Lettie Carter knows her 13-year-old son, Elijah, was born a natural leader.
Carter, 40, lives in Waldo, a town of less than 1,000 people that she says lacks resources for young people like community centers, tutoring services and transportation. Monday night at the Thomas Center in downtown Gainesville, she watched Elijah, an eighth grader from Howard Bishop Middle School, be inducted into the new Youth Activities Advisory Council.
“He inspires me and even encourages me in the process of losing his father in December,” Carter said. “He always carries his will.”
The group consists of nearly 20 middle and high school students from all over Alachua County, most of whom go to school outside of Gainesville. With other programs like Gainesville Police Department’s One Community Initiativeit aims to provide a space for young adults to participate in group activities to help curb the growing gun and gang violence among youth.
NKwanda Jah, the 68-year-old executive director of the Cultural Arts Coalition, has been at the forefront of coordinating the group. Jah said she originally went to an Alachua County Commission meeting in August to propose the idea.
The commission was receptive to her presentation, she said, and officials have suggested that some students apply to be considered on its advisory board.
She couldn’t imagine, however, that the average student or high school student would be willing to engage meaningfully in bureaucratic meetings on matters such as zoning.
The group, she said, is intended to positively impact the careers and lives of students in Alachua County.
“We were losing children in our community to violence and we weren’t going to just sit back and talk about it,” Jah said, adding that vulnerable youth often turn to gangs for help. provide a stable income.
Eighth Judicial Circuit Judge Gloria Walker shared her journey as a first-generation college student who took an untraditional path, starting with washing dogs before starting community college and ending up at the University of Florida . She led the students in an oath that solidified them as council members.
“As Oprah says, you have to dream big,” Walker said. “Law?”
Marihelen Wheeler, chairwoman of the Alachua County commission, was also sworn in Monday evening. Along with parents of council members and leaders like Gainesville Mayor Lauren Poe and Santa Fe College President Paul Broadie II, Wheeler vowed to heed the council’s voices.
Wheeler, a former college professor, said the initiative is a good start to help tackle violent youth crime.
“I hope the community gets information from this group that we didn’t have, didn’t think about, or didn’t take as seriously as we should have,” she said. . “I hope these young people can educate us and make us do better.
In his address to students as the new Community Liaison Officer, County Commissioner Charles Chestnut said he was pleased to have the chance to hear from a cross-section of young people affected by county politics.
“As adults, we don’t listen to you,” he said. “You have a lot to tell us. But we just ignored it.
After meeting for the first time, the group of students ended the night sitting in a circle, exchanging phone numbers and discussing what each of them would like to get out of their time together. They will meet in the next month or two at community centers around the county.
Kristen Ivey, 16, a 10th grade student at Hawthorne Middle High School, said her aunt, Hawthorne Mayor Jacquelyn Randall, got her involved in the council. She said that due to the city’s proximity to Gainesville, gang violence is somewhat common among young people in her experience.
Ivey said she was thrilled to see so much diversity of race, age and hometown on the board.
“Different minds can create a better community and a better world,” Ivey said.
Joshua Franklin, 16, a sophomore at Gainesville High School, said being a board member with access to elected officials and other mentors like Walker will give young people more say in county policy.
“When we try to talk and say something, they don’t listen,” Franklin said. “So I feel like that’s really important because it gives us a voice and lets us be heard.”