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Shut Up and Listen

Community Leaders Turn To Youth For Answers

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by Erin Ergenbright

In response to several recent shootings in Northeast Portland, last Saturday the Northeast Coalition of Neighborhoods (NECN) held its second in a series of community meetings. But unlike other meetings on gang violence, this time it was those most directly affected who were allowed to speak--the kids. Adults were not allowed to interrupt; for once, they were told to listen.

The mood at Dishman Community Center was like an old-time revival--there were amens and murmurings and tears. Sitting in a ring of chairs, 25 youth from North and Northeast Portland spoke bluntly about their lives; all but one were African American. Many had several children and a few had been in prison. For nearly three hours, they talked about the lack of support from parents, teachers, and peers. They talked about the difficulty in trusting others. And, unlike previous seminars on stopping crime, they did not talk about putting extra police on the streets.

Some in the circle challenged each other to provide the support that seems to be missing in their lives. "My best friend is pregnant at 14," one girl said, "and we all need to stop talking about her. We need to help her instead of pushing her back into the hole she's already in."

Antoinette Garrett, a tiny 20-year-old with cornrows, said she was at the meeting to ask one question: how many in the circle were over 18, and whether or not they were registered to vote. "We need voters like a mug," she said. "We've got 60-year-olds who are voting for us in Portland." To loud laughter, she explained that mug means "really big."

Another teen chimed in: "It's easier to make excuses than take action." He added, "Don't accept the stereotype that you're doomed to fail because of your background."

A speak-out session on gangs will be held from 10 am to noon on Friday, March 12th, at Irvington Church (4008 NE MLK Blvd). The mayor has promised to be in attendance, as well as a few council members--who will be, for a change, asked to listen and understand.

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