Youth council a step toward violence prevention

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The city of Knoxville is taking some of its first public steps toward quelling what officials have described as an epidemic of gun violence. 

Last weekend, Empower Knox put out on social media that it’s seeking “high-performing and high-potential young people (ages) 12-20 to identify and address issues around community organizing, leadership and advocacy.”

The group will be called the Mayor’s Youth Council and its role will be to inform and advise City officials from the perspective of the community’s youth.

The timing of the Council’s formation has nothing to do with the recent wave of teen killings, but the tragedies show why such an advisory body is necessary, said Kathy Mack, community engagement manager for the City’s Office of Community Empowerment.

“The Mayor’s Youth Council was already on the table,” Mack said. “It is most definitely the right time to start it.”

Over the past 15 months, Knoxville has suffered through an unprecedented tidal wave of bloodshed with more than 50 murders taking place since January 2020.

The most harrowing stretch by far has been the killings of four Austin-East Magnet High School students over the past two months.

Just two days ago, police announced first-degree murder charges against two teenagers for one of the killings. The boys, ages 14 and 16, were accused of shooting into a car driven by 16-year-old Stanley Freeman Jr. as he drove away from Austin-East after school on Feb. 12.

Authorities have said they’ve uncovered no motive to explain why two children shot and killed another child, but they have characterized the slaying as premeditated and explained that’s why the boys are facing the most serious criminal charge that can be filed against a person.

The first Austin-East student to lose his life to recent gun violence was Justin Taylor, 15, who was accidentally shot by a friend Jan. 27. Freeman was the second to be killed. The third was 15-year-old Janaria Muhammad, who was gunned down outside her home on Feb. 16.

The last occurred almost a week ago when Jamarion “Lil Dada” Gillette, 15, was found by a passing motorist on Cherokee Trail. He’d been shot at least once and was immediately taken to the University of Tennessee Medical Center, where he succumbed to his injuries several hours later.

Police are still trying to locate the person or persons responsible for the deaths of Muhammad and Gillette.

Immediately after Muhammad’s killing, Mayor Indya Kincannon stepped forward to ask City Council for an emergency expenditure of $1 million to go towards fighting violence in the city.

She also plans to enlist the aid of Cities United, a nonprofit group whose mission is to reduce by half the amount of gun violence involving Black males between the ages of 12 to 24.

The group will act as consultants to the City on how to deal with gun violence. In other cities, they have used “violence interruption” methods such as enlisting the aid of people on the streets to help mediate between warring groups.

Empower Knox came from the city’s “Save Our Sons” initiative and expands on that program’s reach, Mack said.

The goal is to build successful life outcomes for boys and girls who are identified as “at risk” youths.

She said the Mayor’s Youth Council is not meant to specifically focus on violence reduction or prevention.

“It will be utilized in consultation in some areas,” she said.

The Council’s most meaningful role is expected to be collaborating with other youths and being their voices for City policy and decision making, Mack said.

Empower Knox is also working in other ways that could directly affect the rise of gun violence in the city and is already in contact with Cities United, Mack said. 

Kincannon is expected to submit a contract for approval to City Council as early as next week.

Cities United officials did not return calls seeking comment for this article.

Mack said Empower Knox is also working on other steps to address at-risk youth, such as “Summer in the City” internships, a roundtable of partnerships for organizations to address “uncommon opportunities” for at-risk youth, and finding ways to fund organizations that specifically target at-risk youth.

While the creation of the Mayor’s Youth Council isn’t connected to the recent surge of violence, Mack said, it will play a vital role by giving children a voice at the table.

“As we are looking to built out our violence prevention efforts, the voices of our youth is going to be instrumental,” she said.

Contact Cliff Hightower at cliffhightower@hardknoxwire.com.

Published on March 17, 2021