According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, homicide is the leading cause of death for African-American men ages 18-24. Death as a result of HIV/AIDS is ranked sixth on the list.

On the second day of the “Reclaiming our Youth Through Community Connections IV: Focus on Boys and Young Men Symposium” on Oct. 19, Educating Teens about HIV/AIDS Inc., brought together stakeholders from separate sectors of the community in hopes of changing these statistics. Together, with members of the public and a group of young men representing the very population they were trying to help, they discussed their roles in improving the quality of life for young Black men.

ORGANIZERS—Kezia Ellison and mother Albertha Graham-Ellison brought together community leaders from across the city and beyond. (Photo by J.L. Martello)

“The symposium really is to highlight the issues facing young men in our community and to come up with an action plan for Black young men, especially those who are underserved,” said Kezia Ellison, founder and president, ETAH. “We have a variety of people of influence; we tried to invite a number of people who have the power to implement these things.”

The goal of the symposium was to collaborate with businesses, houses of worship, organizations and schools to focus on the crises facing boys and young men. As a result, ETAH plans to develop a low cost action plan from participant feedback.

“We hope to encourage communities to begin implementing, to begin reaching out. Even though there are a lot of programs, a lot of our young men aren’t in those programs,” said Albertha Graham-Ellison, project director, ETAH. “We need to do something to put an end to this violence. One of the best ways we can do this is by exposing them to other things.”

The young men attending the symposium were made up of students from Project Destiny, a non-profit community organization with an afterschool program for K-12 students; and eighth graders from Propel Montour charter school.

“We try to provide a variety of cultural experiences for kids and also to build leadership,” said Rev. Brenda Gregg, founder and executive director of Project Destiny, during a session on the role of churches and communities. Every time I look at the news and I see another shooting has occurred, I worry and I hope the church can help with those things. I think we can influence to get guns out of the house because too many things are happening. We have to as a church; it’s our role to talk about this.”

Joined in a session by Rev. John Welch, vice president and dean of students at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, the two spiritual leaders discussed the leadership role the church can take in working to end Black-on-Black violence. In times of tragedy when a member of their congregation has been killed, they said the church must serve as a voice of not only comfort but also action to ensure similar tragedies do not continue.

“There’s a lot of trauma in our community and we need to be able to have an open and honest conversation about it,” Welch said. “Where this becomes elevated is when we have to bury one of these young people. It becomes an outreach opportunity for us in the church community.”

In a session on the role of government, Ed Gainey, community development specialist for the mayor’s office, examined how the political system should be used to defeat racial disparities. He said people take the power of voting for granted because they don’t see the greater impact their vote can have.

“A lot of times there’s a misunderstanding about government. We continue to sit back and let them pass policies and then when policies are passed we complain,” Gainey said. “If I drive through a community and I know a person has been representing that community for a certain period of time, and I don’t see any positive changes in that community, I know that person is using their political capital for other means. It’s a problem that we don’t have a Black middle class neighborhood in the city of Pittsburgh.”

In another session about the role of businesses, African-American male role models, who have achieved high levels of professional success, addressed the young men attending the symposium. Speakers Evan Frazier, senior vice president for Highmark; and Odell Robinson, owner of Robinson Funeral Home Inc., told their success stories and shared their methods for reaching professional goals.

After ETAH has compiled the results of the symposium, they will distributing an action plan to participants for implementation.

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