted a computer. But they couldn’t lift it, and the cops came. At the juvenile detention center, a guard told Zeakky that he would never be let out, and the child believed it.
In some ways, it’s true. When I met him, he hadn’t committed a terrible crime, but he had been in and out of juvenile detention. And he was smart and funny and, yes, loves computers.
I refuse to be one of the organizations BOTEC criticizes for not inviting the kids who need it the most into their programs. So I invited him to last summer’s YMP. He was an immediate hit, and he had the room spellbound as he explained the reality of his own struggles, as well as why kids commit crime and how it feels like the world is against them. We helped him get an ID and encouraged him to get his GED (he recently graduated). He learned photography and video and mentored other kids. He learned to use a digital drawing pad to do illustrations for YMP stories, and later for my newspaper as a freelancer.
But his struggle isn’t over. He’s 18, and he’s trying to do right. He still lives in his neighborhood and deals with other young people caught in negative cycles. I worry about him because I’m not sure if a net catches him after he leaves YMP. He wants to help change things including the culture he lives in, but he needs help and support. All young people do. That’s where we all must step in and use our smarts and our resources to wrap around our young people to create opportunities, to love and support them, and to help interrupt and bust up that generational poverty and crime cycle.
In a way, though, BOTEC has some good news, too. In its study of Jackson, it found that 225 juveniles in JPS schools are at high risk of committing violent crime some point down the road. That’s not 25,000 or even 2,500. That’s like a kid or two for every person in this room to help. We can do that if we come up with a long-term system for doing it, talk about it, plan and workshop it, and figure out who is handling what. It’s a project we can and must manage as a community.
What I can do is teach media and professional skills, and so I do that. I can teach young people to tell powerful stories, research solutions and tell the city and the state what they believe needs to happen. They have the answers. More importantly, I can introduce them to each other to build networks.
Last summer, Ryan, a young Trump fan from Rankin County was in the program and disagreed with many of the students’ views. (I asked them not to talk politics and focus locally, which worked most of the time.) But Ryan read the story I wrote about Zeakky and his friends, and drove himself (he was 18) to the Washington Addition. When he told me about it later, he said that people need to learn to take responsibility. I thought I knew what he meant, but then he said, “We all have to take responsibility.”
Ryan later wrote in his college honors essay, which he shared with me, that visiting the Washington Addition and getting to know Zeakky and his struggles had changed his life because now he understands that young people are growing up without jobs and opportunities in neighborhoods most people who look like him and me have never visited. He hasn’t changed his political beliefs—he doesn’t need to—and still wants to be a minister or a counselor. But now he wants to focus his work with young people who need help and understanding, not judgment.
“The rest of society cannot play the role of the victim because we lock them in a corner and forget the name of their neighborhood as if ignoring their plight will make it go away,” Ryan wrote about young people in Jackson’s poor neighborhoods. “Then we cry foul when they do what they think they must to survive. We scream ‘Get a job!’ when there are no jobs to be had. We scream ‘Take care of your kids!’ when our government’s outrageous laws have taken away their parents. We scream ‘Take responsibility!’ when what we really mean is ‘It’s your fault,’” he wrote in his essay.
I care a lot about crime prevention, and I have for many years. Crime is not a perception; the dangerous perception is that it’s the police who are supposed to be preventing crime for us. As a deputy commissioner at the NYPD told me recently, “Society abrogates its responsibility to young people, and we get them at the end of the line when they’ve done bad things.”
I and the Youth Media Project students strongly believe that we all must work together to prevent crime, but first must understand the myriad causes. When I started the project, I told myself not to push a crime focus on the teenagers, but many of them bring it with them, especially if they’ve grown up as victims or witnesses of crime. And make no mistake: In Jackson and cities across America, young people of color are at high risk of becoming violence victims. Many carry guns to protect themselves, which feeds the cycle.
In the spring, YMP did a special project with teenagers in Wingfield High School’s FAME program. Most, if not all, had been a victim of abuse or crime, or witnessed it. Most, if not all, were growing up in poverty. Most, if not all, really wanted to help lower crime. Some even talked about it while introducing themselves; others in interviews with each other. One boy had seen his best friend shot and killed in a park at age 10; the teen interviewing him lost his cousin at age 12 in a drive-by. Both want the violence to end.
