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In Hartford’s Youth Leadership Academy, teens from the North End offer stories, solutions to urban gun violence

August 21, 2019
In The News

Kevin Johnson doesn’t remember much about the day his big brother was shot in the head during a violent clash of gang members at the end of the 2008 West Indian Parade.

Kevin was 4, his brother Tyrek Marquez only three years older when Tyrek was wounded by crossfire between members of the Money Green Bedroc and West Hell gangs, a shootout that left one gang member dead and also wounded a 15-month-old girl and four teenagers. Now 15, Kevin’s strongest memory of that time is inside a hospital room, looking down into his brother’s face, he said Monday just after a youth-led forum on prevention of urban gun violence.

“His eyes were open but he couldn’t hear me," Kevin said. “Like, he wasn’t there.”

More than a decade later, he’s learning to weave that experience and others into advocacy and activism for a safer city. Kevin enrolled in the Summer Youth Leadership Academy, a longtime program of Hartford Communities that Care that immerses local teenagers in the most critical issues facing them and their neighborhoods.

The academy, which was formed in the early 2000s and revived in 2016, has focused the last three years on root causes and potential solutions to urban gun violence, which permeates areas of Hartford that are home to about 22,000 children, nearly three-quarters of the city’s youth, according to city estimates. Hartford has experienced 18 homicides this year, most of them a result of disputes between people who knew each other, police say.

In May, about 20 academy youth attended a meeting at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., hosted by Congressman John Larson, D-1st District, where they presented their ideas on issues like alleviating poverty and post-traumatic stress and improving parent engagement and access to education.

Eddie Brown, the academy’s program director, has a goal of training 100 Hartford in political advocacy.

They got another taste of it this past Monday when Larson and about two dozen community members gathered for their forum, filling a community center room in the North End for two hours of discussion. One group of teens spoke about accountability, another about preventing violence between youth.

A third gave a presentation on rehabilitation, the need for victims and perpetrators to heal from their trauma before they can fully focus and succeed at school, home and work.

It was an idea that Larson touched on, too, when he addressed the nonprofits and community groups in the room, including the HCC, COMPASS Youth Collaborative, Mothers United Against Violence, the Peace Center of Connecticut, Wilson-Gray YMCA, and YWCA Hartford Region.

“There’s a certain trauma that impacts individuals — especially those who have served in the military understand what happens when you have PTSD, that comes from being in a war zone, that comes when you feel like the country, the community that you’re in is constantly under assault,” Larson said. “Were in not for all of the various organizations that are here today, I don’t know where we’d be.”

Over the course of three years, exposure to gun violence would warrant trauma care for an estimated 3,200 youth in Hartford, the Mayor’s Office concluded following an analysis last year.

Steve Harris, a North End resident leader and retired fire captain for the city, echoed Larson as he told the academy youth about his own military service. At 19, not long after graduating from Weaver High School, Harris found himself in the jungles of Vietnam, trying to stay alive as he lead seven other young men in combat, the 71-year-old said.

One of the hardest and bravest things a person can do is to lead, Harris told the teens. But turning the tide of gun violence in Hartford will take youth leaders who will stand up to their peers, speak out to those in power, and stand up straight and proud as people from “the 06120,” one of the poorest zip codes in the U.S.

“This isn’t a battle, this is a war, and you’re talking to an infantryman from Vietnam. So when I’m talking about war, I’m speaking from experience,” Harris said. “This isn’t a battle, this is a war. But if we stick together and we keep our arms around these young people and keep encouraging them, we will win this war.”

This isn’t a battle, this is a war, and you’re talking to an infantryman from Vietnam. So when I’m talking about war, I’m speaking from experience.