Youth council explores issues in Champaign

Youth council explores issues in Champaign

CHAMPAIGN — They'll call their newsletter "Hollah!" That's with an "ah" instead of an "er."

"If you say 'hollah' instead of 'holler,' then your audience should have an idea of what you're talking about, right?" the Rev. Eugene Barnes asks the young adults sitting in the Metanoia Center in the heart of one of the city's most troubled neighborhoods.

They nod in agreement.

"Based on what?" Barnes asks.

"It promotes itself to a different crowd," says Aaron Taylor, a 21-year-old member of the group.

The "different crowd" here is young adults in the Bristol Park and Shadow Wood mobile home park in north Champaign — two of several neighborhoods in "the North End," as its residents refer to it. The residents assembled at the round table, ranging in age from 19 to 25 and working with the nonprofit Metanoia Center as part of a state summer jobs program, call themselves the North End Youth Council.

On Tuesday, they were planning the newsletter they will publish before the program ends for the summer. The first column on the front page will display their mission statement.

"Strengthen community bonds, help, teach and improve the youth," group leader Kashira Pettigrew has no problem reciting from memory.

"It's always important to be able to quote your mission statement," Barnes says.

The North End Youth Council has spent the summer meeting with city and university officials, police, and other members of the community as its members look to organize other people their age.

They talk about the issues affecting their neighborhoods — racism, crime and housing, among others — and how they might have a role in effecting change.

The Bristol Park neighborhood has one of the higher crime rates in the city and some of the lowest property values. Most of its residents rent their homes, and the number of property maintenance code violations is among the worst in the city.

Tuesday's meeting took place in the Bristol Place neighborhood, a smaller seven-block subdivision inside Bristol Park.

The city has judged Bristol Place so beyond repair that officials plan to purchase all the properties, demolish all the buildings and redevelop the seven blocks from a clean slate.

Barnes administered the program during the summer, and he said it is a way to engage young adults in the neighborhood and hear from them. He said, a lot of times, members of the older generation think they have answers for the younger people without actually asking them.

"We talk around our children, we talk at our children, but we don't necessarily talk to our children," Barnes said.

Barnes acts as a teacher with the group, explaining to them the importance of organizing and the meaning behind what they do.

He said he hopes to take the information he learns from them, too, and incorporate it into other programming the Metanoia Center provides — gang intervention, for one.

The members of the group have been getting paid $9 per hour as part of the seven-week summer jobs program called Social, Educational, and Employment Development Services, or SEEDS. The initiative teamed with 58 community-based organizations across the state to provide summer employment and training for "at-risk youth" in 42 of Illinois' most socioeconomically distressed neighborhoods.

Most of the North End Youth Council members admit they joined the program at first for the paycheck, but they say it has become something more meaningful as they went along.

"I think what we're doing is a movement, and it can be expanded," Pettigrew said.

Getting themselves heard can be a different story, said assistant group leader Marcus Johnson. He said a lot of the interactions they have had have been positive, like a meeting with Champaign police.

But that is not always the case, like when the North End Youth Council attended a meeting of the Bristol Park Steering Committee, a group of older adults convened to advise the police and city on neighborhood issues.

Johnson said he thought the group may actually have been "threatened by the manner of the youth coming together."

"We were blatantly ignored the whole time," he said.

Pettigrew attributes that to the newness of the group and said the first meetings will not always be productive. But they want to show people they are committed to their cause, she said.

"They're not going to take us seriously if we don't look serious," Pettigrew said.

The jobs program is ending for the summer, so Pettigrew said the group will be looking for grants or other resources to continue their efforts and even expand if they can. They want to establish other youth councils in other neighborhoods.

"This is something that I think is important that we should keep going forth with and eventually people will the difference," Pettigrew said. "We'll still have the money to do everything we're trying to do, but it starts with us."

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