SOUTH LOOP — With the most violent January in recent memory, a school system desperate for funds and a federal investigation into police abuses, Chicago's youth are speaking out about solutions.
The conditions were right for local advocacy group Mikva Challenge to host its second Youth Voice Conference, said Michelle Morales, executive director of the youth-empowerment group.
The event seeks to give Chicago Public Schools students an opportunity and forum to address the city's problems through a youth perspective. Over 400 kids came to Jones College Prep, 700 S. State St., to speak their mind.
Jasaan'de Kemp, an 8th grader from Hyde Park, said her group decided gun violence was one of the main concerns of students their age.
"It's constant," she said.
Elise Owens, a 7th grader from Kenwood, said violence can often stem from the black community's distrust of police.
"We supposed to trust the police and be able to depend on them," she said. "That's why I think we have the violence — we taking it into our own hands."
Kids started the day in small groups, where they outlined what issues in the city matter to them. After that, the kids sat at tables with alderman and other elected officials, business leaders and civic servants.
Owens and the students at her table admitted that they were a bit nervous to be addressing such topics with so-called important people. (The adult guests were called "decision makers.")
Though Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Chicago) had a family emergency Saturday, he said he couldn't miss the event: "I had to come down here... to see the young activists," he said. "To show them my commitment to the youth activists, because they are the future."
Owens felt lucky to have the opportunity to address these topics in front of an engaged audience.
"We don't get to speak out a lot," she said, referring to kids in general when important topics are discussed. "When we do, they think it's rude."
That's a common sentiment among young people that Mikva Challenge is trying to change.
"We want the kids to leave here feeling empowered, that their voice matters," Morales said. "They rarely get these opportunities, where their point of view comes across."
Though sometimes age can feel like a barrier to effecting social progress, Rep. Rush said the best time to start is as early as possible. All it takes is the gall to think you can help bring progress.
"I was born in poor, rural Georgia and was a high school dropout," Rush said. "Why did I think I could change the world? I was wired like that."
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