While kids played in the park out back and teenagers hung out in the parking lot, dozens of adults filled a room at the Mountain View Community Center Tuesday night. They gathered to answer an urgent question: How to prevent the violence that keeps claiming young Anchorage lives?
Along a chain link fence a block away, roses and photos memorialize the 17-year-old shot and killed two weeks ago on the other side of town. A street over, there’s another fence and another homemade memorial — this one for the 15-year-old killed two years ago by a bullet through her apartment window. There are too many memorials like that in too many places around Anchorage.
Desperate, parents and friends and neighbors sought solutions. They met at the community center to build them.
“My children have been losing their friends out there,” said Leslie Vines.
The room was quiet.
The Tuesday assembly was unlike most community meetings. Organized by Kokayi Nosakhere, writer and community activist, and Don Megga, a local radio personality, it opened with prayer. Then came two hours of honest discussion aimed to produce actionable ideas to present at a citywide “Stop the Violence” block party Aug. 20.
Everyone who wanted to help was invited. Anyone who had an idea was welcomed to speak up.
Vines, employment director at Nine Star Employment and Educational Services, thought jobs and education could be part of the answer. She stood in front of the room and talked about the different training programs available; how parents could keep their kids busy, keep them out of trouble. It starts at home, she said.
“As a single parent, I want my kids to be different and better than me, so I still work,” she said to the crowd. “It starts with us — our kids are following us. Our kids are following us.”
The way Mutazz Chenery sees it, kids these days need more ways to express themselves; more time to be kids; more understanding when it comes to the world in which they’ve been raised.
“It’s not ‘90 no more, it’s 2016, so we can’t handle these kids like it’s 1990,” Chenery said. “I don’t know where to start to fix it, I don’t know how we go about it … I just know what I can do.”
So, at the front of the crowded community center room, he talked about the opportunities he tries to find for the young people around him, and the things he sees and hears on a daily basis. The kids aren’t kids anymore, he said. They’re forced to grow up too fast. Maybe that’s part of the trouble.
Not everyone in the room agreed about the causes of the problems, or even the problems themselves. There were questions and conversations. But everyone agreed on one thing: To stop the violence, something had to change.
Armed with ideas, poster board and markers, they gathered around tables and wrote everything down. There were suggestions for encouraging youth leadership and building economic mobility. People talked about curfew reform, youth employment and sparking change within the Anchorage School District. Men and women shared their thoughts on ways to make Anchorage stronger from within — family by family, block by block.
Standing next to a sheet poster board covered in writing, Antavia Hamilton-Ochs talked about her own experience as a former teacher in local high school classrooms. She loved her students, she said. She quit the job over frustrations with the school’s seemingly poor literacy standards. Now she hopes to help her former students in other ways. In any way.
“I don’t care who’s to blame anymore, somebody just needs to say, ‘I’ll step up — I’ve got time to help these kids,’” Hamilton-Ochs said. “It’s so cliche, but this is our future, and I’m angry that it’s taken this long, but I’m hopeful that all these people have come together.”