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It's About Time We 'Wake Up' and Listen to Black Youth

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If you've recently heard about black youth in news reports, it's likely that you recall reading about gun violence or crime. But was the perspective of at least one black youth included in what you read or watched? Probably not.

Instead, we usually see portraits and mugshots packaged with blippy soundbites about drugs, crime or the statistic of the day that shows "how horrible black kids have it." And for people who haven't been exposed to various stories about black youth experiences, it may be easy to overassociate this steady stream of negative messages, as if youth from other racial or ethnic backgrounds don't face similar issues.

The only time it seems that media outlets move away from the soundbites and dig deeper into discussions about black youth is when something tragic happens -- such as the deaths of Trayvon Martin or 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton, who was recently shot and killed in Chicago merely days after returning home from President Obama's second inauguration. And even then, the voices of black youth are largely missing from the conversation.

While it's important that we hear from leaders like ministers, activists and policymakers -- including President Obama, who addressed Chicago gun violence again during an appearance on the city's South Side last week -- we often forget that black youth have important viewpoints and ideas to offer during critical discussions about issues directly affecting their lives. With a narrow focus on the perspectives of the "adults" in the situation, black youth voices are routinely rendered invisible.

It's a dilemma that the documentary feature Woke Up Black addresses head-on. The film, which is being publicly screened at select locations in New York City and Chicago this month, takes a closer look at various issues affecting the development of black youth -- and does so by creating a space where they candidly speak for themselves.

Woke Up Black shares the experiences, struggles and triumphs of five black Chicago youth who come from different backgrounds but face similar obstacles. Represented among them are first-generation college students, a young father, a child adopted by gay parents, families affected by drugs and incarcerations, and a middle-class suburban youth who shares difficulties mediating her friendships with black and white peers.

Remarkably, each one of them has charted a positive path. The stories they share often go unheard or ignored in the mainstream media.

One such story is that of Ansheera, also known as Ace, a genderqueer college student and activist who navigates zir* family's reluctance to understand zir gender identity and sexual orientation. For most of Ace's childhood, ze felt frustration with how black youth were represented in media, which affected how Ace viewed zir own avenues of opportunity.

"At one point, I didn't think I could attend an institution of higher education or start a career, so I stopped paying attention to media," Ace said. "But I wanted to be more involved in my community and join with others in nonprofits to create change."

Without a variety of available media images and voices that go beyond illustrating black youth as spectators in a perpetual state of victimhood to social ills, stereotypes get perpetuated, and we lose opportunities to learn that black youth are indeed capable of positively affecting their communities and improving their own lives.

Mary Morten, the producer and director of Woke Up Black, had an idea well before the filming process that the constant stream of negative media images could affect how black youth view themselves, in addition to how others may regard them.

"I really understood it once I spoke with the youth in the film," Morten said. "It really impacts them in a way that people who are older do not understand and we have to put messages out there that counter those negative perceptions of black youth."

As we celebrate Black History Month, now is as good a time as ever to herald the voices and images of black youth. Without listening to their voices, it's inevitable that our leaders and media make decisions that otherwise prolong the marginalization and exclusion that black youth experience daily. We shouldn't have to wait for tragedy before creating spaces where we truly listen to black youth, and also youth at large.

"We as adults should realize that black youth are living in the world we created, and we often forget that," Morten said. "If we're going to create change, it means having real dialogue with youth, being active listeners, listening to their ideas and not talking down to them. We must also have some difficult conversations."

Inspired by the Black Youth Project, a groundbreaking national research report on the ideas, attitudes and opinions of black youth, Woke Up Black ultimately fosters opportunities for intergenerational learning and dialogue.

This month's screenings in New York City and Chicago will offer such a forum, featuring a panel discussion and Q-and-A with Morten, Ace and Sheldon, who shares his story in the film as a young man who works as a community organizer educating other young fathers and men who were formerly incarcerated with felonies.

"I hope adults and policy makers watch Woke Up Black and understand that you can't make decisions just because of what you see on one side," Sheldon said. "Our stories break barriers and allow people to think for themselves and question their own assumptions."

Woke Up Black will be screened at Harold Washington College in Chicago on Feb. 25 at 3 p.m. For more information, visit wokeupblack.com, where the documentary and an educational discussion guide are also available.

*"Ze" and "zir" are two gender-neutral pronouns that Ace prefers.