“I’m tired of all the shootings,” yelled Zaair, a high school sophomore at Barringer High School in Newark, New Jersey. A small group of students were in the middle of an important brainstorming session. “Yeah, me too. It’s all over the place,” said another student.
They were discussing ideas for a ServiceWorks community project. Other options had come up, but talk kept coming back to gun violence. It’s a grave topic with an enormity that can be hard to grasp, much less address. And the weight of being constantly surrounded by violence showed on the faces of the participants — called Service Scholars — who’d spent the last three months in the program.
ServiceWorks is a program from Points of Light, AmeriCorps and the Citi Foundation designed to help disconnected youth gain workplace and leadership skills through volunteer service. And capstone projects, for which the Service Scholars were brainstorming, are the most personal components of the curriculum because they give Scholars the opportunity to address issues that directly impact their daily lives.
Those issues can often seem overwhelming. But one of our program’s goals is to show youth they have the ability to affect change. We accomplish this by teaching them to break larger problems down to more achievable goals and making them aware of community resources available to them. So I told the Scholars, “We’re not trying to cure cancer in a day. But what can we do here, now, to make a difference even in just one person’s life?”
This particular cohort was small – just 10 students - mostly sophomores and seniors. After three months, they were challenged to apply the communication, project management and community mapping skills they’d learned in ServiceWorks to a capstone project. They chose to address gun violence because it’s an unfortunate constant in their lives, with gang activity all around them.
As we talked it thought, I could see the embers began to burn a little brighter as these teenagers decided to put together a school assembly to present their project. They wanted to have a discussion around gun violence that would be engaging and not just another adult droning on to students. To do this, the students wanted to produce videos that would resonate with their audience. And to make the issue real, they invited three former gang members to speak.
The complexity of a project that involved organizing an event for their peers, producing videos and inviting speakers was daunting.“You can absolutely do this,” I urged. “You just need to think it through.”
Right away there was a challenge: School administrators said having an event for the whole school would be too hard to control. The decision was made to hold a smaller event in the school library for about 130 students. But who would those students be? ServiceWorks shares some overlap in the mission of Barringer’s School-Based Youth Services Program, which focuses on college readiness. Students from that program would be our guests.
As an AmeriCorps VISTA, part of my job is to equip Service Scholars with the project management and communication skills needed to pull off projects like this. So, to watch these passionate young people coordinating in a professional way with the school administration to navigate all the logistical challenges, while planning the production and presentation of a project so meaningful to them and the Barringer High School community was especially gratifying. Lessons we’d worked on throughout their cohort were paying off.
There were two powerful videos that would be featured during their hour-long presentation. Scholars handled every facet of production on “It Starts with a Smile,” which combines news footage from incidents of violence, interspersed with interviews the students conducted and gun violence statistics related to the city of Newark. A second video – “What Happened?” — gave the cohort the chance to work with a production company to act out some of the senseless scenarios in which youth are shot in their community. (Both videos can be seen here.)
The message was made especially real when three former gang members spoke with raw honesty about the dangers of gang life and alternate routes young people can take to create better options for their futures. The energy in the library was one of quiet captivation. Students watched and listened to stories of pain and tragedy, and also to the possibilities that could come with smarter choices.
I loved watching the students see firsthand how their service actually works. To watch them eye the many students who felt compelled afterward to approach our speakers for private conversations about gang life and gun violence, I could tell they knew they’d made an impact among their peers.
One student in the audience asked for the microphone. She admitted she didn’t even come to school all that often anymore but said she was thankful she did that particular day. “It’s so important and necessary, because so many of my friends don’t get it. They need stuff like this. Thank you for doing it.”
I was excited for the Scholars and truthfully, quite proud. It was an honor to help them navigate an issue that’s such an ever-present part of their lives. The teens had indeed realized they can make a difference in their community. Their passion for change making had been sparked. I saw the embers glowing. Embers catch fire. And fire, well — it spreads.
LaRhonda Boone recently completed her year as an AmeriCorps VISTA for ServiceWorks at Jersey Cares, and accepted a position there as a manager of education programs and agency relations.