It’s been a week since my last post, when I asked the kids of Canton for their solutions to stopping violence in our community. Since that post, I have many deep, intelligent conversations, in person, through Facebook messenger, and via text, about this issue. I can tell you this: the kids of Canton care. Many of the young people I talked with were friends of or related to victims of violence, perpetrators of violence, or both. They had been teammates, classmates, or fellow church members. They had shared meals, laughs and social media relationships with those whose lives were ended, or forever altered, by impulsive decisions with irreversible consequences.

While I processed these conversations and what to share through this blog, I read an editorial that ran in the Canton Repository on April 14. It was entitled “Put down the guns”. These words had been said to a reporter, through tears, by the sister of the most recent murder victim, Khaleel Kimbrough. Khaleel is a cousin of two young men that I mentor. It was the text I received from one of them on that night he was killed, and the pain these boys were feeling, that spurred me to write the first post. Because this was not the first cousin these young men had lost to street violence.

So I read the Repository editorial with interest. The words that I read, which I know were written with great compassion and sympathy, symbolized the very problem I have been trying to convey to community leaders in the five years since I began getting my education through my relationships with my mentees and their families.

Here’s what it said:

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“We” cannot understand this.

“We” are not part of this problem.

“We” cannot comprehend what it’s like to live where these things occur.

“We” are not part of you.

Can you feel the disconnect?

And that, in a nutshell, is our biggest problem AND OUR BIGGEST OPPORTUNITY in the Canton and Stark County community. It’s a community of “we” and “they”.  And “they” are often consciously or subconsciously sent the message that “we” don’t understand or care. These are the words I heard over and over again in the discussions I have had over the past few days, and really, over the past five years.

But, wait a minute! “We” care. “We” donate money. “We” volunteer on community days. “We” give our used clothes and furniture to Goodwill and Restore.

While those donations and that work is important, the caring can not stop there. What  our marginalized young people really need are personal connections, people who see their light and their strengths and can help them recognize how to translate those things into productive lives in a world that is not “we” and “they”, but a world of “us”. It is only through that kind of caring that “we” can begin to understand and comprehend the complexities of the lives of our young people, and how “we” can turn our community into a more accepting place of “us”.

I had one of my most revealing conversations last week in the lobby of one of our major employers. I had taken one of our Get Connected students there to help him get set up to do some job shadowing. He was nervous about the initial meeting. But, as he toured the facility and met really nice people who told them their stories, wanted to learn more about him, and talked about the things they were willing to show him during his job shadowing experience, I could see his confidence blooming. He started to hold himself a little straighter, talk more and ask questions. Afterwards, as we sat side by side in the lobby to talk, he put his head down and said sadly “I just wish all of my friends could have this experience. They just don’t think there is anything out there for them, or anyone who cares.”

His friends had grown up with the perception that they are not part of the “we”.

Through my work with him and his experience that day, he was now seeing that he is part of “us”.

Changing mindsets of and about young people is what I have been trying to tackle as a mentor, a social innovator and director of the United Way Get Connected program. There are other people and organizations in the community who also share this vision. It will take all of us together, working side by side with our young people and listening to them, to bridge the disconnect, open their minds, and get them involved in creating a community of “us”.

So the next few blog posts will be talking about what we can all do to bridge the gap. But you won’t just be hearing from me. I will have several guest bloggers joining me, young people who are part of Get Connected as well as people who grew up in Stark County. They all have keen insight on what both the “we”s and the “they”s have to do to help our young people believe in a positive future and take ownership in creating a healthy environment to thrive. If you would also like to be one of my guest bloggers, please contact me through this site.

I believe there is great prosperity ahead for Stark County. I love the innovative mind of Pro Football Hall of Fame CEO David Baker and the plans for the Johnson Controls Hall of Fame Village.  I think the ongoing work surrounding the Canton Comprehensive Plan is really exciting. So is the growth of the Arts District, the parks systems, and the Canton Film Festival. But we must bridge this disconnect now so that everyone feels a stake in the progress of the city and so that everyone is in a position to prosper. That is how we will increase achievement rates and decrease violence and crime. To reach our vision of a thriving local economy with a major tourism focus, we need to become a more connected community.

On  Sunday night, I met Khaleel’s brother while I was dropping off some Easter dinner leftovers at his cousin’s apartment.  As we were introduced in the kitchen, I gave him a hug and told him how sorry I was about his brother’s death. Because his loss is my loss. And it’s a loss for anyone who recognizes that the future of our city relies on seeing ourselves as “us.”