New Haven is a city where people are judged by the hood they represent. It is a place that, based on its history, was founded by violence, and descriminations whine in my ears like gunshots, for which there are plenty to go around here. School events are even cancelled to supposedly eradicate the tensions between violent teenagers. These restrictions, as well as the attitudes displayed by the students, make peace nearly impossible. Metal detectors and wands are not only present at our elementary schools, but are wielded often by watchful security guards to keep kids from bringing knives to the daily fight they have to deal with anyway. "Escorts", which are given a fancy name to disguise their bodyguard purpose, are used to shepherd women from store door to car door at most food markets. The most violent areas are borders between neighborhoods, like where Ella T. Grasso Blvd separates the Hill from Edgewood Park. City officials clamber onto New Haven Register articles that claim violence in New Haven is going down, and then use this same statistics shield themselves from the anger targeted at them by the victimized citizens of New Haven who know otherwise. Bullets attack the overcrowded fish bowls we call public high school and chaotic frenzies of minnows scramble around the holes that violence leaves behind in our education. Instead of the ocean they find themselves in a poisoned cage called prison. 1,076 juveniles were arrested my freshman year in high school, and 814 were arrested the next year, according to the New Haven Annual Crime Report for 2006. Although many of them aren’t behind bars now, it’s been estimated that at least 65% of those kids will be arrested again for more serious charges.
Arrested teens aren’t New Haven’s only worries, though. Guns are raging on the streets like a wildfire in a drought, and because of their rise in number, they’ve taken a toll on innocent lives. 22 people were murdered with a firearm in 2006, resulting in a 60% increase in homicides when compared to the year before. The New Haven Annual Crime Report for 2006 also states that there were a total of 13 drive-by shootings among the 136 shootings in New Haven that year, all occurring in the same area, known as the “Corridor”. This area consists of about 1/3 of the entire city of New Haven. To put that in perspective, 11 of the 13 high schools in New Haven are in the “Corridor”, as well as ¾ of New Haven’s middle schools and 85% of New Haven’s elementary schools, according to a map provided in the report and a list of schools on the New Haven Public School’s website. So instead of finding an ocean, these kids are finding employment at their local graveyard. 224 illegal firearms had been reported recovered, too, not including the 88 handguns that were turned into the police anonymously by the Buy-Back Program instituted by the New Haven Police. I haven’t even gotten started on drugs. 2,270 narcotic “incidents” were reported that year.
According to local newspapers, most of these numbers are on the rise, and it is disappointing to me how little headway has been made in reducing violence in New Haven, despite futile attempts to keep each kid from becoming just another statistic. I participated in a Stop the Violence rally earlier this year, and although the idea was a good one, and the speakers inspiring, the interest in our thoughts and opinions was outrageous. Although we were asked what we thought, our thoughts were not heard but instead recorded, as if writing our words would put them into action. Sure enough, the New Haven Register printed our words a few days later but not a single one of our many suggestions were implemented by the “important” people who asked the questions. Though I am grateful for the police that keep watch over me, I know that they are understaffed, undersupplied, and underestimated and that our city’s youth is neglected protection because of it.
However, there is something else that I am entirely aware of. New Haven’s youth is not helpless. I am not helpless. I know that there is something, something that I can do. My sophomore year a friend of mine, Vanesha Johnson, a senior at Sound, suggested that we put together a group against violence, against getting high and skipping class. That moment I did something I thought I would never do. I listened. Her voice made all the difference, and that moment, I thought about what she said. I asked myself, “Why are we silent?” That question changed my life, because there was no answer to a question like that, but I knew there were ways to make the youth of New Haven ask the same thing.
Last year, Vanesha and I spent weeks rallying a group of talented dancers to help spread the message. Because we both had dance experience, we decided to get some of the most troublesome students off the streets and into hip-hop. We called ourselves Culture in Motion, because each of us was from a different background (and a different neighborhood) and we wanted to spread the idea that diversity can work. Meeting after school, before school, and during school, the group choreographed each step of our first performance, which would be at the Martin Luther King Jr. celebration that February. We incorporated Dr. King’s words into our performance and presented them to hundreds of people, young, old, and in-between at the celebration. Through all the sweat, all the tears, and injuries, we had finally gotten everything right. After our performance, you couldn’t tell when the music had stopped because the volume of the crowd, the energy, was so loud it drowned out the silence. We drowned out the silence. I smile for three straight hours after that performance. No verb can describe what we had done; no adjective could illustrate the scene we had painted with our voices that day. We had proved that the color of your skin, or the neighborhood you grew up in, were no match for the sound of your feet as they stepped to the voice of a man who dedicated his life to promoting diversity. Through our voices, we made blasted the volume higher than the racist comments, above the gunfire, and beyond violence. I don’t know how many minds we changed, but I know that if our efforts inspired just one person, one mind, to leave their prejudice behind, then we had done what we came to do.
It’s noontime of the day of our second performance, and my feet are itching to move. The colorful crowd of people surrounding the stage and the DJ wait noisily in anticipation for the music to start. My palms are sweaty and my heartbeat is already racing, pounding against my ribcage with a force I barely recognize as my own. When sound begins to filter through the speakers, music isn’t the only thing filling our ears. One-two-three-four-five-six-sev-en-eight, don’t forget to turn, land, jump, twist, step back, arms out, together and down. Every step I make with my feet is a another step for the people that are watching our performance. Each new rhythm starts a movement in the crowd, telling a story. I smile wide, my honey-blonde curls soaring through the air, my energy rising rapidly towards the surface like bubbles of fresh air escaping a fish tank, bursting with pride. My sneakers fly across the floor, letting me breathe easier with each completed phase, but leaving me breathless anyway. The crowd looks at me, not my fair skin, and they catch a glimpse of what it is truly like to rise above expectation. I’m no longer counting the steps, but instead I’m counting the voices I hear chime with us as we sing a new song, a song of diversity and acceptance, a song of peace. They clap in time with the beautiful harmonic lyrics they themselves have memorized. I listen to their voices, and I know that I’ve changed at least one mind today. Including my own.