In time to a rhythmic beat kept on the bottom of a five-gallon bucket, a group of about 30 local children, parents and volunteers marched along Jefferson Street on Wednesday morning, alternating chants — from “no kids in prison” to “education not incarceration.”
Led by 20 Freedom School youth scholars from the Lynchburg-based nonprofit, The Listening, kids hoisted poster board signs, their voices jubilant and energized. The march intended to amplify the local issue of youth justice, and bring awareness to the effect youth incarceration has on the community.
In large part, the march was organized by the middle and high school-age kids themselves, who took on the research, the sign making and lobbied for the all-important chants.
“Overwhelmingly, they wanted to march,” said Nicholas George, founding executive director of The Listening. When presented with other social action options — such as hosting a panel or a letter-writing campaign — marching won out by a mile.
“They wanted to be seen and heard, they want to be taken seriously,” he said. “[As] not just observers of our culture, but participants.”
Kelly Brown, mother of one of the youth scholars, Amré Brown, said her 12-year-old daughter could be soft spoken and shy. But Wednesday morning, seated at the cement plaza next to Riverfront Park with her sign held across her lap, Amré was vocal and intent.
“I liked how people were just looking and staring, and we could just show them what we believed in,” Amré said. “It seemed like a way to speak up for people that can’t speak for themselves.”
The six-week summer program is coming to a close. It’s the second year The Listening has hosted the Freedom School program, part of a national effort by the Children’s Defense Fund to provide summer and after-school enrichment, focused on literacy, art and social action.
The program ran from June to July, and was open to middle and high schoolers who registered.
Amré said it’s been a “really, really fun” session, and the march itself was an opportunity for expression, something that demanded attention and engagement from passerby’s and anyone within eye or earshot.
Her aunt, Kimberly Brown, marched alongside her down Jefferson Street from the concrete plaza by Riverfront Park, down to Washington Street and back up to 9th Street. She said it was amazing to see the kids get so involved, lending strength to one another through a unified message.
Kimberly and Kelly Brown both agreed this was an important issue, one that affects young people in the community, those who are not given the resources or support necessary to keep them from falling prey to a justice system that is much harder to escape than it is to enter.
“Don’t throw them away. Rehabilitate them, give them a chance, teach them the things that they need to know to change the behaviors that’s leading them to the situations that they are getting into,” Kimberly said.
Kelly agreed, and added youth incarceration “hits our neighborhood more than it hits anyone else’s.”
“It’s an important issue because no one talks about it,” she said. “This is one of those topics that’s swept up under the rug, and people ignore.”
George said Freedom School instructors were intentional about not telling the kids what to believe, and instead providing them resources, research and statistics to let them draw their own conclusions about the issue of youth incarceration.
Some of the Freedom School scholars have family members who are incarcerated, and others have had tangles with the system themselves, according to Lacroy Nixon, site coordinator for the Freedom School.
Many of the scholars were rattling with a nervous energy ahead of the march Wednesday, eager to get started.
Kayden Johnson, 15, said she was excited to protest, to “take up space” and demand attention. She could reel off statistics about the arrest rates of minors in the U.S. — such as that every 45 seconds in 2019 a child or teen was arrested, a majority of which were children of color.
“It’s already been proven it’s counterproductive, that’s why we’re raising awareness about it,” she said. “For a simple mistake, you could spend the rest of your time in jail, which is really messed up.”
12-year-old Manny Moats said the program helped him get out of his comfort zone.
“I want to do it,” he said, “because I want to help out other people.”
With a drumstick and a plastic bucket, Nixon kept a beat as the kids marched. Most chants were call and response, and they fell into an easy pattern they had practiced during the past six weeks.
Every morning, he said, the Freedom School sessions start with something called “harambee,” a Swahili word that means “all pull together.” Essentially, it’s a 30 minute “hype session,” a mix of positive affirmations and “a bunch of energy.”
In a city that can be “known for its rigidity,” the march empowered students to break the mold. When people see kids standing up and speaking for something, he said, “it instantly commands attention.”
Director of Development Rox Cruz said it meant a lot for the kids to use their voices to advocate for someone else. It was the youth scholars who chose to march downtown, flooding the narrow sidewalks of Jefferson Street, turning heads as they went.
“They wanted to be as loud as they could possibly be,” she said.
“I liked how people were just looking and staring, and we could just show them what we believed in. It seemed like a way to speak up for people that can’t speak for themselves.”
— Kelly Brown, mother of one of the youth scholars