High school students from Kentlake and Kentwood High take tour of national economy

After attending the vigil of a 3-year-old girl in Oakland, Calif. the students of the Institute for Community Leadership (ICL) in Kent decided something.

Whatever the solution is to the current economic crisis, violence isn’t it.

The girl had been killed during a gang fight in an impoverished area, where youth living in poverty are easily targeted for gang recruitment.

“One of the things we learned is...the active role people are taking is not a positive one,” said Mayra Perez, a 15-year-old student at Kentlake High School. “One of them is to act violent.”

In order to study the effects of the economic downturn on communities, 28 students from the ICL took a seven week tour of the West Coast.

Starting at the Quinault Reservation on the Olympic Peninsula in April, they traveled down to Fresno, Calif., with a short detour to Washington D.C. before coming back to Washington in mid-August.

Named “Economic Crisis + Education Crisis = Teach-ins for a Stronger Democracy” by the students, they met with various organizations and politicians such as city council members and legislators in order to get an overall impression of how the cities had been impacted.

One observance which struck them how the recession has affected people from all walks of life. When they a visited homeless shelter, they encountered many people who had once had well-paying jobs and homes, but had lost them both.

“It was really hard to see people be deprived,” said Perez. “The people had been not poor.”

Students such as RJ Anderson, a 17-year-old who attends Kentwood, stated the best thing for communities to do is work together and help support each other.

“We all have an individual part to play in the country and in the community,” he said. “All of us can get involved. What I’ve learned is we have a responsibility to our country without a tap on the shoulder.”

According to Kentlake student Lisa I’a, 17, communities in which the residents were proactive in assisting each other fared much better than those that were divided.

“People are scared to stand up because they’re afraid of falling back down,” she said. “We’re all facing the same position. Though we’re not related through blood, we’re all related because we have the same problem.”

Nyla Rosen, who works for the Institute, explained how non-violent principles are essential for communities which are struggling economically. Concepts such as avoiding materialism and emphasizing community over individual selfishness are among those taught at the Institute, which draws heavily from the works of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mohandas Gandhi.

A significant crisis the students found in many communities was the strong presence of gangs, which are often seen as an outlet for youth. Students like Perez felt they did nothing but exacerbate the problems in the neighborhoods they operate in by encouraging violence and contributing to lowering the rate of graduation among high school students.

“Instead of helping our communities, they’re going to break them apart,” she said.

Nowhere did they see this more exemplified than in the death of the 3-year-old Oakland girl.

“It’s incredible to see how it (gang violence) happens every day,” Perez added. “A lot of people at the vigil came to the position that they were going to stop the violence. We have to overcome it.”

One way to do this, Anderson said, is for youth to educate themselves on issues which affect them locally, something he feels is severely lacking.

“Ask kids what they think of politics or government and none of them could really connect,” he said.

Another notion was for youth to develop greater relationships with the elders in their community. During their tour, they met with a 91-year-old Malaysian man, who was able to provide them with useful insight.

“It was a group of 18 stu  dents in a 100 degree room, listening to the story of his life,” Perez recalled. “We didn’t mind the heat or how we looked. We cared about his story.”

While people may not be able to improve their economic situation, Anderson stated, communities can have impact in the manner in which they respond.

“We can’t say how long it (the recession) will be there,” he said. “All we can do is participate in the solution. It’s kind of hard to say the problem will go away in two weeks. A lot of people are still on their knees and continuing to fall.”

“We either fall into a deep hole or we prosper,” said Perez.

The students at the ICL are hosted at the O’Dell Education Center in Covington.


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