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Memphis, preparing for ‘UNITY and HOPE’

Internationally renowned speakers and singers will help launch a social action initiative for Memphis at the Summer Youth Conference on UNITY and HOPE.
 Dr. K. S. Anand

by Dr. K. S. Anand

Special to the Tri-State Defender

Her mind in a daze, Felicia didn’t know what to think or feel. Everything had happened so quickly in the past few hours. As she glanced anxiously at the closed double-doors of the ICU, she wondered, “How did I get here?”  

Pregnant at 16, she had dropped out of high school after her mother refused to help her and her son, Antwan, unless she worked full-time to help pay for the rent and food. She found a job at Wal-Mart and things worked well until Bobby, her mother’s new boyfriend, moved in with them.  She didn’t feel safe anymore, but leaving wasn’t an option.  

That night, she had returned from a second shift at work to find Antwan lying in bed with a bruise on his forehead. He wouldn’t wake up for dinner and just wasn’t breathing right. She frantically dialed 911 and now, several hours later, sat at the hospital, hungry, tired and worried. The doctors were saying that her son had brain damage and, if he lives, that he may never be the same again.  

Unfortunately, this situation is far too common, isn’t it? Barely a month ago, a Memphis man was convicted of murder for beating his girlfriend’s 3-year-old daughter to death. The victim’s brother told the police that the man regularly punished them by making them stand against the wall with arms outstretched for long periods. He would punch his young sister just for frowning at him.

According to the National Center on Child Abuse, as many as 200,000 children are physically abused each year. Child abuse is a leading cause of death for children 0-5 years of age, even though experts say 60-85 percent of child abuse fatalities are not recorded on the death certificates.

The worsening economy appears to have made these numbers climb, as more deprivation, frustrations, or job losses become widespread. Increased criminal punishments, increased regulation of child-care facilities, or even community action by changing where and how small children are cared for, have not helped to reverse these trends.  

So, what can we do?  

After practicing as a pediatrician for 30 years and facing such situations innumerable times, I still get a sinking feeling in my stomach when called to treat a victim of child abuse. While we continue child-friendly social programs, legal and regulatory initiatives, community-wide education and other initiatives, what’s needed is a fundamental change in the way we think about ourselves and those around us.  

That is the goal for a two-day conference in Memphis, which seeks to attract 2,000 youth and young adults from 15-35 years of age. Internationally renowned speakers and singers, who have successfully addressed similar problems in many other places, will help launch a social action initiative for Memphis at the Summer Youth Conference on UNITY and HOPE at the Cannon Center for the Performing Arts June 25-26. Their lively, energizing, interactive sessions will be interspersed with music performances by local and national music groups, an award-winning movie, a Unity Dance, practical workshops, or other break-out sessions.  

Participants of all ages are welcome. To participate, buy tickets – $5, $10, $15 – at www.unityand hopememphis.org. The conference will provide community leadership opportunities for youth and create a culture that channels their energies towards self-improvement and community-improvement.

Memphis and Shelby County have long suffered from the reputation of being riddled by “tough” neighborhoods where crime and fear are more abundant than food and water. With 500 street gangs, drug trafficking, teenage pregnancy rates of 18-20 percent (more than twice the national average), up to 175 arrests each day, Memphis has been ranked with Detroit and St. Louis as one of the most crime-ridden cities in the country.  But recent statistics paint a portrait of a city undergoing change. For the first quarter of 2011, violent crimes decreased 26 percent, robberies dropped by 47 percent, aggravated assaults declined by 12 percent, motor vehicle thefts fell by 59 percent across Memphis, compared with the same time period five years ago.

The upcoming Summer Youth Conference on UNITY and HOPE seeks to build on these successes by giving young people the framework and practical tools they need to make quality choices and life decisions. They will have access to facilities, networks, and resources within their own communities – connecting them with like-minded individuals and community groups that are active in the own neighborhood. It will offer once-in-a-lifetime contact with renowned international speakers, including Dato’ J. Jegathesan (a youth advisor, economist, Nobel Prize nominee), Valarie Kaur (a film maker, social activist, decorated speaker), and Lightstorm J & K (well-known musicians, spiritual mentors, naturalists).  

Participants will get to hear LeMoyne-Owen’s Anointed Voices Gospel Choir, Shanti Wintergate (from the cast of “CSI:NY,” Amritha Vaz (a film music composer in Hollywood), and other musical groups. They y can catch an award-winning movie (“Divided We Fall,” 2008) and actually talk to its producers!  They will come away motivated to develop leadership skills and engage in community-based change.

Attendees also will get to assess the impact of this conference on their lives by completing an online survey before and after the conference.  They also will be able to offer ideas and suggest ways to improve the program in the future. If the funding materializes, we will make the Summer Youth Conference on UNITY and HOPE an annual event – bringing well-known personalities to discover Memphis and to interact with its vibrant and socially-conscious youth groups.  

This annual conference is designed to be a game-changing catalyst in the transformation of Memphis. This is a city where inner-city youth caught the eye of President Barack Obama who broadcast their academic achievements to the entire nation, a city that energized the civil rights movement and continues to blaze new trails, a city that has risen, time and again, after earthquakes and floods, and a city that creates beautiful music and sings the blues like no other.  Memphis knows in it heart that there are no limits.  

Crime, or poverty, or joblessness, or social barriers, such ghosts of negativity will be blown away like dry leaves before the winds of unity and hope, the red tide of rage and retribution will be turned back by a green tide of goodness and grace, the mists of falsehood or failures will vanish before the sustaining sunlight of love and truth, the joys of cooperation and collaboration will replace the selfishness, greed and distrust of competition….. and the heart of every child like Antwan, nurtured by his family and community, will resound with a song of love that brings peace to the world.  Let that change begin with Memphis.

About K.J.S. Anand, MBBS, D. Phil., FAAP, FCCM, FRCPCH:
St. Jude Endowed Chair for Critical Care Medicine
Professor of Pediatrics, Anesthesiology, & Neurobiology
Division Chief, Pediatric Critical Care Medicine
Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital
University of Tennessee Health Science Center

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