Last time, I let you in on what may have been a secret to many Tucson residents, and maybe to many Arizona residents, for that matter. The Arizona Black Town Hall was founded on the same traditions that all town hall meetings are based on Ÿ addressing the issues and concerns of a community with those best suited to offer timely and relevant solutions Ÿ the members of that community. The 11th Annual Arizona Black Town Hall was held in Sierra Vista this year, and the subject was "Youth Violence in African American Communities." The final report containing solutions, suggestions, and insight from those "best suited to offer timely and relevant solutions," will soon be distributed to community leaders, academicians, local officials, and legislators. As a participant, we raised a number of questions about the portrayal of violence in African American communities and we offered some solutions.
There was a large cross-section of people represented at the town hall meeting. Besides law students like myself, there were established attorneys, young, up-and-coming politicians, church leaders, grandmothers, parents, teachers, business people, researchers, professors, community project leaders and some young African Americans interested in making a change for the better. We were split up into several groups and we answered a series of questions; each group grappling with the same questions, yet the makeup of each group was different. We discussed each question with the intention of coming to some consensus as to what would be an applicable solution Ÿ a difficult task, at best. Some questions were more amenable to consensus than others, the result being some heated debates.
Working with a group of individuals from different backgrounds and who have had a variety of experiences is educational, to say the least. Moreover, to debate about a common issue that touches home for all of us in distinct ways is, indeed, enlightening. We all have a different voice that wants to be heard: The grandmother who genuinely fears the violence and is fearful of what is to become of the community she has seen flower all her life; the teacher's frustration with a financially strapped school system; the community leader's perception that change must come from within, and that this idea must be made concrete and accessible at every level of the community. We were challenged to reconcile our differing perspectives and come to a consensus that would address the concerns of all involved. If we could not arrive at a complete consensus, we would still leave with the experiences, hopes, fears, and expectations of other participants, something that proved inspiring.
We started with the portrayal of violence in the African American community. We began by stating that portrayal misrepresents reality. African American youth are often disproportionately represented as participants in violent crimes and illegal activity. The facts are that far more youth graduate from high school, go to college and become contributing members of society, yet such portrayals are few and far between. African American youth are readily identified by the media as being involved in illegal activities, i.e., drugs and gangs, as opposed to other youth who are involved in similar activities, thus perpetuating the assumption that African Americans are violent and irresponsible. Clearly, such characterizations of young African Americans are erroneous, and furthermore, these methods of inaccurate media depictions are a disservice to the community at large and only feed racial discord.
The most obvious solution to addressing erroneous media depictions is to include African Americans in the decision-making process of bringing news to the masses. This, of course, means assuring affirmative action plans remain intact. No one denies that some African American youth are involved in illegal and gang activities. For them, the piecemeal effect of sporadically funded government programs are further hampered by the absence of an overall, community-wide strategy. Community leaders must follow the old adage Ÿ act locally, think globally. They must re-focus their efforts to effect change not only immediately, but must look to promote a ripple effect that would encompass every surrounding area. Poverty begets violence, hopelessness, and misery. Poverty will undermine any government program, community action committee, or well meaning church group. Jobs, businesses, and economic viability goes a long way to eliminating the despair of our youth and must be the primary thrust of any efforts to address the violence that has become prevalent in our nation. Parents who are employed, and remain consistently employed, will provide a sound foundation for the stable family most politicians are designating the root of a benevolent society.
The participants arrived at many solutions at the town hall meeting, too numerous to list here. They realized that many of these answers were not novel, by any means. But it is important, and continues to be necessary to remind us all, that we have the key, but the door is the true obstacle. Doors are now, more than ever, increasingly difficult to open. Without access, no one will benefit, no community will flourish, no one oppressed will overcome the oppressor. The participants of the 11th Annual Black Town Hall have the keys to unlock the doors that trap our youth in the mire of violence and despair. The participants realize, as do all African Americans, that we must tirelessly strive to unlock those doors, because those trapped hold our future in their hearts and hands.
David H. Benton is the president of the Black Law Students Association. His column appears every Thursday.
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