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Combating violence: students take the issue into their own hands

U School students mentor younger peers and encourage artistic expression. The program grew out of the Aspen Challenge.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Quran Kelly spent much of Monday morning banging on desks.

Kelly, a junior at The U-School, was teaching 7th graders at nearby McKinley elementary how to make music with their hands.

“My brain is always a million miles ahead of my mouth, so it is hard for me to talk…I used to get angry because I couldn’t talk with people,” he said. “I would probably just hit somebody or something, which is bad.” Listening, and then making music, was a way for him to express his anger.

“I want to show them that not only do you not need any money [to make music], but you can use your hands or fists for something else other than fighting,” he said.

Kelly and the seven other U-School students who were working with McKinley students March 20 are part of Breakout, a mentorship program that aims to fight violence through artistic expression. The students formed the group as part of the Aspen Challenge, which is partnering with the Philadelphia School District to inspire high school students to create projects that help tackle some of the city’s – and the world’s – most difficult problems. Twenty Philadelphia public high schools are participating in the Aspen Challenge this year.

Students can decide to tackle one of five different challenges, each presented to them by various leading social thinkers — “thought leaders” — and designed to empower them to problem solve. The challenges were participatory budgeting, recovering food waste, improving physical and emotional health of their communities, inspiring others to protect the planet, and promoting nonviolence.

The challenge that the students from The U-School chose was “to make the impossible possible — to change the culture of violence by leading a movement to make nonviolence cool — especially for those who live in the most violent neighborhoods.”

The challenge was presented by Rev. Jeffrey Brown of the national organization Rebuilding Every Community Around Peace (REAP) and founder of the Boston Ten Point Coalition, which played a major role in decreasing the city’s violent crime rate in the 1990s — the so-called “Boston Miracle.”

In response, these students created Breakout.

“In the streets of Philly, violence is the No. 1 thing,” said Anthony Rivera, another junior Breakout member.

A resident of North Philadelphia, he said that societal and familial instability in some of Philly’s most impoverished neighborhoods makes it difficult to grow up without being influenced by the surrounding violence.

“A kid is supposed to live on his own, or her own, with no background information about why these things are in place and I think kids get lost in that,” he said. “Kids get lost in how to find their way and they turn into what the system has in place for them.”

Each member of the U School Breakout team has a specific passion that they hope to use to engage the McKinley students. For Kelly, it is music. For Rivera, it is film. For Argelis Minaya, it is writing.

“I experienced domestic violence,” said Minaya, a junior.

“You don’t really understand what you are feeling and seeing…just the art of taking your emotions from your mind and putting it on paper makes it much more realistic and basically frees your mind and stops you from doing a lot of things.”

So the members of Breakout went a few blocks down the street to McKinley to do a workshop to talk to students about the violence that they experience in their own lives and how to use that to make art. The McKinley students could participate in workshops focused on dance, writing, music, and film/photography, all lead by Breakout members.

Minaya started the morning sharing her own story and trying to get the 7th graders to open up about their experiences with violence.

“I had to deal with always having bruises,” she said, “and I was just angry all the time.” When asked to share their own stories, some of the students described feeling unsafe, while others said that they had been in fights themselves.

One student said that just that week a fight had broken out and someone on the street was being beaten outside his house while his mother was making breakfast.

“It’s not safe outside. That’s why I stay inside and play video games,” he said. “This happens every week.”

“I don’t just see it, I am in it,” said another student.

“If somebody puts their hands on me, if somebody hits me, I am going to defend myself.”

Minaya said that their role is not to tell kids what to do, but to make them think about alternative ways of dealing with the violence they encounter every day.

“We are not coming in there to be like ‘hey we are about to change your whole life and listen up.’ It is going to be a process…I think it is just about being real with them and having those conversations that we need to have.”

For most of the students within Breakout, this is not the first time they have tried to make an impact on local youth. Many of them have been involved in the Future Project, a national program that works with schools and students to motivate the next generation to think outside of traditional measures of success and believe in their own futures.

But for these students, they are not only looking to chart their own futures, but also help younger students do the same. Kelly believes that consistency and relating it to personal experience is what will make the difference.

“If we don’t give up on them, that is just showing our dedication and if they don’t listen, we just have to keep stressing that there are a lot of other ways and other things you can be doing aside from violence. There are a lot of other ways you can solve problems.”

For Breakout, the vehicle is through creative expression. But perhaps even more important to their vision is the focus on mentorship. The Aspen Challenge started on February 1 and the student groups have eight weeks to come up with their response to the challenge, which will be presented to a panel of judges on March 29. But The U-School students hope to continue Breakout long after that, regardless of which team wins.

“At the end of the day, you can’t solve violence in eight weeks,” said Minaya.

“Instead of it being about this workshop, we want it to be more like a mentorship group so we can come back and really provide the kids with some type of inspiration so we can change their outlook of where they come from and the things they have gone through.”

So far the McKinley students seem to be interested in continuing with Breakout. Elias, one of the 7th grade McKinley students said, “This is the first time I’ve ever been in a group like this. We wrote down how violence affects our behavior and they told me how to express myself when going through something.” He added that he hoped the program could continue.

The U School students also hope that if there is enough interest, they can keep the program going as a regular after school activity.

Charlie McGeehan, a teacher at The U School and Breakout’s faculty mentor, said that the workshop was even more successful than he had anticipated.

“What they do is amazing. They can connect with these kids in a way we just can’t as teachers,” McGeehan said.

According to Breakout members, the key is maintaining that connection. The students not only handed out surveys and materials during the workshop, they also gave our their phone numbers so that the younger students could feel free to contact them outside of school. One of the reasons Breakout chose to work with McKinley is because it just a few blocks away from The U School. They hope that the close proximity allows the students from both schools to easily stay in touch.

“Teenagers can do so much, but if the whole city could rise up and do the same thing we are doing, then we could really rise as a nation and change the outcomes,” said Rivera.

“It goes farther than just an organization to hope to fight what we are fighting. Breakout is the start of that and there are other organizations that came before us that are fighting the same thing. This is not about the eight people we have here, it is about everybody coming together in unison and fighting for what is right.”

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