To many Cleveland youth, the quarantine in response to the COVID-19 pandemic felt scarcely different from any other moment. They are used to being “stuck in the house,” many say. “The quarantine really doesn’t feel that much different to me,” explains Tiyana Williams, a 16-year-old rising senior who lives in the St. Clair-Superior neighborhood. “We are missing school right now and that’s different, but other than that, we are always in the house anyway to keep safe.”
Williams’ remark is echoed by Black and Brown youth across the city of Cleveland, for whom staying indoors has been decidedly normalized. The reasons for this range from intense neighborhood gang violence, to a lack of spaces for youth to congregate safely, to the very real fear — shared by kids and parents — of police brutality.
Keith J. Benford, a 19-year-old Cleveland School of the Arts graduate who lives in the Hough neighborhood, tells a story from his youth, when he and a friend were biking home and found themselves chased by other neighborhood kids. Benford’s friend was ultimately caught and beaten severely in front of a church where adult congregants could see the entire scene unfold. “We cried for help, but no one came,” Benford recalls.
Marcus Brown, a 20-year-old graduate of Charles F. Brush High School recalls a time when he was alone after dark and was held at gunpoint by South Euclid police officers for “fitting the description” of another youth involved in a robbery. “I’ve never been so afraid in my life,” Brown reflects. “I was completely powerless.”
Narratives like these from Black and Brown youth across Northeast Ohio paint a draconian picture. The end result is a profound feeling of insecurity, a disheartening belief that their voices quite literally don’t matter, and a wave of deep-seated anger at the baby boomers and Generation Xers who failed to protect them. “Life becomes a movie at a very young age because of everything you’ve seen,” explains Isaiah Goodwin, 22, from the Hough area. “But this is not what you asked for. You didn’t even ask to be here.”
Multiply stories like these by the number of cities in this nation and you may better understand this moment of protest. This is about more than the killing of George Floyd. This moment is bigger even than the issue of police brutality. This moment is about our society’s failure to listen to the real issues these youth face every day, and our inability to work together to create structures that will empower them to survive and thrive in this world.
Consider the issues facing the 2020 graduate: a global pandemic and economic depression, a cataclysm of deep-rooted racial disparity, an environmental disaster and more. This generation is staring at a future that is insecure at best, and catastrophic at worst.
It is enough that these issues are their inheritance, but they also feel blamed by elder generations for being ill-prepared to manage these catastrophes, even though they are rarely invited in when decisions are made.
“It is as though one, looking from a dark cave in a side of an impending mountain, sees the world passing and speaks to it; speaks courteously and persuasively, showing them how these entombed souls are hindered in their natural movement, expression, and development; and how their loosening from prison would be a matter not simply of courtesy, sympathy, and help to them, but aid to all the world,” W.E.B. DuBois wrote a century ago in his classic Dusk of Dawn. “One talks on evenly and logically in this way but notices that the passing throng does not even turn its head, or if it does, glances curiously and walks on.”
At some point, something more drastic than polite, patient talk must happen to shake the “passing throng” out of the comfort of their daily lives. That “something” is what we are currently witnessing in this city and nation. This is a failure to listen.
Six years ago, I wrote a column for this magazine that described some of the efforts at transformative education happening in my own creative writing classroom at the Cleveland School of the Arts. I revealed what made our classroom unique, including the co-creation of our classroom space and curriculum with students, so that their lives were reflected in their instruction.
The aim was to create a more democratic classroom that shifted power into the hands of my predominately Black and Brown students. If they became owners of their own educational lives and saw that their thoughts and ideas had value, perhaps it would translate into their participation in our democracy.
Years on, I have continued to teach through Twelve Literary Arts, the nonprofit that I founded. I am sad to say that we still have many miles to go toward shifting that power dynamic. But I have seen more shining examples of authentic engagement, providing space for youth to be heard while nurturing their activist spirit.
At Campus International School’s Upper Campus, for instance, principal Ameer Kim El-Mallawany, teacher Charles Ellenbogen and other staff have created a high school campus community that values youth voices.
“It’s the first time I’ve been asked to think about what success should look like for me in school,” says Kai Gyorki, a rising senior at Campus International. “They understand that there isn’t one approach for success.”
For youth such as Gyorki, every student’s idea of success can’t be measured solely by grades, attendance and test scores. Instead, factors such as resilience, leadership and effort should become measurement tools.
“I may not master everything, but why should I?” asks rising John Hay High School senior Darius Fothergill. “Measure me on my efforts, but get to know me to find out what I really want to do with my life, and measure me on my efforts to achieve my real goals.”
The Cleveland Foundation’s Arts Mastery Initiative, a group of eight arts organizations, including Twelve Literary Arts, provides instruction in multiple artistic genres after school and is pioneering a youth-led process of program evaluation, with the stated intention of “shifting power to Black and Brown youth.”
In MidTown, the voices of Black and Brown young people have led the way in informing civic leaders, architects and urban planners about what needs to be considered in the renovation of the East 66th Street development. By determining details such as street design, lighting and beautification, youth voices have transformed the project. It’s also transformed the way in which neighborhoods should approach development.
All told, these examples are needles pointing in the same direction. Youth and adults are having authentic conversations and designing new realities, ones that merge adults’ sense of history and the young’s passion for innovation.
These models represent, at the boardroom table, what is being demanded in no uncertain terms on our streets: Change.