Like many large communities, Shelby County is faced with a rise in bullying and violence among young people under the age of 18. Traditionally, community leaders respond with aggressive multifaceted attacks on juvenile crime that may reduce incidences of crime but fail to address the underlying culture that fosters and sometimes encourages inappropriate/criminal behaviors.
Clearly, educators, law enforcement, politicians, and community leaders recognize that the sustained reduction in criminal activities involving youth require more than aggressive zero-tolerance policies and increased law enforcement presence. Moreover, given the burgeoning juvenile justice system, youth cannot simply be arrested and confined to detention centers.
Memphis is my home. I was born, raised and educated here. My parents lived and are buried here. Most of my family members still reside here. Although I was eager to leave, I am equally excited to come back home and become the catalyst of a movement that will change the destinies of children on a global scale. Memphis has a history of being the birthplace of movements. Now, it's time to start a movement where youth will be empowered to "fix" the brokenness in their own culture.
Time is out for holding meetings that produce outputs but not outcomes. Time is out for finger pointing and blame shifting. Time is out for looking out for "me, mine, and my own kind." Time is out for comatose church members, educators who don't care about all of their students, and parents who don't understand that raising their children should be their number one priority. The reality is that unless we work together, as a community, we are going to continue investing more money in prisons than in education. It's time for the community to look at the bottom line and do a real reality check
Too many people have already told our children, "Yes, I can, but No YOU CAN'T!" We are going to pay for our problem children regardless – it's just a matter of when and how much. It's time to start seeing our children as assets with a positive rate of return as opposed to liabilities riveted with losses. It's time to stop burying our children and start resurrecting the hope of those on the edge.
Let's help our teens start a youth-centered, youth-led movement with specific strategies outlined in The Last Straw Campaign. Although the ultimate goal is to reduce or prevent bullying and youth violence, we must equip our children with the skills and confidence they need to stand up, stand out, speak up, speak out, and pledge to be the change they want to see in society. Although our top priority is to raise the awareness about bullying and youth violence, we want to affect a paradigm shift in societal attitudes about how our children view themselves in light of the global community. This shift can only occur through our children – America's greatest resources.
Why 'The Last Straw?'
The Last Straw refers to the image of a camel – already carrying a heavy load of "stuff" – and that adding even one more straw will be enough to break its back. The "last straw" has caused many youth to commit suicide, homicide, join gangs, use alcohol and/or drugs, fail in school or drop out of school altogether. Children and teens feel abandoned and hopeless when they are disconnected from positive friends and supportive family members.
You can't break me!
You can't break me! This powerful, but simple message conveys the resolve that we want our children to have regardless of the challenges they face at school or in peer group settings. Bullying and peer-on-peer violence will never be totally eradicated, but the negative, detrimental effects it can have on our children can be substantially reduced. We, the adults in the community, must gain the trust of our children so they will know that we will not allow them to be broken by bullying and youth violence.
Ultimately, everyone in this community has a moral obligation to reach back and rescue our children. We may not have birthed them, but they are still ours. They may be hard headed and disrespectful, but they are still ours. We can't let our pride, ego, or feeling of self-righteousness keep us from doing what previous generations did for us.
Remember, the marches, beatings, dog bites and lynchings that our forefathers endured so we could taste the sweetness of freedom? Are we willing to give our children less than they gave us? No, I do not have all the answers, but together we can come up with some pretty powerful solutions. I do know that doing nothing is not an option. We have to do "whatever it takes" to keep our youth from being broken.
Corporations, educators, parents, government officials, church leaders, and community members know that we all have a major role to play in keeping our children safe and sound. Through volunteering and financial support, the adult stakeholders must assist all of our children with their "stuff" so they won't be "broken," or "break" their peers by their words and/or actions. Now is the time to come and reason together, with our children, so they can thrive and flourish.
No more broken children—NOT ON OUR WATCH!
(Dr. Clara West is founder and president of KoKo and Friends Foundation. "The Last Straw" campaign is designed to address at-risk behavior, including bullying and suicide, in the Memphis-area community. The effort is a collaboration involving the Shelby County Office of Early Childhood & Youth's Ask First Campaign; the KoKo Friends Foundation; Dress for Success Memphis' Professional Women's Group; and Pursuit of God's 7 P's ministry.)