Youth Action Assembly tackles complex issues

Organizers give students a place to speak out during political convention.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Urban Creators hosted the first day of its Youth Action Assembly on Tuesday – an event designed to bring teachers, students, and activists together to discuss the Black Lives Matter movement, education, mass incarceration, and food justice.

The event was organized by Urban Creators founders Jeannine Kayembe – who hosted the event – and Alex Epstein. Urban Creators is a grassroots organization that works to inspire inner-city neighborhoods to transform neglected landscapes.

“A year ago, when we realized that the DNC was coming here,” Epstein said, “and when we finally realized what that meant, as far as half the government coming to our city, we tried to see what ways we could get involved. And what we found very quickly was there was no space for young people.”

The result is a series of panel discussions running concurrently with the Democratic National Convention. Tuesday’s event was held at the Asian Arts Initiative.

The first panel focused on the Black Lives Matter movement and included Anthony Smith and Temple student Deandra Jefferson, both of Philly Coalition for REAL Justice; India Senner of the University Community Collaborative, and a recent graduate of Girard Academic Music Program; and Kelvyn Anderson, executive administrator of the Police Advisory Commission. The panel was moderated by Erica Atwood, CEO of First Degree Consulting and former director of Black Male Engagement during the administration of Mayor Michael Nutter.

“This is an open exchange,” Atwood said, addressing the audience. “And I want to be open and free with that. Are we good with that? This is a safe space. So nothing you say is wrong, but let’s be healthy in our approach to conversation.”

Youth in the audience participated by asking questions about systemic oppression and discussing possible solutions. But the conversation mostly centered on police brutality, which, for Smith, of Philly Coalition for REAL Justice, isn’t exclusive to physical harm.

“Police brutality,” he said, “is having five fully armed police officers with bulletproof vests that make more than some of the students’ [parents] in your school, and your school only has books that only go up to the year 2008 or something. That’s police brutality.”

The second panel, about education, included Marley Dias, the 11-year-old creator of the #1000blackgirlbooks campaign; Ismael Jimenez, an African American History teacher at Kensington CAPA; Robin Roberts, an organizer for Parents United For Public Education; Tamir Harper, a student at Science Learning Academy and chairman of the Philadelphia Youth Commission; Blue Sanders, a student at Girard Academy Music Program and a member of Power and Voices; and Hazel Edwards, a board member of the Attic Youth Center. The panel was moderated by Stormy, a member of POPPYN (Presenting Our Perspective On Philly Youth NEWS), a news show produced by Philadelphia youth.

Panelists mostly answered questions about standardized testing, Black representation in the school curriculum, and the school-to-prison pipeline.

When it comes to standardized testing, Jimenez said, he believes that children in public schools are being treated unfairly.

“They’re experimenting on our children,” he said. “Do you realize, like, Obama where he sends his kids, those kids don’t have to take standardized tests. Kids that go to private schools don’t have to take standardized tests. That’s the ugly truth. So what are we modeling this model off of? They’re straight-up experimenting on our kids.”

After the discussions ended, Kayembe brought the event to a close with a moment of silence for students without access to education.

The Youth Action Assembly will continue Wednesday at the Painted Bride Art Center with panel discussions on mass incarceration and food justice.