There's a whole new world under that rock.
Every year, young people across the country participate in the “Do The Write Thing Challenge,” an essay contest where middle school students explain how gun violence has touched their lives and share solutions to prevent it. The D.C. chapter of the competition is hosted by the Office of the Attorney General for D.C.
Kojo sits down with this year’s D.C. winners of the “Do The Write Thing Challenge” to hear their ideas to curb gun violence in their communities. Plus, we hear excerpts of their award-winning essays.
Produced by Cydney Grannan
- Karl Racine Attorney General, District of Columbia; @AGKarlRacine
- Amari Edmonds D.C. Winner of the "Do The Write Thing Challenge," a national essay contest where middle school students write about gun violence
- Tyler Willis D.C. Winner of the "Do The Write Thing Challenge," a national essay contest where middle school students write about gun violence
KOJO NNAMDIEach year, middle school students from across the country are invited to participate in the "Do the Write Thing Challenge." It's an essay contest where young people share how gun violence has touched their lives, and offer solutions to stop it. Despite the coronavirus pandemic and the protests in the wake of George Floyd's death, the contest still went on here in D.C.
KOJO NNAMDIToday, the office of the attorney general for D.C., which sponsors the D.C. chapter of the contest, announced the District's winners. We're excited to have them join us today. Amari Edmonds is an 8th grader at D.C. Prep, and she is one of the winners of the national "Do the Write Thing Challenge. Amari Edmonds, thank you so much for joining us.
AMARI EDMONDSThank you for having me.
NNAMDITyler Willis is an 8th grader at D.C. Prep. He is another D.C. winner of the national "Do the Write Thing Challenge." Tyler Willis, thank you for joining us.
TYLER WILLISThank you for having me.
NNAMDIAnd Tyler and Amari, congratulations to both of you. And you can find a link to Amari's and Tyler's essays on our website, kojoshow.org. Also joining us now is Karl Racine. He's the attorney general for D.C. His office is the D.C. sponsor of the "Do the Write Thing Challenge." Karl Racine, thank you for joining us.
KARL RACINEThanks for having us, Kojo. And let me thank Amari and Tyler for submitting their written work, and congratulations on being the winners. It was fierce competition and a lot of lessons to be learned by the great voices of our young people.
NNAMDIKarl Racine, what is the "Do the Write Thing Challenge"?
RACINEThe "Do the Write Thing Challenge" is that which you described. It's an essay contest that's run nationally, run by a national "Do the Write Thing Challenge" program that's been in existence now over 25 years. And, as you indicated, the focus is to hear from young people as to how they have experienced violence. And then, also importantly, give the young people an opportunity to put pen to paper and their ideas to paper as to what we adults might do to consider reducing violence.
NNAMDIYour office punts as the local chapter of this competition. What struck you about the essays you received this year?
RACINEWell, I thought all the essays were extraordinary. And, of course, you know, no doubt, Amari's and Tyler's, you know, kind of jumped out to the front, there. What strikes me about this year's essays is a contradiction. Number one, there is no doubt that our essay submitters, our young middle schoolers, D.C. public school and D.C. charter schoolers, have experienced violence in a real way.
RACINEMany of the essays talk about the loss of family members, including parents and siblings. Many of the essays also talk about the real consequence of losing a friend with whom they were studying or playing with the day before. At the root of most of the violence is the guns and the glorification, if you will, of the guns in our community.
RACINEThe contradiction is that with all of the violence that is going on, these young kids are tenacious, resolute and still optimistic that the gun violence can be abated, and that kids can go on to be kids and to be productive adults, if we adults listen to some of their solutions.
NNAMDIIt's my understanding, General Racine, that you had many more submissions this year than in past years. Was that, in fact, the case?
RACINEIt was, in fact, the case, and I've got to say, it's an extraordinary accomplishment on the part of the students, their parents, their adult mentors, and, of course, their teachers. And, of course, you know, my team really worked hard on this. But let me give you a quotation from one of Ameri's and Tyler's teachers. This is a fabulous social studies teacher named Donsha Watkins.
RACINEHere's what Donsha says: When I asked my students to participate in the "Do the Write Thing Challenge," it was not to win an award or for the accolades. It was to allow them to utilize their voice in society that so often tries to silence them. It was to give them a chance to speak upon the adverse effects of gun violence that plagues our communities daily. I'm beyond proud of all of the participants. The power to write and create your own narratives is a step closer to liberation.
RACINEI really think that Professor Watkins said it all. And I do want to note that the Benning School, from which Tyler and Amari came from, had 100 students submit applications. So, there's a school that's committed to giving their students a voice. And these kids completed these essays during a hard time. They're trying to do their schoolwork from distance learning, something they'd not experienced in this way. Yet they found the extra time to complete these essays. Really remarkable and uplifting, on their part.
