Jackson Teens Need Mentors, Opportunity | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Jackson Teens Need Mentors, Opportunity

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Publisher Todd Stauffer

I've had the privilege of having a "fly-on-the-wall" perspective of the work that the JFP editorial team has been doing, with a grant from the Solutions Journalism Network to look into juvenile-justice issues and solutions. Coupled with the findings of the state-commissioned BOTEC Analysis study that came out this year, the work is starting to present an interesting picture of things that can be done to help our youth find a better path to the future.

I've also been Donna Ladd's driver and valet on a few trips to different parts of the country, where we've seen youth media projects in action—trips that informed the Mississippi Youth Media Project ("YMP") this June and July in its own offices in the Capital Towers building overlooking downtown Jackson. Seeing how that project was able to affect teens—from the skyline views to the Google-ish decor to the opportunity to work on digital video, podcasting and web publishing projects—has been enlightening.

That included a teenager from a tough background who had negative experiences in juvenile detention, and is now carrying a camera and learning to do publishable illustrations, not to mention market his work.

It boils down to something simple, and yet all too often misunderstood or misconstrued. The word I'm looking for is "opportunity." As in, you've got to create some opportunities for young people if you want them to take advantage of them.

As you'll see in this week's cover story, Arielle Dreher spent time in Seattle, Wash., this summer to report on programs that offer alternatives to incarceration when young people start to get in trouble, or when they experience violent situations themselves. Counseling, art programs, diversion programs—alternatives that aren't just ankle bracelets, but purposeful efforts to keep minor "offenders" out of the criminal-justice system. Proximity to that system, according to the BOTEC report, is one of two primary predictors of future criminal behavior (the other is missing school or dropping out).

The cover story tells one part of the solution—how to work with juveniles to keep them out of the system wherever possible. Another part of the solution is to offer not just equal opportunity but equitable opportunity. That means recognizing that underprivileged kids need even more of a boost to take advantage of potential life-changing skills training, both in areas such as digital media arts as well as in "soft skills" training that leads to an understanding of the modern workplace and how to successfully negotiate professional life.

The JFP's 'Preventing Violence' Series

A full archive of the JFP's "Preventing Violence" series, supported by grants from the Solutions Journalism Network. Photo of Zeakyy Harrington by Imani Khayyam.

At SpyHop in Salt Lake City, Utah, Donna and I got a tour of an amazing "youth digital media center" facility. With a weekly radio show, film classes, music studio production facilities, digital design and game design—when we saw this place, we knew this was something that Jackson needed. It served as part of the model for the YMP as it now stands and, we hope, grows.

Projects like these make a concerted effort to reach out to kids who may not have the opportunity otherwise to touch some of this equipment, or collaborate with others as part of a team with a purpose of producing good work. Learning to understand how stories are structured and how the words or photos or video or audio get from concept to final product is an invaluable addition to academic studies. And, for some kids, it's an outlet that gives them a purpose, or a career path, or a diversion from harsh realities or boredom or worse.

BOTEC also warns that many of the kids who need these opportunities to put them on a different path don't get access to them. They don't hear about them, or companies and providers fear young people who've been in trouble. Our experience, though, is that those young people can be the hungriest, and most grateful, for a chance to learn real, marketable skills. They just need some help connecting with the right training.

Not every kid needs or wants a digital media education—some prefer vocational training, or speech and leadership training, or athletics or music or fine art. But most kids need something outside of core academics, and, in my opinion, it's incumbent upon the community to provide those things. That's particularly true where communities have been deprived of those programs and resources in the past—that's the equity part.

I'm reminded how state GOP officials reacted to the Capitol Improvement District in 2016 legislative session. Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves essentially told Jackson that it needs to cut crime in the capital city before the State was willing to allocated more of the city's own tax collections to the city's infrastructure needs—mostly focusing on infrastructure that supports state buildings.

It was a cynical gambit and a lame excuse, but it does present a question. If Reeves and other state GOP officials really want to see crime come down in the capital city, are they ready to allocate resources to both academic education, early-education and after-school programs, and to equitably encourage 21st-century extra-curricular programs such as youth digital media projects? How about reform of the youth criminal-justice system so that it no longer helps create worse criminals and expends more tax dollars later?

The answer is likely a resounding "no"—unless the implementation of those reforms would include a fat ideological payout in the form of some sort of privatization. Failed economic policies and an unwillingness to invest in infrastructure and education in this state seem to benefit some of these leaders individually, while leaving Mississippi on the bottom in terms of economic growth. The only clear solution on that front is to get Mississippi some new leadership.

But, in the meantime, we can't wait for gravy-trainers like Reeves and Gov. Phil Bryant to solve much of anything. We know we're on our own in cities like Jackson and in the nonprofit sphere. But that doesn't mean we can't try.

The BOTEC reports (paid for by the state, incidentally) point to the notion that only about 225 kids in Jackson are in danger of becoming particularly violent criminals. Many more kids, obviously, will have some encounter with police or "criminal justice."

How we shape those systems now—and how we provide alternatives and opportunities that train and build up our young Jacksonians—will have a direct effect on how many fewer of those kids become hardened criminals and how many get the chance to develop an awareness, interest and skill set in more productive pursuits. It will also save innocent lives.

In that vein, I want to congratulate our editorial team—Sierra Mannie, Arielle Dreher, Donna Ladd, Tim Summers Jr. and Onelia Hawa—on great work in this space, from in-depth reporting to public events pursuing some of these solutions. Donna Ladd has helmed this action, and we hope you'll keep reading, watching and supporting these efforts. See jfp.ms/preventingviolence to read the full JFP archive and visit JXN Pulse to see the YMP students' remarkable work from this summer.

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