Agents of change

Ray von Newman, 13, prepares to rap as Project Legos worker Jacob Dilapina, right, helps with the technical part.

Photo by Matt Mead

West Bank kids lay tracks towards nonviolence

In the coming weeks, a special CD sampler will find its way to prominent mailboxes across the state and even to the nation’s most prestigious address at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. in Washington, D.C.

That is, if the group of kids who spent their Wednesdays at the Brian Coyle Community Center this summer calling for change in their community get their way. The dozen-or-so kids, ages 11–14, took to the microphone alongside leaders from the Minneapolis nonprofit Project Legos, which urges the youngest members of society to act as “change agents” by raising awareness of problems and shifting paradigms to solve them.

For this group, that meant recording a CD of spoken-word ballads in which the kids, in their own words, talked about the dark side of their community in the hope that their poetry sets something in motion to quell crime in the area.

Project Legos organizes programs educating kids about social issues in their lives, ranging from bullying to projects like the recent one at Brian Coyle Community Center. Since its inception in 2005, Executive Director Kyle Rucker estimates Project Legos programs have reached more than 2,200 children of all ages.

“Any young person is targeted,” he said. “I don’t care how young.”

Sometimes school officials call on Project Legos to speak to students about issues. Other times, like in Cedar-Riverside this summer, the kids define how they’ll impact the community.

Youth should never be discounted as potential influences in social change, said Kristi Kehrwald, one of the two facilitators who worked with the Cedar-Riverside kids. “They’re so aware of what’s going on in their community, so wanting to change what’s going on in their community,” she said. “These kids … are so personally invested in what’s going on.”

Most of the kids live close by in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, an area often looked upon as dicey and touched by violence. In the Coyle Center’s lobby, fliers pleading for information about the June shooting death of Somali activist Mohamed Jama are scattered so frequently that they almost blend in with those touting fresh produce.
The impact of that death and others, and of everyday violence, isn’t lost on the youngsters. Koshin Yusuf, 13, whose mother works in the community center, said people need to know about “the shooting, killing, the abuse … so we can stay safe and out of trouble.”

The two Project Legos facilitators working with the children said they were surprised at how intimately affected the children were by violence, and how candidly they spoke of it.

“Even from the earlier sessions, there were a couple kids who were really ready to talk about it,” said Kehrwald. “The impact [violence has] had on so many of them personally is eye-opening.”

Shacni Hussin and Hodo Ibrahim wrote their spoken-word piece, titled Shout Instead, together. The two girls wanted to emphasize nonviolent problem-solving strategies. Citing “troubled teens” that can act out in the heat of the moment, the two girls said violent choices weaken the community.

“If they do something bad, they look at it later and they could be sorry,” Ibrahim said. “There’s always another way.”

That’s precisely the attitude of a “change agent,” as defined by Project Legos.

“We’re trying to get rid of the feeling that, because they’re kids, their opinions don’t matter,” Kehrwald said. “Adults feel like, because they’re kids, they don’t know what they’re talking about.”

Sometimes, according to Project Legos logic, all kids need is the feeling that they really can make a difference.

“Young people have to know they can make change; it isn’t an option,” Rucker said. “We come up with the resources for young people to use in whatever way they want to make change.”

The resources for CD production came from another Project Legos facilitator working with the group, aspiring musician Jacob Dilapina. Dilapina hauled his recording equipment, including a $400 microphone (which awed the children who used it) and a hard drive into a tiny office beside the basketball courts in the community center.

The children took turns channeling their rap-star alter egos and recording their pieces, imagining what President Bush will think of the CD when he receives it.

Other notable recipients will include Mayor R.T. Rybak and City Council members. Some of the young artists mused about sending their work to rap legend Jay Z, but Kehrwald and Dilapina said they couldn’t find his address.

The show went on after the kids playfully rebuffed that reasoning. They recorded their poetic verse, with a sense of honesty unique to the young. Who do they hope hears it?
13-year-old Yusuf offered an answer as he read over the lyrics he’d written:

“Anybody who cares.”

*You can hear a mix of the spoken-word tracks created by the Cedar-Riverside kids here.

last revised: September 9, 2008