In 2009, a wave of youth violence swept through Chicago. Many young people lost their lives, including Darrion Albert, a 16 year-old honors student who was caught in a brawl between two groups of teenagers, and beaten to death on his way home from school. When President Obama heard about Darrion’s murder, he took action, sending Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to meet with then-Mayor Daley to address the epidemic of violence in our cities.
These initial conversations led to the National Forum on Youth Violence Prevention, a partnership that works to keep children safe in cities around the country.
Yesterday morning, Valerie Jarrett, Senior Advisor to the President, addressed the National Forum on Youth Violence Prevention here in Washington, D.C. She was joined by mayors from across the nation, as well as Attorney General Holder and Secretary Duncan. She spoke about President Obama’s ongoing commitment to making our communities safe places to grow up, and to raise children. Her full remarks, as prepared for delivery, are below.
Thank you, Melodee, for that very kind introduction, and for everything you do to protect our nation’s young people.
On behalf of President Obama, I’d like to thank all of you for being true leaders in the fight to prevent youth violence. You all work so hard to keep our children safe. We have mayors from around the country here today. My hometown Mayor, Rahm Emanuel. Mayor Villaraigosa, who just spoke. Mayor Reed, Mayor Donohue, and two Mayor Kennedys – Judy and Judith, and Mayor Nutter will be joining you this afternoon. Mayor Menino and Mayor Bing couldn’t be here this morning, but I’d like to recognize them for their leadership. And I also want to acknowledge my dear friend Congressman Bobby Scott.
Looking around, it’s great to see so many familiar faces. Last year, I spoke at this Summit and thanked you for breaking down silos, and coming together in our cities where addressing the problem of youth violence could simply not be more urgent. Each city represented announced a new comprehensive youth violence plan, and since then, you have converted those plans into action.
Already, we see evidence that you are changing your communities, and improving people’s lives. Just a few days ago, researchers from John Jay College and Temple University released an interim report on their assessment of this national forum on youth violence and prevention. Interviews with you, and others in your cities, found that perceptions of public safety and violence have improved, that organizations are cooperating more effectively, and that local officials are more actively engaged in preventing violence.
That’s terrific news. It is amazing how much you have accomplished in such a short time. But as we all know, there is still so much to do. As a mom, it just breaks my heart when I hear stories of young people who fall victim to gangs, drugs, and crime – President Obama, the father of two young girls, feels the same way.
The President will never forget the tragic story he heard, in 2009, from our hometown of Chicago. A 16 year-old honors student named Darrion Albert was walking home from school. An innocent bystander, in the wrong place at the wrong time. On his way to the bus stop, he was caught between two groups of boys brawling in the street. One young man, not much older than Darrion, struck him with a railroad tie. Another punched him in the face. As he struggled to his feet, a second group of boys attacked him and continued to beat him even after he had lost consciousness. Darrion did not survive.
I think it was impossible to hear the story of Darrion’s murder without doing some soul-searching. We had to ask ourselves how, in America, we could let young people’s lives end before they had a chance to truly begin. And sadly, as we are all painfully aware, Darrion was not alone. From the beginning of the 2007 school year until the time of Darrion’s death, nearly 70 students were murdered in Chicago, most of them on their way to or from school. An epidemic of children killing children.
When President Obama heard about what had happened, he took action. He sent Attorney General Holder and Secretary Duncan to Chicago to discuss youth violence with Mayor Daley and leaders in the community – and those discussions ultimately led to the creation of this National Forum. Today, President Obama and his Administration are deeply committed to continuing to partnering with all of you to continue our work to create safe neighborhoods for our children.
And we are inspired by leaders such as the ones here today – men and women such as the Reverend Marlon T. Foster. During his youth growing up in the Fowler Homes Public Housing Development in Memphis, Reverend Foster was, in his own words, “a wayward inner city teenager.” He lost his best friend to gun violence.
But after much prayer, Reverend Foster broke free of the cycle that ensnares so many young people. Today, he runs Knowledge Quest, an organization that leads after school programs for K-12 students. He lives and works in South Memphis. He has said, and I quote, “According to zip code data, it is a community filled with challenges, but from my vantage point it is a community filled with opportunity.”
I’m proud that as part of the White House’s commitment to supporting the work all of you do, tomorrow we will honor Revered Foster and nine others as “White House Champions of Change.”
These 10 men and women remind us how change really happens in America – through ordinary people choosing to do extraordinary things. They range from police officers to pastors, from students to program directors. What they share are life stories, that demonstrate a commitment to making their communities better places to grow up, and safe places to raise children.
I’ll conclude my remarks by sharing just two of those stories.
De Quan O’Neal is a sophomore at Osborn Evergreen Academy in Detroit. As a freshman, he got involved with the Neighborhood Service Organization’s Youth Initiatives project, because in his words, “I was tired of seeing my peers affected by violence and drugs.”
Last December, De Quan organized a press conference at City Hall with 35 of his peers to kick off the 2012 “Hugs Not Bullets Campaign”. He spoke out against the gun violence and celebratory gunfire that happens in Detroit on New Year’s Eve.
It is never easy to take the spotlight and make the case for change. Imagine how much harder it must be at the age of 16. But that’s exactly what De Quan did. He spoke simply, powerfully, and from the heart. And we are all so proud of him.
And finally, I want to recognize Cora Tomalinas. Cora is a Filipino immigrant. During the late 1980s, parents in her community in San Jose struggled to raise children in the middle of a neighborhood plagued by drugs and gangs.
Through this tremendously difficult experience, she found her life’s calling. Guided by her faith, she has spent three decades helping to protect young people. She helped forge new partnerships between residents, clergy, advocates, and public officials. She has been called the “heartbeat” behind the Mayor’s Gang Prevention Task Force in San Jose, and the California Wellness Foundation honored her with a California Peace Prize.
Cora understands that while the work starts small, block by block, neighborhood by neighborhood, we have the ability, and the responsibility, to change our country. As she has said, “we must be accountable for keeping the U.S. as the greatest country in the world for our children.”
I know that all of you share that belief – and so, of course, does President Obama. Every day, he is fighting for an America that lives up to its basic promise: that no matter who you are or where you come from, you can make it if you try.
Throughout our country’s history, each generation has preserved and expanded that promise. Now, we must do our part. And while fighting youth violence is tremendously challenging, you have shown that when we join together, we will ultimately prevail.
That’s why I’m proud that this program is expanding to new cities, leveraging new resources, and creating new partnerships. We know that change is hard. Change takes time. And giving every young person a chance to grow up in a culture of peace, and dignity, is a vision that we may not fully realize in the next few months, or even years.
But as all of you are demonstrating, it is possible to make a difference.
Just two weeks ago, there was an article in the Chicago Sun-Times about the school Darrion Albert had attended, Fenger Academy. The headline read, “Just two years after student’s murder, peace taking over at Fenger Academy.” The article interviewed Geneva Harris, about the changes that had taken place at the school. Geneva was a freshman when Darrion was killed. “A lot of these smiling faces you see were not once smiling,” she told a reporter. And she added, “Fenger has become beautiful.”
We must never forget the senseless tragedies that have taken place, and still do, but we must also be inspired all the stories of amazing transformation, in the face of enormous odds. That is why I urge you to never tire, never rest, and certainly, never give up. And know that as you fight to make our cities safe for America’s children, President Obama will always be in your corner.