Javais Hammonds (second from right) and Tydre McKenzie, with the Youth Justice Action Council, perform a song at the Poor People’s Campaign march and rally on Monday. The Youth Justice Action Council is a youth-led social change organization that has participated in shaping the Shelby County Youth Council’s Youth Voice Report. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50

After rapper and hometown hero Young Dolph was murdered in November 2021, local leaders began their rallying cry for “stopping the violence,” and “coming together.” They held town halls and community meetings. During these meetings, I often heard adults say that we need to figure out how to reach our youth, especially those involved in criminal activity. 

Maria Oceja. Photo by This Moment Media

Despite the concerns, young Memphians remained wholly absent from these conversations and excluded at decision-making tables. That sends the message that even though youth are not able to take part in conversations about solutions, they are still seen as part of the problem. 

In Shelby County, people below the age of 18 make up about 25% of the total population. However, conversations about youth or issues affecting them often exclude young people’s lived experiences, insight, voices and knowledge. Even when it comes to matters such as school policies that directly impact them, young people do not have the structural influence or power to mold their own educational environment. Youth directly experience the violence and policy limitations in our city, which fuels the talent exodus reported across Memphis. 

Despite these challenges, hope remains in our city. At BRIDGES, we strive to break this exclusionary practice of leaving youth out of important conversations. We create intersectional spaces and intentionally speak about racial, class, gender, religious, sexuality and other differences amongst youth. BRIDGES remains a pioneer in our community on how to proactively engage young people and develop their leadership by listening to students and sharing tools so they can lead local change. We make an effort to include youth that have experienced the brunt of the issues facing Memphis. That experience makes them knowledgeable about potential solutions.

In 2019, through the Bridge Builders CHANGE level of programming, which equips youth with the tools to lead community transformation, students said they wanted to find a way to elevate their input at the local government level. A year earlier, The Bridge Builders CHANGE cohort, The Memphis Youth Union, had proposed creating a youth council within local government in 2018 so that high school voices could be included in local decisions that elected officials make. In partnership with BRIDGES leadership, Bridge Builders advocated with Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris and County Commissioners, and the Shelby County Youth Council was founded in May 2019. SCYC serves as a representative body engaging youth in local government and policy decisions.

Since then, SCYC has hosted five large youth-focused events: three summits and two virtual town halls. Over 800 youth have attended and participated in SCYC’s events since its inception. These events have offered a space to share thoughts and experiences with SCYC members regarding criminal justice, mental health and educational issues. SCYC is trained to view youth in their districts as voting constituents and is pushed to include all voices, especially those who are often pushed out of the school system through the school-to-prison pipeline. 

During each event, SCYC facilitated youth participatory action research discussions where they worked with attendees to offer recommendations towards criminal justice reform, mental health support in schools, equitable and sustainable transportation, poverty in our community and educational achievement gaps. For example, after conducting research with bus riders in Spring 2020, SCYC recommended to local leaders that MATA include a wireless pay option for people who do not carry cash. MATA launched the GO901 app, which allows passengers to purchase fares through their phones in  fall 2020. 

Right before SCYC could complete its inaugural year, COVID-19 shut our world down, but it didn’t stop the momentum. They immediately transitioned into a virtual setting and continued working to include youth in conversations about COVID-19. In April 2020, they hosted a summit that focused on ensuring youth had accurate information about the virus, sharing mental health resources and providing tips on how to protect themselves and their families while quarantined at home. 

Members of the Shelby County Youth Council facilitated a forum in early 2020. Photo courtesy of Maria Oceja

SCYC continued moving forward in the next school year, hosting its first  Virtual Town Hall, and crafting a Youth Voice Report (completely written by local high school students) where it outlined the feedback gathered. SCYC published the report in spring 2021 and shared it with local elected officials, including the Shelby County Commission, Harris and Memphis-Shelby County School board members. Fast forward to fall 2021, Memphis-Shelby County Schools leadership reviewed the report and actually implemented most of the mental health recommendations. Those recommendations included a push for more re-set rooms for students, standardized mental health resources to support youth, and the incorporation of more restorative justice policies. The report serves as proof that young people have innovative ideas and must be included when talking about issues impacting our city. 

This is only the beginning of the impact the SCYC hopes to make. If local leaders truly want to make a transformative change, young people need to be at the table. Thanks to Shelby County Government, BRIDGES, and youth advocates, a table for youth now exists. Young people have something to say, and it’s time for adults to listen. 

On March 12th SCYC hosted the third annual Youth Summit, which was live streamed on Facebook. Young people from across Shelby County joined and shared their voices with local leaders and adults. Harris as well as some MSCS board members, such as Rev. Althea Greene and Kevin Woods, joined the call and listened to the youth’s recommendations. Here are the top three recommendations that came out of the event: 

  • Criminal Justice: [We recommend local government and community organizations] [p]rovide resources for youth to apply to jobs or receive professional career training to divert youth from engaging in crime due to economic reasons;
  • Mental Health: We recommend administration [MSCS], along with those in charge of the distribution of mental health resources, to create the space for open communication with the student body. It is important that students are aware about the utilization of resources affecting us;
  • Education: [We recommend that TN State BOE] [r]remove the Critical Race Theory ban and completely reconstruct the curriculum to ensure cultural responsiveness as well as allowing for more sustainable curriculum paths for students.

You can read the rest of the recommendations from SCYC in the 2022 Youth Voice Report. It can also be found through SCYC’s social media on Instagram and Facebook @scyc901. 

When movements are intergenerational and intersectional, we ensure that meaningful change happens in our community. Dolph made it clear that “out here in these streets, there ain’t no such thing as love.” Let’s make sure our young people know that they can find love and support from our community institutions. Together, we can implement groundbreaking solutions to secure a bright future for our young people and a safer community for our superstars to return home. 

Maria Oceja is a big sister, community advocate, Leaders of Color fellow, and youth engagement coordinator at BRIDGES.

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