NNAMDIThe victory and the congratulations both clearly well-deserved. Amari Edmonds, first you. How has gun violence affected you?
EDMONDSWell, gun violence has affected me by me losing a parent and actually a friend of mine. My dad was shot and killed just last year, in April. And I just lost a friend in the beginning of March, right before the pandemic broke out. And I think, like, I normalized it, because it's become, like, a part of my life. So, the community I live in is known for gun violence, and it's known for violence. So, I normalized it, which I shouldn't. And no child my age should have to, but I think I just do it because I've seen it so much, that I just -- I thought it was just normal. But then when I lost, like, a parent close to me, I was just, like, this is not something that someone my age should be going through. And that's when I decided I'd just start speaking out about it.
NNAMDIYou lost both your parent and your childhood friend. How did you feel when you found out that your friend had died?
EDMONDSIt was shocked before anything, because just the day before, I had spoken to him, and I had just seeing him. I didn't even find out, like, through his parent or nothing. I found out, like, on social media. So, it was just, like, wow. Like, it took a toll on me. I was a little hurt.
NNAMDITyler Willis, how has gun violence touched your life?
WILLISWell, it's affected me in many ways. My uncle used to be very into, like, the streets, and it caused me to lose his life. I've seen my God sister get abused. But, I mean, I live in a neighborhood where violence happens a lot, but it's like this part of D.C. is so forgotten, as to where even if violence does happen, not many talk about it or care about it much.
NNAMDITyler, you decided to write a poem instead of a traditional essay. Why is that?
WILLISI wrote a poem because I felt it's way more expressive. Well, I mean, I feel as if poems give you way more creativity to write through. You can -- in an essay, you may be able to talk about one thing and set on it. With a poem, you can talk about many things, and then, like, while adding onto that, you can add figurative language and writing, causing way more emotions to spread when you're reading it, knowing it's from a child's view then to actually write an essay, where it's very one-minded or one set goal.
NNAMDIWell, I'm hoping you can read part of your poem, Tyler, for us right now, starting where you talk about your uncle.
NNAMDILike any good poet, I hear the paper shuffling. (laugh)
WILLISIt says, heads down, eyes up. Don't make yourself known, don't make yourself heard, or you'll be on the sidewalk waiting for the birds screech. How violence has affected me, my uncle got shot on the porch, dead, Uncle Richard. My cousin got shot, but survived, Biandre. My neighbors got shot before I moved. My God sister's in an abusive relationship. My friend's cousin got killed, and they can't find the killer. My aunt's baby's father left, and my dad died of cancer.
WILLISEverywhere you go, so flows through everyone. One bullet can kill one physically, but hundreds mentally. Ha, like that one death will make a difference. Now young kids are scared. Fear causes choices, and choices are clear. Solutions are clear, shoot or be shot. The trigger's their father figure, and the gang is their family. One more dead body is nothing new to see. I grew up without a father.
NNAMDIThat's Tyler Willis, an 8th grader at D.C. Prep reading from his poem. Tyler is one of the D.C. winners of the "Do the Write Thing Challenge." Tyler, what do you think are some of the causes of gun violence in your community?
WILLISIn my community, I feel most gun violence is caused by things that, in other places, would be considered stupid. There's many gun -- like, many drive-bys or shootings happen in my community mostly over, like, something as simple as drugs or money debt. Something not many people would fight over, but people get killed over randomly and quickly over.
NNAMDIAmari, same question to you. What do you think are some of the causes of gun violence?
EDMONDSI think some of the causes of gun violence in my community is the role models we have. Because guns weren't just, like, brought into the community. Like, one day, somewhere I was like, hey, he has a gun. Everybody get one. I feel like the adults should be better role models to us, because if we -- as children, we soak up everything we see. So, when we are outside, and all we see is people want to block traffic (sounds like) or people with guns and things like that, we're going to think that that's okay, which caused the younger generations and the generations after that to think it's okay to be doing that. Which is when the problem becomes bigger and unsolvable.
NNAMDIAmari, let's talk about solutions to gun violence. Your essay talks a lot about solutions to gun violence. Can you read us the final, the last paragraph of your essay for us right now?
EDMONDSYes. Many people that aren't truly from D.C. will say that we need to put the guns down or ban guns, but that isn't enough. We, as a community, have to start from the roots. We need to take these kids out of the street life while we're still young. We need more programs that teach young kids there's more to life than guns and drugs. We must teach the next generation that it's okay to show emotion and it's okay to not want to be outside, standing on your block.
