They will listen, learn and perhaps make a difference

The News Tribune, February 22, 2011

by Ronald R. Thomas and Loren J. Anderson


This week 40 local college students will go to Lincoln High School to do something that many of us as parents, teachers, civic leaders, and community members regularly fail to do.

They are going to listen.

The high school students will be encouraged to talk about their personal lives and goals, their school lives, and how they think their schools and neighborhoods can be improved.

In theory, the idea of young people talking to each other, to let them know their voice matters and to support them in working to initiate change, is a good one. In practice, it is not easy.

One of our college students who ran an earlier dialogue at a Tacoma high school, described it as “nerve-wracking.”

Faced with five insular teenagers, including one who described gun battles outside his home and another who spoke about being passed between foster homes, the student facilitator felt powerless. But she persevered and is trying again. She is determined to see if the project can make some small difference in the lives of local youth.

It is that kind of thinking that Tacoma needs if we are to address the harrowing issue of youth violence and all it implies.

The high school dialogues, which began last fall, were created by the Greater Tacoma Community Foundation with the enthusiastic support of Pacific Lutheran University and University of Puget Sound.

They are part of the Youth Against Violence initiative and the Be the Spark campaign, a movement which aims to inspire every Tacoma citizen to be part of the solution in bettering our community.

Our partnership, we hope, will help take these projects deep into the community where those who have the most at risk and the most to gain can make them their own.

When the GTCF approached Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu about coming to Tacoma to speak about these issues, the organizers were frank about our hometown. In recent years, they wrote, Tacoma has experienced a high level of gang- and youth-related violence. About 8 percent of Washington students, ages 13 to 18, reported carrying a weapon on school property in 2006. A full third of sixth-graders that year reported being a victim of bullying.

Tutu is coming to Tacoma on May 13, and the message he will deliver is not unlike that expressed by students participating in the high school dialogue project: Maintain hope and persevere through communal action. In Africa such thinking is framed by ubuntu, a philosophy described by Tutu as: “You are connected and what you do affects the whole world.”

It may seem grandiose to suggest that the contribution of one person – or 40 college students – can become a mountain of a movement. But we see it happening all around us: People working in concert can create miracles.

A study just out by the Annenberg Institute for School Reform reports that coordinated action by parents, youth, residents and institutions can alter longstanding power imbalances and patterns of inequality that result in failing schools. The study cites numerous successes.

Tacoma can be one of those success stories. We support Be the Spark and Youth Against Violence because, as college presidents, we are inspired by what young people dare to believe is possible, and we aim to be part of a citywide movement to make a peaceful and productive Tacoma a reality for the youth who live here.

Lending an ear in our high schools is one small step. Choosing to “be the spark” may be the next. We can only hope this might happen in the manner of ubuntu, with each individual deciding on his or her own to take responsibility – and with the many acting together for the common good.