June 13, 2018

Right Place, Right Time. Still In Danger

By Julie Depenbrock

"We are telling the city that something needs to change, but have been met with inaction from our elected officials," says Zion  Kelly.

"We are telling the city that something needs to change, but have been met with inaction from our elected officials," says Zion Kelly.

The following opinion piece was submitted by Thurgood Marshall High School senior Zion Kelly and his government teacher Karen Lee. It has been edited for content and length.

Zion: My twin brother, Zaire Kelly, was shot and killed last September just 300 feet from our house as he was on his way home from a competitive college program.

My family has proposed legislation, talked with different communities in D.C., and gained national attention by sharing our story publicly and speaking honestly about the impact of illegal guns in our city. But at the end of the day, I am still left asking: What has changed? If those who are in positions of leadership and power in D.C. don’t take bold steps to solve the real danger of illegal guns in this city, then they are choosing to keep young people in danger.

“I am still left asking: What has changed?”

Karen: Paris Brown, a junior at Thurgood Marshall Academy, was killed four months after Zaire–putting us back in a place of grieving and pain, with a second empty desk in our classrooms.  

Zaire Kelly and Paris Brown. I say their names often, reminding my students that I knew them and that they mattered to me.

For 15 years, I have lived and worked in a community in which gun violence is a daily reality. I have taught in classrooms east of the Anacostia River where I say “see you later” as students walk out the door because they believe “goodbye” is bad luck. I have lived through early morning phone calls from administrators that can only mean one thing. I have pushed aside my own grief to stand strong for the young people with whom I am entrusted. I carry the weight of the stories students share with me into sleepless nights and worry that the gun shots I heard outside my window last night took a life of someone I know and that I will wake up and find another empty seat in my classroom. This has happened four times since I started teaching and if nothing changes, statistically it is bound to happen again.

“Our children are in the right place at the right time, doing the very things we tell them to and still, they are in danger.”

Zion: We are walking home. We are outside our schools. We are on the Metro. But we aren’t really safe. We are crying out for help, showing up to town halls, speaking and advocating for change on every platform provided to us. We are telling the city that something needs to change, but have been met with inaction from our elected officials.

“We are crying out for help…”

Karen: In May, 16 year-old Tyshon Perry was killed trying to break up a fight at the busy NoMa metro station at 4:30 p.m. Fifteen year-old Jaylyn Wheeler was killed walking home from Ballou High School at 3:50 p.m. This school year, thirteen people under the age of 19 have been killed. Since January alone, there have been 68 homicide victims in D.C.–which does not take into account the countless others who have been wounded by gun violence.

The advice that we give our students to avoid trouble on the streets is to go to school, get involved in extracurricular activities and head home early.

Our children are in the right place at the right time, doing the very things we tell them to and still, they are in danger.

Zion: My peers and I have been talking about ways to address this problem in D.C., but we need help to accomplish our goals. Here’s our plan. First, we change the community. We have to unify to fight this problem. We have to put the guns down and promote peace. We have to reach out to local celebrities and artists to get them to stop glorifying gun violence. We have to show respect toward one another. Second, we change the way D.C. engages youth voice. There is power in the young people of D.C. We have ideas and solutions for the problems we see everyday in our city. Instead of just asking us for input, give us a seat at the table to make decisions. Create internships and on-the-job training in every elected official’s office. Design a structure to regularly seek and implement ideas from city youth. Lower the voting age so we have a voice in who represents us. Third, we change the law. We need to implement laws that protect students from violence. Once we implement these laws, we need to educate our city about them. My family has proposed the Zaire Kelly Public Safety Amendment Act, which defines who students are and expands gun free zones in D.C. Having a law that protects us and provides more restorative practices to offenders will help protect our community.

“There is power in the young people of D.C.”

Since I stepped into the public conversation, Mayor Bowser and other elected officials have taken pride in telling me about what a great job I am doing. But I don’t need cheerleaders, I need leaders.

A conversation between Zion and his teacher aired on Morning Edition on June 13. You can listen here.

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