Getting it right for teens

It’s 8 pm, and I’m leaving the Dollar Store in University City, Missouri. It’s a magnificent June evening: the sun is setting and a refreshing breeze weaves through the branches of the trees that line the concrete islands of the parking lot.

“This would have been a great day for a bike ride,” I think to myself. “Or for swimming. Or a barbeque…”

As I continue to tally the many uses this day could have served, I see a group of about 20 high-school-age kids hanging out in the back of the parking lot. They seem to be enjoying themselves. Some are on bikes. One dribbles a basketball. All are laughing and joking around. I ask myself, why would a group of teenagers hang out in a grocery store parking lot? As I get into my car, a police car pulls into the parking lot, shooing the kids away. They oblige, not taking offense to the officer’s warning and go on about their evening, still laughing and joking. The officer stays in the parking lot until the kids are far enough away that he knows they won’t return once he’s gone.

I’m still confused about why a Dollar Store parking lot would be a teenage hang out as I make my way home, when I realize that perhaps these kids are the aftermath of the new curfew for the Delmar Loop, an eclectic, six-block entertainment and shopping district in St. Louis.

Mayor Shelly Welsch stated in an article on that U.City officials are up to the challenge of finding suitable activities for the 16-and-under crowd. A reader commented that the kids who city officials want to keep out of the Loop after hours are the same kids who “terrorized” (his word, not mine) the Metro-Link stations last summer, before Metro Transit increased security presence on platforms. It seems that Mayor Welsch and company need to find something to occupy these adolescent “terrorists,” before they become too attached to their grocery store parking lot.

The Delmar Loop curfew change is only one small contributing factor to the potential issue of kids being disruptive and finding other places to hang out. By the end of summer, they’ll migrate west and become a nuisance to Centennial Commons, a recreation center recently built in University City. St. Louis needs to take a cue from other cities and address its lack of opportunities for youth activism.

In 2008, a group of Chicago business owners recognized that the violence in Chicago was not only becoming increasingly deadly, but for the most part caused by the youth population. They organized a youth-driven and youth-directed social action group that aims to help divert potentially violent energies toward working for social change on a local and global scale. Youth Struggling to Survive also provides an online forum where members can discuss and find solutions to issues in the Chicago area as well as organize community events to promote social change.

Seattle’s Young People’s Project (SYPP) is a youth-led empowerment organization that provides students with a voice to catalyze social change. Since 1992, SYPP has organized social justice education where youth have the opportunity to voice their experience and solutions to issues of inequality.

In addition to building safer communities and schools, Boston’s Center for Teen Empowerment has a mission to education urban youth on human rights. Students and adults work collaboratively to find solutions and provide necessary tools to confront the most difficult problems in their community to foster positive change. Teen Empowerment works to bring authentic youth voices into dialogue about improving communities and mobilize the energy of urban youth to create meaningful change. Teen Empowerment currently works to open neighborhood-based sites to improve their community presence and foster creative initiative for young people.

Some might argue that unlike Washington DC and New York City, two areas deemed the mecca for youth activism, St. Louis doesn’t have the resources to provide and sustain organizations similar to ones in Seattle and Boston. Centennial Commons is a fantastic addition to University City, but a recreation center should be the start of including young people in a process to improve their neighborhoods, with hopes that they’ll become knowledgeable, effective community organizers.

On my way back from the Dollar Store, I pass a group of boys I regularly see playing basketball on most summer evenings. But today, instead of playing their usual game of two-on-two, they’re being searched by police. One boy leans against a squad car as an officer handcuffs him. Two others are being searched. Their hands rest against the side of a house while their faces register anger and embarrassment. One stands off to the side, awkwardly holding the basketball as if he expects the game to pick up where it left off. As neighbors and other drivers assess the disheartening scene playing out on the street, I wonder if these boys were the victims of empty summer days. Days where the end of school ushered in unlimited daylight hours and innocent mischief eventually transformed into illegal activity.