COLUMBIA — People are already weighing in on the topic of youth and crime, which will be a focus of a community gathering that begins Friday.
Lorenzo Lawson, executive director of Youth Empowerment Zone, was among about 250 people who mobilized in December for a community meeting in response to a spike in violent crime.
“At the meeting, three-fourths of the people stood up to say ‘We would like to see more funding go into youth programs,’” Lawson said on Thursday. “That’s not happening. It’s not even talked about.”
The Let’s Talk Columbia! event tonight, billed as a community summit to move “from dialogue to action,” was organized as a follow-up to the earlier meeting.
“Youth violence is prominent; it’s here,” Lawson said.
Fifth Ward Councilwoman Laura Nauser, who plans to participate in this weekend’s conversation, is also interested in what Columbia can do to provide young people with more positive opportunities. Nauser said she was struck by the young ages of some of those involved in violent crime.
“It has been a violent year,” she said. “It’s going to take civic involvement. We can’t just put our heads in the sand and hope it goes away.”
Nauser said she’s looking into what other towns have done to combat violent crime and help youth.
“I’m hoping that by spring I will have something to present to the council,” Nauser said. “Looking at the dropout rate and the age of the kids, what can we do? Kids that don’t have an education don’t have a future in a college town competing for jobs.”
Mayor Darwin Hindman said he also plans to attend the session on Saturday, which is sponsored by the Columbia Human Rights Commission and YC2, Youth Community Coalition. He’s especially interested in hearing from young people themselves, he said.
“There’s always a difference in age between those operating in government and those kids,” Hindman said. “I hope to hear from the youth.”
“The government can’t do it all,” he said. “The community needs to be acting more directly. When the community sees kids need help, they need to be helping them. It really appears that it is going to take people taking their own time and helping.”
Lawson said the problem of youth and crime will increase unless the community takes a proactive approach.
“This is just the beginning,” he said. “It’s going to continue to escalate, and this city is not going to be one of the best places to live.”
The majority of young people involved in crime “are very intelligent,” Lawson said, and are “looking for a way out.” He said programs like the Youth Empowerment Zone work to help young people find work and become self-sufficient.
Nanette Ward of the Human Rights Commission said participants will assemble in groups of seven to 10 and engage in dialogue guided by trained facilitators. Registration is open until the time of the event; organizers are asking for people to participate both days.
“We are all excited about the potential of people building relationships outside of their normal circle to create a better Columbia,” Ward said. “Building positive relationships within a community necessarily impacts the overall health of a community. When you create opportunities so that can happen, good things come out of it.”
The event is free, and child care is available by reserving space in advance. Lunch and snacks will be provided.
There will be a follow-up Community Action Forum to the “Let’s Talk Columbia!” event from 5:30 to 9 p.m. March 4 at Days Inn Hotel and
Conference Center, 1900 I-70 Drive SW.
As for the weather, Ward said organizers are planning to have the event “no matter what.” If there are any last-minute changes, a public announcement will be made.