Voice lessonsThe Pittsburgh Foundation’s new organizing principle, 100 Percent Pittsburgh, will provide access opportunities for the 30 percent of residents who have been left out of the region’s vibrant new economy. The Motivating Young Citizens Project goes to the core of this multiyear effort by teaching young people affected by gun violence to become courageous advocates for change in their communities.
WHEN 18-YEAR-OLD UNIQUE CARGILE, a recent graduate of Propel Andrew Street High School in Munhall, speaks about gun violence, her voice is strong and unwavering.
“Gun violence keeps you on your toes. People shouldn’t be afraid to go outside to get fresh air or take their dog for a walk at night,” she says. “Recently a 2-year-old was shot on the North Side and my cousins knew the family, so that really hit home.”
Last year at the Propel school, Cargile participated in the first year of the Motivating Young Citizens Project. The program was created by the CeaseFire Pennsylvania Education Fund, a statewide organization that involves local elected and law enforcement officials, religious and community leaders, and individuals who collaborate on actions to end gun violence. In May, The Pittsburgh Foundation made a $50,000 grant to CeaseFire to expand the program to five additional schools and youth-serving organizations, providing up to 100 more teenagers with practical skills and historical knowledge to organize and speak out against gun violence. This summer, CeaseFire staff is forming partnerships with other organizations with the goal of launching the full program in the fall.
Through the Young Citizens Project, teen organizers will receive advocacy training they can use for a lifetime. They’ll learn about local, state and federal governments and the history of community organizing. They will be trained to meet with legislators who influence policy and will practice writing letters to the editor and getting those letters published.
Additionally, the teens will have the opportunity to organize and participate in street protests while connecting with experienced advocates who serve as mentors.
“In funding this program, our hope is that young adults will learn the skills they need to create and lead social change movements in their own neighborhoods, as well as in the broader Pittsburgh community,” says Michelle McMurray, the Foundation’s senior program officer for Health and Human Services. “We must find meaningful ways to engage people — especially youth, who are the future of our community — in civic dialog if we truly intend to find solutions to our most pressing challenges.”
Cargile and her peers needed no training to notice which legislators treated her and other Project participants with respect during legislative visits, and who showed up late, played with their phones, or, worst of all, dodged or ignored their questions. It troubled her greatly, she remembers, that “someone who represents our community doesn’t understand the stuff that we actually have to live through.”
Dealing with powerful people who aren’t interested in learning about other perspectives offers real-life lessons about the difficulty of achieving social change. And Cargile says her participation convinces her that the voice of firsthand, lived experience “can become very powerful” in changing the balance of power.
She has also become more confident in studying the details of an issue and then taking a stand. In less than a week, for example, she and her fellow teen advocates organized a public protest against police-involved shootings and community violence. Dozens of youth turned out and were joined by supportive passers-by.
“More students participated than I ever would have imagined,” Cargile remembers. “They really enjoyed it and are still talking about it. Before that, they heard about protests and saw them on the news but never actually participated.”
“It’s our friends being shot. It’s we who are going to funerals. We wanted people to see that it’s our futures being affected.”
Original story appeared in Forum Quarterly - Summer 2016