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New Orleans is not a healthy place for young people.

In many regions of the country, learning the sex of a child adds to the build-up of joy on becoming a parent. However, Timolynn Sams Sumter, community activist and native New Orleanian, expressed a much different reality when she recounted the moment almost 20 years ago when she learned her first-born would be a boy.

NOCCA student filmmakers Helen Cressy and Phillip Youman will their interpretation of youth data at the Data Center's Youth Index Video Series on Sept. 1, 7 p.m. at NOCCA.
NOCCA student filmmakers Helen Cressy and Phillip Youman will their interpretation of youth data at the Data Center’s Youth Index Video Series on Sept. 1, 7 p.m. at NOCCA. Credit: Photo courtesy Isaac Webb

“When I found out I was pregnant and I found out I was having a boy, I cried. I literally cried,” said Sams Sumter on a panel called ”Black Parenting in a Time of Black Lives Matter.”

Sams Sumter, like other New Orleans parents, already knew what data confirms: That the odds are stacked against black boys. But the data show that society is failing black boys and girls.

In 2014, 18- to 24-year-olds represented about 29 percent of New Orleans homicide victims, even though they accounted for 10 percent of the population. In addition, 43 percent of the city’s children under 18 live in poverty. That means their parents are experiencing the conditions they want their children to avoid. These data were compiled by the Data Center for the New Orleans Youth Index, which provides a “statistical snapshot of the well-being of New Orleans children/youth.”

The index was designed to inform strategies to improve youth and child outcomes. But beyond the numbers requires much more than baseline data; improvement requires insight. For facts I turn to researchers; for illumination I turn to the people behind the statistics.

In consultation for the Data Center and in collaboration with the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, I helped produce “The Youth Index Video Series,” a collection of short films (approximately two to three minutes) responding to the aforementioned paper-based Youth Index. NOCCA students who worked on the film are: Charis Johnson, Helen Cressy, Philip Youmans, Jeremiah Russell, and Tevia Schroeder. Two NOCCA alumni, Anthony Richards and William Nichols, worked alongside their instructor, Isaac Webb, as a response to the data in the report.

Based on one of the videos, it’s clear that young people are tired of adults’ framing youth homicide as a matter of “misguidance.” Nineteen-year-old filmmaker Anthony “TonyRich” Richard Jr.’s video makes plain the issue of violence should go beyond individual blaming.

NOCCA shows this and six other videos on youth-related data on Thursday, Sept. 1, at 7 p.m. in its Freda Lupin Memorial Hall in New Orleans.

“We are thrilled that seven brilliant NOCCA students have chosen to bring our data alive, by illustrating what it means to them through voice, music, and visuals,” said Allison Plyler, executive director and chief demographer of The Data Center. “These videos take our work democratizing data to a whole new level.”

The video series is also built to serve as a model of what education reform can look like moving forward. Education is most sustainable when it builds capacity of local talent. This project proves that schools can give students concrete skills to empower themselves and others while in school. We didn’t have to hire talent from outside the city or the demographic. Students have perspectives and skills adults can build upon.

Not only did we increase the capacity of their filmmaking skills; the students involved are now part of the information dissemination factory mostly reserved for people with advanced degrees. Most importantly, students are finding their place in the public square. The use of mass and social media makes room in the policy arena crowded by adults.

Parents have little choice but to encourage children raise their voices and policy solutions to adult problems.

Reversing outcomes stemming from adult policies requires elucidation from youth. We already know what adults think by looking at their policies, and we hear adult opinions incessantly. It’s long past time we gave the policy microphone to youth.

Here’s a novel policy recommendation: give students voice. Children can see and feel how adult decisions kill New Orleans youth. Young people’s familiarity with the impacts of policy implementation offers a profound perspective.

Too many young people in New Orleans are policed, live in poverty, experience violence-induced trauma and are denied an opportunity to attend college for New Orleans to be considered a healthy place for young people. We shouldn’t consider deleterious outcomes incidental or happenstance. Adult policies foster negative outcomes for the most vulnerable residents.

Being born in New Orleans isn’t a death sentence. Youth can give themselves a fighting chance.

Now 18 years old, Sams Sumter’s son Evan is currently a freshman at Southern University in Baton Rouge. Along with persistent advocacy on behalf of her son, Sams Sumter constantly reminded Evan that “for reasons they have no control over” her son had to adapt. But Evan would reply, “Why do I always have to adapt? Why can’t others adapt to me?”  So Sams Sumter, who also has a 2-year-old ,adjusted her child rearing practices.

“So in my house everyone, even the 2-year-old has a voice,” said Sams Sumter.

Sams Sumter and her son are right. Parents have little choice but to encourage children raise their voices and policy solutions to adult problems.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

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