On Wednesday (August 7), over 3,000 Harlem residents and supporters alike showed up - and showed out - to the Harlem Children's Zone's 25th Annual Children's March for Peace. Yet more impressive than the size of the turnout was the size of the participants, as most of those rallying for justice were, in fact, just kids.
With members ranging in age from 3 to 23, Harlem Children's Zone (HCZ) is one of the largest and most notable justice reform programs in New York City, spearheaded primarily by the youth. According to HCZ's website, the student-led March for Peace was initiated over two decades ago after an elementary school girl fell victim to a stray bullet while in her Harlem home. When the victim's death went practically unacknowledged due to the overwhelming neighborhood crime rate at the time, students and staff organized what would be the initial, official Children's March for Peace.
BET Digital had a chance to attend this year's milestone march as well as catch up with HCZ's president, Geoffrey Canada, along with the current CEO of five years, Anne Williams-Isom.
BET: First off, congratulations and thank you for having us! There are so many people here; it's amazing! How has today's rally and march differed from the past ones, or has it always been this lively?
Geoffrey Canada: It's always been this lively, but it hasn't been this large. Twenty-five years ago, there were about 300 to 400 of us marching, and today we're at over 3,000. So the scale has really grown. The issues are as important today as they were 25 years ago. From our leadership, we want our young people to not only get that we take this issue seriously, but we want them to feel like they're being empowered, too.
Anne Williams-Isom: [Geoffrey] always says, "Despair is contagious, but hope is also contagious." So when you see the kids' bright, smiling faces, even when it's hot outside, and they're marching and enthusiastic, it's because they know that they are loved, and they know that this issue of social justice and the kind of lives that they want for themselves are something they are willing to fight for.
BET: As far as the growth in attendance, do you feel like some of the contributing factors to today's turnout has been: a) visibility through social media, b) the 25th anniversary of the rally itself or c) the climate that we are in right now with all the recent mass shootings?
Williams-Isom: I want to say it this way, this man [Geoffrey] has been doing this for 25 years. He's always been focused on a vision for what could be different for children. You see other people around the country really focusing on gun violence now, however, this is something that Geoff has been talking about all of his life, while also demanding change.
So while we feel good today that we have 3,800 young people that are marching, I guarantee if you went to other communities and organized young people, they would be doing the same thing.
Canada: Anne is right. I heard a really good analogy - it's not my own. Someone said, "All these violence issues is a little bit like opioids." When the drug epidemic was happening in the inner-cities, they were locking people up, saying "What's wrong with those people and [their] values?" But once [opioid addiction] spread to white America, people started placing the blame on brain disease, so they wanted treatment.
When violence was just contained in our inner cities, people looked at it and said, "These kids are super predators." Now that the whole country is dealing with the fact that we've allowed this violent, toxic culture to not just stay in the inner-city, but spread throughout America, people are starting to take notice that we have to act differently.
So I think what we're doing here is an example of what needs to happen all over the country. People need to say, "We're not taking this anymore. We're standing up!" We need Americans to come out by the millions and say, "Enough is enough!" We're not sending our kids to school for them to be hiding underneath their desks and terrified when they're in kindergarten and the first grade. What kind of country is that? The only industrialized country in the world that is dealing with this issue is America. So we're taking a stand. We're saying no more gun violence!
Williams-Isom: In many of the most important movements in this country, children or young people were the ones to start it. So if the adults want to sit back and not have courage, and not stand for what's right, we have an example here of young people saying, "Enough is enough!"
BET: How has gun violence, if at all, personally impacted each of you? Even if not by way of a familiar impact, but perhaps being witness to certain things, or the climate of the neighborhood during a certain era in time.
Williams-Isom: About eight weeks ago, we had one of our staff members who was murdered. He had just finished college in May, and he was murdered in East Harlem.
What people don't understand is, it's that person and it's all their loved ones and all their friends [that are affected by gun violence]. He was also a program aid in one of our after-school programs. So all of the kids who loved him, and the reverberation of that loss and that trauma, will never end. It's just very sad. There has been so many young people that we've lost, that you lose a part of yourself. I don't want to be speaking at funerals anymore.
Canada: My wife is from Harlem... and one of our nephews had been murdered here in Harlem. He was just literally standing, making a telephone call, and somebody was shooting at somebody else and killed him. That was more than 20 years ago, but his kids are still suffering from that loss every day. There is not a day that goes by when [they're] not reminded. You multiply that by the hundreds of young people who have had similar incidents that have happened in their lives and you see a community that is suffering from trauma.
The immediate death is just the beginning. The healing takes decades. So that's part of why we're trying to stop this right now. We don't think people understand. The same way the heroin epidemic started, people worried about the drug user, but their family, and their children, and their parents, everybody was impacted, and it's the same with gun violence. It impacts everybody. While we just go to the funeral for that one person, and everybody thinks it's over, it's not over, and that's why we're trying to stop this thing.
Following the mile-long march, which started at West 117th Street and Malcolm X Blvd. and ended with a rally hosted at the Harlem Armory on West 143rd Street, BET Digital also had a chance catch up with HCZ member and fellow marcher Jabril Alston.
The 20-year-old Syracuse University student has been active in the program since a young teen, making his participation in this year's rally his sixth to date. Formally a valedictorian of HCZ's Promise Academy 1, Alston's story is a unique one, considering that although his father fell victim to gun violence long before he was born, the near-tragic event has impacted his life's journey to this day.
Alston: When my father was younger, he was shot in Bronx River projects while doing his newspaper runs. That incident always kind of lived with me, and that was before I was even thought of, before he even met my mother. Imagine if he would've died that day, there would've been no me or any of my sisters. So I always think about what ways I can help to clean up the community or make it safer for my younger siblings.
BET: Is your father involved in the community now? Was he part of the reason why you got involved with Harlem Children's Zone?
J: My father is a firefighter now, so he does his own thing in the community. He tries to do a lot of community engagement projects, and he does his part to give back.
He is always on me about making sure I stay safe when I go outside, having common sense, and being street smart about the neighborhood. I remember when, what happened with Eric Garner and that tragic event, my father made me go to the National Action Headquarters [in Harlem] where Al Sharpton was speaking with Eric Garner's sister and mother. My father is always trying to keep me involved in the community and keep me grounded.
A lot of people get to a certain level of success where they don't look back and they don't pay it forward. But him, having been shot, it kept him grounded and humble, and he made sure to pass that down to me.
To solve the problem of violence, it takes knowledge and education. People just don't know another way. Especially when you're in low-income neighborhoods where people idolize [violence] and make it seem like that's the norm, and that's what you're supposed to be doing.
Be sure to learn more about Harlem Children's Zone, the Peace March and their overall mission here.
See more images from the event, below!
All images by Marty Lipp