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Akron grassroots organization hosts community conversations aimed at reducing youth violence

Emery Willis (left) and Kwa Hill (center) listen as community members participate in a listening session about Akron's youth gun violence at Joy Park Community Center on Nov. 2, 2023.
Anna Huntsman
Ideastream Public Media
Emery Willis (left) and Kwa Hill (center) listen as community members participate in a listening session about Akron's youth gun violence at Joy Park Community Center on Nov. 2, 2023.

Akron grassroots organizations are gathering feedback from the community to try to curb youth violence in the city.

One group, Project Ujima, is holding peace circles at various locations to hear from community members about their own experiences and potential solutions.

Youth violence is top of mind for many in the community after several young people were shot at the city’s parks over the last several months, including a teen at a Juneteenth celebration at Stoner Hawkins Park, and a 7-year-old and 19-year-old at a youth football game at Lane Field in September.

In August, East High School football players mourned the loss of their teammate, Antenio Louis, just before the season began.

The listening sessions are funded by Akron’s Violence Intervention and Prevention Grants, which were awarded earlier this year. City officials pledged $20 million of Akron’s American Rescue Plan Act allocation to combat youth and community violence. The grants are funded through this initiative.

Through the peace circles, Project Ujima aims to get feedback from residents across the city, facilitate a productive dialogue and encourage people to listen to each other, said Emery Willis, community circle program coordinator and one of the facilitators of the sessions.

“The point is to be able to reach people where they’re at, and to see where we can basically gauge feedback from all different parts of Akron,” Willis said.

During a session Thursday at Joy Park Community Center on Akron’s east side, the seven participants were asked to share their thoughts on what they believe are some of the root causes of youth turning to violence.

They talked about a lack of discipline in homes - or too harsh of discipline that might decrease teens’ self-worth. Other participants said young people don’t feel like they have a purpose in life or are influenced by what they see on social media.

Many young people have not been taught how to deal with their emotions, added Kwa Hill, another facilitator. Hill works with students at East Community Learning Center Middle School and sees this issue daily, he added.

“Teaching people just how to slow down and think it through, that there’s consequences to their choices,” Hill said. “They’re caught up with their emotions, their anger, and they can’t stop.”

Hill and Willis collected notes and will provide the feedback to city officials as they continue to work on an overall strategy to curb violence.

"The action plan for these circles is what we're working with, with the city of Akron, to say 'okay, this is what we've been doing, the progress we have been making, and as we transition into the new administration, this is what we plan to keep doing," Willis said. "...As well as what our community can do to help close those gaps.

One of the leaders of this effort is Denico Buckley-Knight, the city’s youth and community opportunity director. Buckley-Knight attended the session and spoke about upcoming and potential strategies for the city, including a hospital-based intervention program that would direct outreach with perpetrators and victims in emergency rooms.

A football coach at East CLC High School, Buckley-Knight added that he’d like to see more outreach in youth sports.

Young people need to be a part of these conversations as well, he added.

“I would like to see a younger Akron,” he said. “[The youth] are ready to be activated, and we just need to learn how to get them activated in these spaces to have a voice in our community.”

Project Ujima has hosted three sessions, with the final session planned on Saturday at Buchtel CLC from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m.

Other grant recipients include organizations like Alchemy Inc. for mentorship sessions, The House of the Lord for grief intervention and United Way of Summit & Medina Counties to partner with Akron Public Schools and other local agencies to design and launch an “out-of-school time network” to help students find safe, productive things to do after school.

Anna Huntsman covers Akron, Canton and surrounding communities for Ideastream Public Media.