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Boy with sign saying Stryving to Reduce Violence Everywhere
By Helen Silvis | The Skanner News
Published: 11 July 2014

After shootings left two men dead and several people injured, including a five-year-old boy, youth from the YES program (see story) organized a silent protest in McCoy Park Friday. The youth wore stickers on their mouths and bodies with messages of what they want to see in their lives: love, respect, peace, hope, happiness and more.  "We want people to know that youth care about where we live and we want it to be safe," said Yasmyn Allison, a Roosevelt High School student. "We are trying to make this city somewhere we want to live instead of somewhere where we are scared to go out of our house." In this photo Deanna Wesson Mitchell, (second from right) the mayor'policy adviser for the police bureau, joins youth in an exercise of silent caring in memory of those hurt by violence.

This summer a federal anti-violence program will send groups of teens into four Portland neighborhoods to create projects that build community.

The Youth Empowerment Solutions program, or YES, will be working in four focus neighborhoods in North, Northeast and East Portland. They are: New Columbia; Cully; Rockwood and Rosewood; and Albina at Killingsworth.  

Some of the teens will be armed with pens and clipboards. Others will have cameras or paint brushes. Their shared goal? To create unique projects that unite neighbors and help heal the community.

"The youth will design and implement their own projects," says Rebecca Stavenjord, who coordinates the STRYVE program at Multnomah County.

"Each of the four neighborhoods will have a project. We don't know exactly what they will do yet, but we do know that it will be about building peace -- and in my opinion this has to be developed by young people."

STRYVE (Striving to Reduce Violence Everywhere) tackles youth violence as a health problem. Research has found that children are twice as likely than the general population to be victims of violence. About 13 youth are murdered every day in the United States, making it the second leading cause of death for all young people aged 10-24.  Worse, homicide is the number one cause of death for Black youth. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control says youth violence should be seen as a public health crisis.

Multnomah County health department was one of four local health departments that won a share of a $4.5 million grant from the Centers for Disease Control  to tackle the problem. Other programs are based in Boston; Houston, Texas; and Salinas, California.

With training and support from STRYVE, about 50 youth will work as interns through the county's SummerWorks youth jobs program.

Raffaele Timarchi, who coordinates the SummerWorks program at Multnomah County, said the YES interns are learning how to be leaders in their communities.

"We want to give kids an opportunity to do meaningful work in the community, and see that the things you do with the people who look like you in your community is also very valuable. That's an incredible lesson."

Most of the interns also worked for the program last year, interviewing youth on the street to find out what problems they experience and whether they have been exposed to violence.

But the YES program is just part of STRYVE's work in Multnomah County. Other programs will bring youth and adults together to work on placemaking projects such as the Big Bang of Peace street painting on North Killingsworth Court and the Plaza del Sol street painting in Rockwood.

"Culture doesn't stand alone," Timarchi says. "By definition it needs an exchange between different generations."

STRYVE also has trained adults as community health workers specializing in violence prevention. The workers all have deep roots in the communities they serve. And Stavenjord hopes that some youth who have been incarcerated can also be trained to become part of the solution.

"This is not just a job," she says. "It's not just a program. It's more than work, it's life's blood. We all bring that heart to the work we do."

 Promoting reading is also part of the work. STRYVE is working in all four neighborhoods to place books in Little Free Libraries for children to take and read. That means finding homeowners who will agree to site the library boxes in their front gardens, Stavenjord says.

"We want to build 150 little free libraries to support early literacy and celebrate the 150th birthday of Multnomah County Library. And we are looking for book donations if anyone would like to help."

Happiness-webStavenjord says books that feature Black, Latino and other diverse families in stories of everyday life are particularly welcome.

"We really want books that have characters who come from communities of color,"  she says. "There are a lot of books that place people of color in a historical or educational setting, but not necessarily books who just happen to have a little kid who slays dragons, for example."

One survey showed that of 3,200 children's books just 93 featured black leading characters and 57 Latino characters.

Timarchi said he understands that problem well.

"My wife is Native American and I can't find a doll or book that doesn't have a headdress or isn't half naked," he says. "People want to see themselves in the school curriculum, in their work, and certainly in the stories they read. So it's tough, but I'm sure the stories are out there."

In August, STRYVE plans to bring each of the four communities together for ceremonies that will install Peace Poles in each of the four neighborhoods. The Peace Poles, funded by a grant from the downtown Rotary Club, will carry a message of peace in different languages, acting as beacons of hope and inspiration.

"They will leave an imprint on the communities where they live right now -- a legacy for future kids and families," says Timarchi.

"Through these projects youth are learning teambuilding and getting experience with planning and implementing a project, and they don't always get that opportunity in school," he says. "In three to four years we will have leaders who know one another and can dialogue and work together. That's important."

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