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Published: Sunday, 11/24/2013 - Updated: 11 months ago

COMMENTARY

Can we get it together for our youth?

BY KEITH C. BURRIS
COLUMNIST FOR THE BLADE

Toledo not only has a new mayor. It may be experiencing a renaissance of community action, and possibility.

The mayoral campaign revealed a new level of activism in our neighborhoods. Neighborhood forums and debates — more than anyone could remember ever happening — fed old and newly established neighborhood groups and vice versa.

There are also two new city-wide coalitions that are quite interesting. One is led by by two local African-American ministers — Pastor Robert Culp and Pastor Otis Gordon. It is called the Toledo Community Coalition, and it has recently partnered with The Blade to sponsor a series of public forums on race. The first of these forums was held at Woodward High School, and it attracted an overflow crowd.

The Community Coalition is now forming small study groups of approximately 10 people each, who will meet for six weeks. In these small groups, people will begin a dialogue across racial lines. As James Baldwin once wrote: Black people have to understand white people — their livelihoods and sometimes lives depend upon it.

White Americans have no imperative for learning about black or Hispanic or Asian people.

Toledo activist Pete Culp told me that white folks don’t understand black anger because they have never really been educated about the day-to-day experience of feeling powerless in our culture.

Now a second citywide group has been formed, and it could be complementary. Indeed, it could be almost revolutionary.

This group doesn’t even have a name yet. It has met only once. But it might be called the Committee for the Future.

It was convened by Baldemar Velasquez and former Mayor Carty Finkbeiner at the offices of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee on Thursday.

Its purpose is to help the city’s disadvantaged youth — especially the ones who lack fathers, drop out of schools and join gangs.

Note: The object is not just to talk about these kids, but actually help them.

The group’s initial members include Leroy Bates, a teacher and basketball coach; The Rev. Cedric Brock, pastor of Mount Nebo Church, Toledo; Nate Ford, a retired deputy police chief; Jose Montalvo, veteran youth leader; legendary basketball coach Ben Williams; the Rev. Talmadge Thomas, pastor of Mount Zion Church; Sonya Newton, a retired police officer with extensive experience working with at-risk kids; Romules Durant, superintendent of Toledo Public Schools; and Dave Murray, managing editor of The Blade. Others, such as former Mayor Jack Ford, have been asked to join the group, and it is to be hoped that other clergymen, as well as veteran community organizers, such as Dave Beckwith and Terry Glazer, also will join.

The main topic at this first meeting was this: What can we do, of a practical nature, to help our urban young?

As many as 70 percent, in some neighborhoods, are not graduating from high school. For many, gangs and the prison system are the only alternatives to boredom, broken homes, and joblessness.

Everyone in that room was speaking from a wealth of personal experience. But Mr. Velasquez is a prophetic leader. And Mr. Durant may very well become one.

One is a national leader (he is often in North Carolina organizing farm workers, but he can also be found speaking in London or testifying in Washington). And he is entering his later years. But, with this initiative, he is making time for his own community.

The other is a young man at the beginning of his career. And people expect him to be a superhero and save the Toledo Public Schools all by himself. That cannot be done, of course. Not alone. But he might be able to do it with others.

What came out of this first meeting? For me, three big pieces of wisdom and a rather specific action agenda.

Mr. Durant said that unless we actually work directly with the young — shoulder to shoulder — we are apt to be ineffective and to wander in our own self-congratulatory illusions. As a superintendent, he makes sure a big part of every work day is spent with students — leading two youth groups and taking the young men to his gym and his barber.

Mr. Velasquez told the group what Martin Luther King, Jr., once told him: If you concentrate on economic power, and the levers of economic power, everything is negotiable.

Mr. Williams told the group that we need a comprehensive and systemic approach to youth. “We can’t just keep dabbing at it,” he said.

Mind you, we are dabbing at it with millions of dollars right now. The problem isn’t really money. It’s leadership, coordination, and the way we use and direct the money.

Here is the group’s tentative action agenda:

Everyone around the table agreed that mentors and mentor programs work. Let’s find ways to increase the number of mentors available to young men and women — whether though the TPS Young Men and Women of Excellence, the YMCA and YWCA, the Boys and Girls Clubs, or other programs. But, as Mr. Brock noted, the target youth may not be in school. How do we reach the kid who has chosen a gang over TPS?

Negotiate with area colleges and universities to expand the number of full college scholarships available to inner city kids who overcome.

Roughly 8,000 poor kids in Toledo need Head Start or some other preschool opportunity, that will not be made available to them under current conditions. If we are going to attack poverty and low literacy, we have to help kids in at-risk conditions before they go to school.

If the city youth commission’s executive director were elevated to the level of commissioner, and the right person were named to the job, he, perhaps with the help of this group, could make a major difference. He, or she, might also begin to coordinate, organize, and redirect funds and energies.

This group hopes to offer its passion, expertise, and collective firepower to the new mayor. Their agenda fits perfectly with his neighborhoods agenda. It also fits with a renewed dialogue on race. The Committee for the Future is practical. It still needs honing and heft and a name. But it is real and gives this citizen hope.

Keith C. Burris is a columnist for The Blade.

Contact him at: kburris@theblade.com or 419-724-6266.



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