EDMONDSBy creating these programs we are teaching our future youth that the street life is not the place to be. The main reason the violence rate in D.C. is so high is because our youth is being taught, at a very young age, that violence is the answer, but it's not. Teaching our young black brothers and sisters the phrase "kill or be killed" will only wipe us out as a whole. We must thrive together, succeed together, or we will all fall as one.
EDMONDSWhen I see a black child, black father, black mother in the headlines, it makes me think about how much we are embarrassing ourselves. We have to change very soon. We need to create the programs and teach our young black kids before it's too late.
NNAMDIThat's 8th grader Amari Edmonds, reading from her essay that won the D.C. "Do the Write Thing Challenge." Amari, you mentioned that, in your last line, we need to create the programs and teach our young black kids before it's too late. What do you think those programs should look like?
EDMONDSI think any program that -- all programs that are teaching or bring our kids out of, like, being outside, and any community center and all that will help. And it doesn't always have to be, like, sports and those things, because I do understand that not everyone is athletic. People like poetry. I have a friend that does poetry and I think those are good programs, as well. So, I think we should create programs for people who like sports and things, but also people who like -- enjoy writing or art and things like that. Anything to just keep our children out of the streets and keep them in a safe environment.
NNAMDIAmari, you also say in your essay that the authorities have done nothing to help. What do you think authorities like police, like our political leaders, what do you think they should be doing to help?
EDMONDSI think, to quote what Tyler said, like, in a lot of the communities, they are forgotten. So, when crimes do happen, I think police forget that we even exist. So, like, they think it's normal, so it's okay. And I feel like police -- we should have community police, just like in Ward 1 and Ward 2. In those, they have community policing and police on standby. I feel like we should have those, as well, and we should be given the same safety measurements and safety opportunity as any other neighborhood, even without gun violence.
NNAMDITyler, what do you think can be done to stop gun violence?
WILLISI feel as if -- Amari really hit on a lot of points. I feel as if, yeah, youth is very -- youth can be very persuaded into gun violence, easily. If they grow up knowing that guns protect them or guns can make sure that they don't feel as sad at night, they're of course going to run to, like, violence as the answer for everything.
WILLISI feel that if we protect the youth more from things like that, it can be -- we can be very more peaceful than how we are now. The reason so many youth kids see violence is because, right now, we're in a very hard time. At first, we had corona. Now, African-Americans are being -- you know, are in riots against police because of how police have caused a lot of violence. And, you know, it causes a lot of people to, like, be -- it causes a lot of people to, like, think.
WILLISNow we see, all the time, on TV, now we see, like, people are rioting. Now we see, like, in rap music, about people talking about they're going to shoot somebody. This is violence, really, everywhere. And youth isn't really protected from it as much as we could. Even, like, for things like Child Protective Services, sometimes they don't really care for the child that they're supposed to be protecting. And that causes, you know, a lot of people to have twisted mindsets. And violence just causes more violence, so if a child from youth is surrounded by something that can cause him to become very aggressive, they're going to become aggressive.
NNAMDIPearls of wisdom. Karl Racine, your office is having a virtual celebration this Friday for Amari, Tyler and all the young people who submitted essays. What should we know about that event?
RACINEOh, wow. I think everybody should go to the OAG website, www.oag.dc.gov, sign on and join us at 11:00 a.m. Obviously, you'll get a real good chance to listen again to Amari and to Tyler. And, Kojo, I have to commend you for the way that you've conducted this session. You allowed all of the young people, both Amari and Tyler, to have most of the time for us to listen.
RACINEAnd I think there is just so much learning to be done by adults from listening to our tremendous kids. Kids who -- literally, we're asking Amari and Tyler to be like Hercules in their neighborhoods, to jump higher, faster and stronger than any other kid in any other area in order just to be safe. That's not right. That's not fair. We're happy that they have the supports that they have in school, but we really need to be embracing and loving and more supportive of our kids.
NNAMDIWe're talking, in case you're just joining us, with Karl Racine. He's the attorney general for D.C. His office is the D.C. sponsor of the "Do the Write Thing Challenge." Amari Edmonds is an 8th grader at D.C. Prep, and she is a D.C. winner of the national "Do the Write Thing Challenge." Tyler Willis is also an 8th grader at D.C. Prep, and he is a D.C. winner of the national "Do the Write Thing Challenge."
NNAMDIWe have a link to Amari's and Tyler's essays on our website, kojoshow.org. So you can go there and find it. Karl Racine, before we go, last night's protests were mostly calm, despite the large number of federal law enforcement and national guardsmen that were present. How do you think D.C. police and federal law enforcement have handled the protests, and would you like to see fewer members of federal law enforcement out in D.C.'s streets?
