From the start of 2008, there has been an alarming surge in youth related-violence in the Chicago area.

Now, several community activists in Austin are partnering to launch an umbrella network of organizations to address youth violence.

Whether riding on school buses or walking with friends, the threat of violence for youth is very real and too often of an occurrence. With most public schools empty for the summer vacation, activists fear that the violence could escalate.

Consequently, the Westside Health Authority has served as the primary facilitator for the recently launched Austin Safety Net Works on youth violence. The program is funded by a $280,000 grant issued in April by the Illinois Department of Human Services. The coalition brings together members of WHA and other community organizations, including the Austin YMCA, South Austin Coalition Community Council, and New Birth Christian Center. The focus is to plan events centered on advocating non-violence. Several of the affiliated groups have been involved in violence prevention and youth development work for years already. The grant is expected to expand those efforts.

“Essentially, members and youth who are working with these groups have been getting together at the WHA office [4800 W. Chicago Ave.] every Thursday to make proposals for youth-oriented activities,” said Janette King, founder of Young Creative Minds. “We realize that one way to stem the tide of the violence in the community is to get our children involved with their peers in events that will prevent them from participating in destructive behaviors in the first place.”

The first element of the Austin Safety Net Works was a safety patrol at several community schools, including Michele Clark High School and Milton Brunson Elementary School, this past spring. The patrols lasted until the final weeks of the school year. Members from various organizations walked the school grounds before and after the school day. It’s usually been during the hours after classes ended that much of the violence at schools has occurred. The next goal for the coalition was working alongside area teens to create events and programs they could participate in during the summer.

“Youth must have the freedom to plan and take on leadership in violence-prevention activities,” said WHA Community Organizer Anthony Bowman. “A large part of our mission as a coalition is to create safe space for youth to socialize and plan their own events.”

In the two months following the program’s inception, youth from the respective organizations have already begun planning events. On Friday, the coalition will host a mock funeral at 6 p.m. at Peterson Funeral Home, 5900 W. Division, to highlight alarming numbers of youth killed this year.

The ‘scared straight’-style event intends to underscore the consequences of youth with two young men on display who never lived to see their 20s. The funeral will be followed by a discussion on youth violence featuring Nate Howard of Mad Dads. Afterward, a mini-march will take place to the Davis Play Lot, 5427 W. Division. Also on tap this weekend is a Non-Violence Picnic from noon to 3 p.m. at LaFollette Park, 1333 N. Laramie. Ald. Emma Mitts (37th) Ald. Isaac Carothers (29th) and State Rep. LaShawn Ford (8th) are scheduled to attend.

Currently in the works is an event proposed by Austin YMCA youth for next month. The event at the YMCA, 501 N. Central, involves youth spending one night in the facilities two gyms, participating in workshops, arts and crafts, and networking.

“The great thing about these activities is that they are planned by the youth themselves,” said Bowman. “Clearly, we can only be successful in stemming the tide if we involve the youth.”

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