As Katy Perry’s “Roar” plays in the Bridges auditorium, teens chat with each other at tables, waiting for the program to begin. Anita Norman, an 18-year-old senior from Arlington High School, meets me briefly to talk about this Youth Empowerment Forum.
Her focus? The value of telling your story. “It’s important that teens be heard,” she says. “We see more than adults think we see. This is about making sure we’re not invisible.”
With the media placing so much emphasis on the criminal behavior of the one percent of kids ages 15 to 24 who commit violent crime in Memphis, it’s plausible others could feel invisible. That was the point of the Youth Empowerment Forums, to give teens a voice in how to more effectively address the issues that face them.
Norman was one of 10 teens Mayor A C Wharton invited from Shelby County high schools to help his office organize the forums. The teens were nominated by five participating organizations: Bridges, First Baptist Church Broad, Memphis Athletic Ministries, Memphis Ambassadors Program (run by the Mayor’s Office of Youth Services), and New Direction Christian Church.
After an introduction by Bridges CEO Cynthia Ham, Wharton welcomes the students saying, “I emphasize, this is your city. This is about listening to you and from what you say, we’ll develop programs.”
James Nelson, the director of the city’s Office of Youth Services, says his office has offerings, parents just don’t know about them. “We must make more people aware of what’s going on. The kids don’t know and their parents don’t know.”
One possible solution, he says, is a website that would serve as a clearinghouse, listing activities and programs offered across the city by age and zip code. But he’ll be listening to the feedback they receive from the forums and coming up with new strategies, too.
The first question: What shapes their perception of the city? It’s followed by a TV newsreel highlighting the recent rash of incidents (e.g. the mob violence at Kroger) that cast a pall on the city. Adults are asked to leave at this point, so that conversations, led by older teen and 20-something facilitators, can be open and candid.
The auditorium is quiet at first, but the buzz grows as kids become more engaged. I go upstairs and speak with Harry Cash, manager of Youth Services.
“We are interested in this conversation,” he notes, “because we typically hear from adults who are doing teen programming but not the kids themselves.”
He goes on to describe one meeting where they asked a group of teens how many had experienced depression, feelings of being overwhelmed, or suicidal thoughts. After each question, hands flew up. “And we thought since these teens were connected that these wouldn’t be their issues.” He said their response led his office to consider peer-to-peer counseling as one way of providing teens support.
As for parents? “Just listen,” says Cash. “You need to always have open communication with your kids because they’re going to get advice from somewhere. You’d rather it be you than their peers.”
His office will be listening, too. What follows will be announced sometime in December.