Janiya Douglas, 16.

On Friday, Nov. 10, more than 300 students from the Mid-South are expected to gather in Memphis to participate in Our Time, Our Voice, an MLK50 Youth Convening. The day-long event is a collaboration between the National Civil Rights Museum’s MLK50 programming and Bridges USA, a local youth leadership organization. The event looks to amplify aims of the Youth Voices platform, which explores everything from criminal and economic justice to youth representation in decision-making.

The education justice cohort brainstorms in a workshop titled “Education Not Incarceration” at Bridges USA.

Along with workshops focusing on youth engagement in nonviolence training, conflict resolution, community change, and social justice issues, participants will also listen to speakers with international recognition like Xiuhtezcatl (pronounced Shoe-TEZ-Caht) Martinez and DJ Cavem, a k a Chef Ietef. Martinez is a voice in the youth-led environmental movement and serves as youth director of Earth Guardians while DJ Cavem is an environmental hip-hop artist and activist focused on food justice, gang intervention, race and politics, organic gardening and graffiti art.

Ahead of the convention date, some thoughts were collected from a few Bridges USA youth participants about organizing as a young person in the Mid-South and in the shadow of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s mission.

Hali Smith, 17.

Hali Smith, 17, comes from a family where her grandmother cut her own education short. Hali is a member of the choir, a cheerleader and student body president at Central High School. In her second year as a Bridge Builder, she works with the educational justice cohort, a group focusing on policy changes that will eradicate the school-to-prison pipeline. “Everything is coming together at once,” Smith said about her involvement with Bridges USA and MLK50. “We can be youth, and we can show our struggle, as well as be a representation of a better movement.”

“To implement change you have have a focus, a main goal,” Smith said. “I believe that one of the biggest problems are marginalized youth and how many people are in the school-to-prison pipeline. So we work backward; how are these kids getting there? How can we change that? Let’s create a solution.

Hali Smith, 17.

“This is a problem, this is not a coincidence that these children are being suspended and expelled and placed in jail. We’re going to hold people accountable. This is someone’s fault. They need to be held accountable for taking a kid that’s in a classroom one day and in jail the next.

“It could be me. That could simply be me. Straight-A student at Central High School for years. Wonderful kid that people you know and love. Very quickly this story could turn. So like, how can I see and watch this is happening not do something about it. I should be getting up and be active. I shouldn’t blame adults and then not hold myself accountable because then I’m doing what they’re doing. It’s not always that someone got into trouble. It’s that they went to bathroom and got caught up in the mix.

“But I shouldn’t blame adults and not hold myself accountable.

I want to not only encourage, but to learn and be educated because, as much as I care about education, I don’t know everything. And you know I’m there every day, but I’m there on one side of this picture.”

Organizing meeting for the educational justice cohort at Bridges USA.

Janiya Douglas, 17, is a senior at White Station High School and followed her older sister’s footsteps in becoming a Bridge Builder four years ago. In her time working at the organization, she helped develop dialogue and resources around sexual harassment at school and then helped establish the educational justice cohort two years ago: “I think vulnerability is probably key to organizing because I feel like when we’re organizing, passion comes behind it,” Douglas said. “People can sense when someone’s being honest and when someone actually cares. For you to show how passionate you are, you have to be vulnerable and speak about heavy issues that a lot of people don’t want to speak about. It’s like a transparency on how I feel about the issue and how I feel about what’s happening in my life.”

“No one actually comes in to show you what we can offer to all these problems that we have in our city,” Douglas said. “Not even problems that we like are valuable for and we can help with, just like everyday things, like we’re pretty useful.

Janiya Douglas, 17.

“When people see the amount of youth here who are doing their workshops and who are speaking or who are helping out at this conference, as well as the amount of youth who are coming just take this moment to realize what we can do, to realize what we can bring into our lives…these are the people who are going to be the future. What we’re doing here is so important, and don’t trivialize our work. Don’t trivialize the fact that we care about these issues and we don’t know what we’re talking about because we actually like do know what we’re talking about and we are we’re transforming these issues, too.

“Having the history here for me is a reminder of how far the city has come and also how far we need to go. Just because we’re having this MLK 50 and we’re doing things to remember and celebrate what Martin Luther King stood for in social justice organizing as a whole that doesn’t mean these issues have gone away.

“Memphis is a historic area where black people organized and black people did what they had to do to make sure that they had their rights, aiming for black liberation in this country. It definitely affects me in an emotional way. It makes me feel like I’m carrying the torch of others.

“I guess that aspect of why I do what I do because I think it is important for like definitely for us to still organize, and I’m very passionate about black liberation. And it is intersectional. So I guess there should be black liberation in any issue that you are focusing on, so we’re working on there to be liberation everywhere.”

Our Time, Our Voice: An MLK50 Youth Convening is open to all youth in grades 9–12. Registration is required at bit.ly/MLK50youthconvening.

8 a.m.-4 p.m.
Friday, Nov. 10, 2017
First Baptist Church-Broad
2835 Broad Avenue
Memphis, TN 38112

This report is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit reporting project on economic justice in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today.