A youth and community conversation

BY HOLLY KESTENIS, Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG — Pinellas Technical College (PTC) hosted the first annual Youth and Community Conversation last Tues., July 14 where a panel of five teens spoke up about the issues facing them today. Presented by Success Unlimited Women and Youth Business Center, Inc., it was the opinions of teens that mattered, while elected officials were asked to take a back seat.

“You cannot run your mouth, you cannot give any answers, you cannot give your solutions,” said the outspoken Theresa “Momma Tee” Lassiter who planned the event. “Your assignment is to listen to my young people and my people from the community.”

The evening was all planned out with a dance performance by the St. Pete Diamond Prima Donna’s and a delicious spaghetti dinner. But the focal point was hearing, really listening to what kids in the community are putting out there. Posters were hung along all the walls, all created by local teens depicting what they see every day.

“They were not only looking at the issues, but were also looking at solutions,” said Audrey “Pat” McGhee with the Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) and the Mistress of Ceremonies. She believes it’s all about finding out what the community issues and concerns are, but realizes the limited platforms young people have to inform adults exactly how they feel, where the gaps are and what’s going on in their community. “Until we’re patient enough to listen, we’re going to miss them.”

An essay contest was held last month and the two first place winners both received $100 for their efforts. Both were on hand to present their written work on the topic: “What should be done to prevent crime in the black community.”

For De’Asia Scott, a student at Azalea Middle School, the phrase: “United we stand, divided we fall” has a lot of meaning. “The other races, they sit back and laugh as we kill each other, rob and burn our mom and pop stores,” she said.

So she came up with four ideas to put into play in order to save the black community as she sees it. Citing increased crime and an unwillingness to work together, Scott believes having a neighborhood crime watch in every black community and raising money for less fortunate youths to attend camp and after school programs is a good place to start.

Role models to give a little bit of extra attention to troubled teens and more family members getting involved in their children’s education are other ways to keep kids in school and out of trouble and off the streets.

Kiara Green, a student at Boca Ciega High School, didn’t mince words either when it was her turn to spotlight the problems she sees. She earned first place for her essay as well.

“We as colored people don’t have respect for each other,” Green said. She wants to stop crime from happening and believes the only way to do it is to take a hard look at the reality of the situation. She feels the community is failing to realize that people are dying from lack of knowledge, and a want to have things that are meaningless.

“We go on TV and start riots over white on black crime, but we don’t do anything about black on black crime,” she said acknowledging that both are wrong no matter the gender or the race of who is committing it.

Her solution to preventing crimes that affect, according to the latest statistics from the DJJ, one out of every two African-American children in our area? “Instead of pointing fingers,” Green suggested, “we should start in our black community and fix us first.”

Trenia Cox, planning manager for the Juvenile Welfare Board and the event’s moderator, introduced prominent members of the community that would help in doing just that.

“We have a crisis, this is serious,” Cox said. This is why local officials are turning to the youths of the very communities they are trying to help as part of the solution.

Two outspoken panelist that had a lot to say were Judge Michael Andrews and Judge Patrice Moore, who both oversee the Pasco/Pinellas County Sixth Judicial Circuit. Day in and day out they tend to the youths who are having trouble getting it together and making bad decisions.

Moore suggests steering clear of the juvenile system all together because no one wants his or her fate controlled by the justice system.

“I could be having a bad day. I could be mad at my husband for not taking out the garbage and you have a crime that deals with garbage,” she said explaining that she tries to leave it at the door but why chance it.

So why aren’t African-American kids achieving success academically at the same rate as other races? Andrews knows there’s no short answer, but he blames misperceptions and stereotypes. He feels society creates stereotypes based on what they think they know, so he asked the teens in the room to raise their hands if they think Asian kids are smart, and if they think black kids are good athletes.

“You are born knowing how to cry and release waste,” he said. “Everything else is learned.” He stated that smart Asian, African American and Caucasian kids become smart by hitting the books over and over again, and that good athletes are made by practicing repeatedly as well. By buying into the perceived stereotypes of yesteryear, the youth of today are amplifying the problem and creating a gap in learning.

The student panel was split as to their reasons for the achievement gap. Melissa Hicks, a 16 year old in the BETA program at Gibbs High School, pointed the finger at adults, citing negative feedback from parents and teachers.

“It’s you all’s fault,” she said noting that put downs, biting words and sarcasm are viewed as demeaning to teens. “We don’t have respect for people who talk about us; you have to stop talking about us.”

But Erika Still, a rising junior in the Medical Magnet program at Boca Ciega, tended to disagree. “If you want to be on top, you have to put yourself there, stay focused,” she said. Although she agrees that parents and educators should encourage kids, ultimately she views the responsibility of success falls on the shoulders of the youths themselves. “If you’re on the bottom it’s because you give up, you have to keep pushing.”

Perhaps St. Petersburg Police Chief Anthony Holloway’s take on the situation sums it all up. “I am tired every day when I see a report, black male, black male.  We had 60 cars stolen in the past three months, of those 60 cars, guess how many African Americans we arrested—57.”

Questions were posed to the panel, which was also made up of a public defender and a probation officer, such as what to do if accused of a crime you didn’t commit, what to do about gang violence and how to handle police officers viewed as unfair.

Holloway stressed if an officer does something wrong, simply ask for a supervisor. “Don’t try to have your say on the side of the road,” he said. “If you don’t get one, call my office. I guarantee they won’t want to hear from me or Chief Williams.”

Other solutions provided by the panel and the audience all pointed to the same resolutions: more parent involvement, parental enforcement of the rules and the need for mentors.

One way to stifle the amount of African-American teens heading down the pipeline to prison route is the new St. Petersburg Diversion Program now in effect. It provides a second chance for those who make a bad decision that results in a misdemeanor. The city will deal with the offending youth so that DJJ will not have to get involved. Community service pays the debt as well as counseling.

But the DJJ, police department and the Judicial Court all recommend just staying out of the juvenile justice system all together. Every decision has a consequence, and that charge for possession of marijuana handed down to you at age 12, will follow you to your grave.

To reach Holly Kestenis, email hkestenis@theweeklychallenger.com

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