A recent youth violence forum at Buchtel High School began with video clips from a popular website that featured young people in various stages of fighting. And the images were met with laughs and cheers from the students, which spoke volumes about the role that the media plays in glorifying teen violence.
But by the end of the event, the students' raucous behavior transitioned to polite applause, as the panelists pointed out just how detrimental media depictions are to them, especially urban youth.
"There are executives basing shows off of our misery and our issues," said Dr. Zachery Williams, an associate professor of history at The University of Akron and one of the guests of the Youth Violence Forum, hosted by Keepers of the Art. While media like TV shows and websites make money off of these violent images, the profits are typically not funneled back into the community, said Williams, who added that urban youth are getting the worst part of this deal. "Instead of laughing at (our problems), we have to face them and deal with them, because they won't go away."
"(Youth violence) is a very serious topic that we deal with in our community," said Donovan Rogers, from Keepers of the Art. who moderated the panel discussion. "It doesn't just happen. There are reasons why we see so much violence in our community."
One of the video clips shown to the students included a sobering statistic: homicide is the leading cause of death for African-American youth between the ages of 10 and 24.
The event featured a DJ and a myriad of multimedia clips to arm the host and panelists with a powerful message: much of the glorified violence depicted on TV and online leads to incarceration and even murder.
Curtis "Kwodow" Williams, a therapist, said he noted sad sounds among the laughter, which conveys a conflict as it relates to youth violence. "You all are being inundated with images to desensitize you."
Students also were shown the ways that African-Americans have been depicted throughout recent history, from minstrel shows to current hip-hop videos, many of which are violent and hyper-sexualized, and Rogers asked the panel, "Why is it that historically we've been portrayed with images that are not necessarily reflective of who we truly are as a community?"
"You must increase your awareness of what you're watching," advised Curtis Williams.
"The media makes a lot of money off of these images, and just to keep it serious, we watch them," said Myron Lewis, who works in the Summit County Juvenile Court system.
And some of the harm created by media is self-inflicted, according to the panelists.
For example, just as churchgoers find inspiration in gospel, some people regularly consume hip-hop lyrics, said Gabriel "Asheru" Benn, a Washington D.C.-based educator and hip-hop artist, who reaches out to troubled youth through the Hip-Hop Educational Literacy (HELP) program. This steady diet of negative lyrics can be detrimental, added Benn.
He said it's OK to be entertained by things like music videos, but it's crucial for young people to understand the difference between entertainment and real life.
The Youth Violence Village Forums were set up by Keepers of the Art to help students understand the role that the media and popular culture play in perpetuating violence, along with setting the tone for productive and nonviolent behavior in local high schools. The goal, according to the organization, is not only to discuss issues that lead to youth violence, but also to find short-term and long-term solutions to reduce violence in urban communities in general.
Panelists also pointed out how we, as a society, become numb and desensitized to violence locally, even in the face of nationally recognized cases like the Trayvon Martin shooting in Florida. While the media reports encourage people to rally against violence for Martin, there appears to be a shortage of concern for victims of violence in local neighborhoods, said some of the panelists.
"We have to begin to decide what's in our best interest for ourselves and not allow the media to dictate what is in our best interests or what's important to us," said Curtis Williams.
The program also covered the criminal justice system and crimes that occur within local neighborhoods.
The culture against "snitching" is another problematic aspect of the African-American community, according to the panel. "We have a no-snitching code in our community, and oftentimes it doesn't allow us to police the negative elements that we see every day in our communities," said Rogers, who asked how to eliminate this mindset in order to help make communities safer.
For information about this and other educational programs, visit www.keepersoftheart.com.