Harlem Youth Fair Aims to Stem Violence

By Jeff Mays on August 30, 2011 7:43pm 

Dancers at the El Barrio/East Harlem Youth Violence Task Force's annual youth fair Tues., Aug. 30, 2011.
Dancers at the El Barrio/East Harlem Youth Violence Task Force's annual youth fair Tues., Aug. 30, 2011.
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DNAinfo/Jeff Mays

HARLEM — The discussion about how to end youth violence is more than an academic exercise for 16-year-old Kayla Rodriguez.

Rodriguez was one of a group of teens at Brighton Beach with Tysha Jones in June when a gunman opened fire after an argument, killing the 16-year-old Jones and hitting four others.

"It could have been me," Rodriguez said. "It was all about gang violence. It was all over something stupid."

Rodriguez, an intern this summer at the Harlem Youth Court, came to the El Barrio/East Harlem Youth Violence Task Force's annual youth fair Tuesday hoping to prevent what happened to her and Tysha from befalling other young people.

Sponsored by East Harlem Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito, the fifth-annual event was designed to connect young people with services such as Harlem RBI, Union Settlement Association, the Council for Unity and the Harlem Youth Court as a way to prevent teens from engaging in violence.

"I feel like people have a choice," Rodriguez said. "They can choose what path they go down."

That's the message Mark-Viverito said she's trying to send to young members of the task force, which started last June, and attendees of the youth fair. During conversations with young people, they consistently say they aren't aware of the programs and services available to them, the councilwoman said.

“The youth fair this year is about continuing to reach out to local young people to let them know that my office and the task force are here to listen and to work with them to collectively reduce the violence we are seeing on our streets," Mark-Viverito said.

Young people at the event rapped, played mariachi music and danced — just a few of the activities organizers suggest kids focus on instead of getting caught up in the violence.

Harlem Youth Court program coordinator Sonia Balaram said finding employment is one of the biggest issues facing today's youth, since many jobs working at a supermarket or fast-food restaurant have been filled by adults.

This summer, the court had 180 applications for 20 unpaid positions. Budget cuts meant the group could not offer a stipend this year, but participants still earned valuable experience.

"I think it's important to get the word out that there are other things to do, that there are organizations out here interested in working with young people," Balaram said.

State Sen. Jose Serrano agreed.

"This youth fair is going a long way to making sure that young people in our community feel empowered," he said. "This is part of an ongoing effort to protect our youth from violence."

Waheera Mardah, 17, a summer intern at the youth court, said she used to spend every day at the library with a boy in middle school. Just a few years later, she saw him on the news after he was shot by police.

"We sometimes feel we don't have a lot of positive influences," Mardah said. "For my friend to go from the library to being shot by police is amazing."

That's why Briana Simmons, 15, who has witnessed a shooting, said she wanted to be involved in the youth court.

"Not only are we doing something for ourselves," she said, "but other kids our age see we are doing something to change our community."

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