RACINEWell, first, not unlike what Amari and Tyler have told you today and what they're saying through their beautiful writings, the protesters are also writing essays and speaking in poetry. And they're protesting the centuries of legal killings around people of color. And so they're angry and they're frustrated. And I'm right there with them. I think overwhelmingly the protesters in the District of Columbia and through the United States -- let's think about this, multigenerational, multiracial and multi-geographic, are conducting themselves peacefully.
RACINEAnd I think it's really important for all local law enforcement authorities to give the protesters some room for them to be heard. And it's important for elected officials like me to sit back and listen to their solutions and to actually take heed to some of what they're proposing. I'm happy to see that some states' attorney generals are already moving forward with regard to police reform efforts.
RACINEAs to your last question, I don't think the federal government has any business doing anything other than protecting their federal assets. The Metropolitan Police Department is experienced. They know how to direct and guide and control crowds in an overwhelmingly peaceful way. I don't believe Mayor Bowser has asked for the help of the federal officials, and I don't think we need it. They should mind their business and allow the District of Columbia to handle its business. And, again, the protesters have been overwhelmingly peaceful.
NNAMDIAmari, what do you think of the protests going on right now?
EDMONDSI think that the protests -- I'm right with them, and I wish I could be out there with them, but, like, for safety reasons I can't. But I'm right with them. I'm angry, as well, because I feel like for generations and for hundreds of years, our race has been beaten down and told that we are less than everybody and oppressed. And, then, when we get angry and we want to fight back, it's we're being violent, and we're destroying everything.
EDMONDSAnd it's just like I feel like we are finally taking back what's been ours for hundreds of years. And now everybody has something to say about it. But when we were weak, it was just like it was fine and it was okay. So, when you are angry for a very long time, you start to -- it all builds up, and then we will explode. It's just like there's nothing to do. You've been angry all this time, and no one has said anything.
NNAMDITyler, I know that you and your friends have been talking about the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota. What do you think about what happened there, and what do you think about the protests that we're seeing now?
WILLISGeorge Floyd's case was -- it really sparked something in many people, because for so long, people like Tamir Rice, people who have been killed by police, you know, for racism reasons, have been so quiet. I mean, it's been so quiet. We've been quiet about it. We've, of course, been angry. We've always wanted to have justice for them, but it seems as if now the protests have become -- they show that we are very serious about how our race is being very, like, you know, discriminated against.
WILLISWe've tried for so long to, like, be peaceful, and now people are really rioting. People are on the streets of Minneapolis really becoming angry, because now we see that racism is still sparked. You can see in that policeman's eyes that he had reason. He wanted to kill George Floyd.
WILLISIf you really researched it, you would know that George Floyd couldn't breathe. Also he was having a mini-heartache while being suffocated by the police. And the policeman did not get off his neck. The neck is literally a sensitive place where you need to breath. Knowing that, he still -- he made sure to make George Floyd dead. Right now the policeman has, I think, been sentenced to third-degree murder? Am I correct?
NNAMDIHe's been charged with murder, yes.
WILLISCharged with murder, yes. But...
NNAMDIBut we only have about a minute left but go ahead.
WILLISOh, I'm sorry. But it took so much for him to actually be charged. And we can see that police did -- like, at first, he wasn't going to be charged until we actually became aggressive and wanted him to be arrested. There was not a lot of things being -- going while he was -- after the murder. He was put on, I think, leave, and then they charged him because they knew that protesters would get more aggressive if he wasn't charged for the murder.
NNAMDIAnd they're now considering whether they're going to charge the other officers who were on the scene of that event. And I only mentioned that because we're just about out of time, and I wanted to, once more, congratulate Amari Edmonds and Tyler Willis. Tyler and Amari are both 8th graders at D.C. Prep. They are both winners of the national "Do the Write Thing Challenge." Amari, thank you for joining us. Congratulations to you.
NNAMDITyler, thank you for joining us. Congratulations to you.
NNAMDIKarl Racine is the attorney general for D.C. His office is the D.C. sponsor of the "Do the Write Thing Challenge." Attorney General Racine, thank you so much for joining us.
NNAMDIThank you for giving the young people voice. And join us Friday, at 11:00 a.m.
NNAMDIToday's show was produced by Monna Kashfi, Kayla Hewitt and Cydney Grannan. And join us for our next Kojo in Your Virtual Community to talk about racial disparities during the pandemic, which has highlighted inequities and access to quality health care. The event starts at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, June 9th, and it's free, but you do have to register at kojoshow.org.
NNAMDIComing up tomorrow, as protests continue around the region, many are drawing comparison between today's marches and the marches of 1968. We discuss how the fight for racial equality has changed in the last 50 years and what happens next. That all starts tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening, and stay safe. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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