I can’t stop thinking about a 14-year-old girl I met last month.
Monica Gonzalez is a freshman at Horizon Science Academy in Chicago’s McKinley Park neighborhood. I accepted an invitation from a teacher to visit the school and talk about journalism to a group of students. The conversation veered toward news coverage of various South Side neighborhoods. Of course, violence came up.
But I was totally unprepared for Monica’s comments. She said she feels helpless when she watches murder coverage on the news. Her younger cousins, ages five and two, turn to her asking if they’re going to be okay. They cling to her when they hear about children dying of gun violence. They ask if that is how they will die. With tears running down her face, Monica told me she doesn’t know what to say to them much less know how to improve her community and stop the shootings.
I paused. I tried to be an adult and give Monica what I thought she needed immediately — comfort and reassurance. I told her don’t let her little cousins see her upset. Hug them. Then I told her to find adults to whom she could talk to express herself. That was the best I could do in that emotional moment. Giving a hackneyed speech about civic engagement for young people didn’t feel right. Not right then. This young lady needed comforting herself.
Maybe that wasn’t the best response. In the weeks since, I’ve wondered how Monica is doing and if she still feels powerless. I want to connect her through this column to Berto Aguayo, a young dynamic community organizer who focuses on safety and violence issues for the Pilsen-based nonprofit The Resurrection Project. He’s a passionate South Sider.
Aguayo, 22, quipped that he learned how to be a community organizer in his Back of the Yards neighborhood by being in a gang starting at age 13.
“The same lingo and concept of power, identity, engaging in the public arena are ever present in street life and gangbanging,” he said. “I went from a street organizer to community organizer.”
While a junior in high school, Aguayo received a suspension for fighting. He said the principal threw a job application to him and he got a summer job working for an alderman. That precipitated his turnaround. He took pride in the job and a whole new world opened up as he rode the Halsted Street bus to the North Side.
“Having that invitation to be able to serve and feel like you have purpose and a public identity because you can help other people — that was transformative to me,” Aguayo said. The allure of gangs waned. Last year, he graduated from Dominican University with degrees in political science and economics.
Aguayo said that growing up he knew people smarter than him, but they weren’t given an opportunity or invitation to the proverbial table to make change. Aguayo’s advice for young Monica isn’t actually for her. He said adults with community-based organizations need to involve young people. Oftentimes, teenagers are overlooked.
“It’s up to the civic community, the citizen organizations to engage young people like her,” he said. “Not to empower her but to help guide her to find the power she already has in her. Her knowing she has the power to change the violence that we see — [those] are not usually conversations we have with young people.”
There are organizations Monica can connect with that have a track record of helping young people find their voice and harness their power. Mikva Challenge, Young Chicago Authors, Free Spirit Media, Enlace, Digital Youth Network and Urban Gateways are just a handful of places that would gladly welcome Monica.
And for the adults reading this column, even if you’re not with a community-based organization, pay attention to our young people in Chicago. Don’t write any of them off. They are smart and eager, traumatized and scared. Most importantly, they have something important to say and we need to listen.