So I asked these kids to write about why young people commit crimes, and their responses were vast and heart-breaking. They then created a large analysis on the YMP floor of the many causes of youth crime, which they later moved to a wall where it still hangs, expanding as teens add both causes and potential solutions to it. Adult visitors are mesmerized by it with many surprised at how many causes there really are, such as trauma, abuse, hunger, self-defense, anger and so on.
Leslyn Smith, who is here, came this summer and stood staring at the wall, as did other students like Ruben Banks, a dynamo who grew up in the Virden Addition where Frank Melton and his mentees destroyed a duplex with sledgehammers that time. (Not a way to fight crime.) Leslyn is now leading a project we call the YMP Youth Crime Lab to report as many crime causes as they can find, tell real stories about victims and perpetrators, and most importantly seek solutions. They are planning community dialogues and a Youth Crime Summit and an app and a website to map Jackson crime, causes and solutions. They are interviewing people like Mr. Freeze and Zeakky for podcasts, films and written stories.
They want to use media skills to find solutions and motivate people like you and others, of all ages and from all backgrounds, to help them put those solutions into place, using whatever tools or talents at one’s disposal.
A comprehensive plan is what the students and I want. The new mayor wants it. Businessman Ronnie Crudup Jr., a new member of the YMP advisory board, wants this. It is the same thing Christopher Freeze told all of you he wants. I strongly believe that the Mississippi Youth Media Project, built and led by teens like Leslyn and Ruben and Zeakky and Ryan from Rankin County can help lead us there, but we all must follow and respond. Freeze called for members of this group and other citizens to form a 10-year plan for interrupting this crime cycle, and I fully endorse that idea, as long as teenagers are at the center, because they know things we don’t.
YMP teens are doing other projects of their choosing, too—reporting on support of local, black-owned businesses, and "successful minorities," among them. But all of us know that actually preventing crime, rather than just reacting to it or complaining about it, is a vital part of Jackson’s future. And not just because the city will be safer, but because the ways we prevent crime will make us stronger economically and create a vibrant, trained, ready work force.
Leslyn, Ruben, and I, along with our MPB and other collaborators, want this work to continue year-round. We are developing a long-time after-school strategy for YMP that will continue bringing together diverse students: racially, religiously, politically and economically. Young people need to know and work together with other young people, just as adults need to. We invite any of you to visit our inspiring offices on the 13th floor of Capital Towers where they write on the walls and the windows, dream big and do the work to get there.
As an organization and individuals, you are all doing important things, including for young people, with your “service above self” beliefs. I just read a wonderful essay by Dr. Clinton Smith, who is taking my writing class, about your reading program. I love that he has the children he reads to repeat, “"Dr. Smith, I can be anything that I want to be. Amen." Talk about changing the narrative and self-perceptions.
That Rotary program is an important piece of the puzzle; my challenge is that all of us to get organized and talk to each other, coming up with a long-term, evidence-based plan that will tighten the net around all our children so Christopher Freeze doesn’t have to arrest them one day. That is, I second the plan he suggested in his talk. And I say that knowing that Mr. Freeze and I probably disagree on a number of things, but that we believe that our children are all God’s children.
I’ll leave you with a clip from 15-year-old Maisie Brown of Jim Hill High School. She is in her second year of YMP, helped mentor Wingfield teens in the spring and moderated the Youth Mayoral Forum, and will probably be governor or maybe president some day. She and Ryan the Trump fan also loved to argue. This is from her TEDxJackson Women talk last November. (Played clip from 1:31 to 2:33.)
Please come visit YMP and support us any way you can—from word of mouth to resources. If you’re so moved, you can support the summer project with donations immediately at youthmediaproject.com—and I’m happy to talk to anyone about larger support at any time. I have cards here, and you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please visit youthmediaproject.com for information on the project, what students are learning, and its goals, awards and a long list of supporters to date. And be sure to read, view and hear their student journalism and opinion pieces as they go live at jxnpulse.com.