On the table at JMAC: teens share their perspective on the direction of our community

FacebookLinkedInTwitterby Brenda Campbell, President and CEO, SecureFutures

I heard glimmers of hope for our city yesterday. I also realized there were countless other voices that not enough of us hear.

As part of the incredible “On The Table” conversations prompted by the Greater Milwaukee Foundation, our organization brought together business leaders from our board and bright teens from James Madison Academic Campus. JMAC Principal Greg Ogunbowale (“Mr. O” to many of us) served as host and joined the discussion.

The teens at our table – Lee, Elliyah, Atouria, Jhavier and Elonna – gave us more than food for thought, as was part of the “On The Table” initiative. They shared the living, breathing opportunities and concerns for the future of our city.

Atouria moved to Milwaukee from Tennessee a few years ago, and praised the opportunity she saw in our city for her to follow her dreams of becoming a lawyer. As a lawyer, Atouria said she’d work toward justice in our community, especially for people without access to legal representation.

“I just feel like everybody deserves a second chance,” she said.

Elonna, a junior who is still figuring out her college or career path, beamed at the chance to share her opinions and pressed the business and community leaders in the room for “consistency” in their interactions with youth.

Lee (pictured above between Stephaine Crosley, our Money Coach program manager, and me) is an aspiring rapper, with a goal not to become a star, but “an octagon, or another shape, not like anyone else.” She pushed for more moments of exposure, teens meeting successful financial leaders, like what has happening right at that moment but rarely does in such a segregated city.

Elliyah, also one of our Money Coach participants this semester, said she feels equal support would fix many of the divisions that fester in Milwaukee. On her “bold ideas” card that everyone had in front of them, she wrote: “Acceptance – we want to be WANTED.”

The most profound moment for me happened when Jhavier stood up and pointed at pictures on a wall of other students from the school not in the room. Jhavier, who praised his mother’s dedication to his family and outlined the steps he plans to take to become a chef, went down a list of the dreams he’s heard from teens outside Tuesday’s conversation. But, he said, it really starts to matter if and when adults in the community reach out, listen, care and take action together.

“There are teens out there that have big ideas. They want to help other teens,” said Jhavier (pictured above next to board director Jim Neubauer.).

I’m grateful for our board directors who shared their experiences and time with students – Dave Frieder (US Bank), Mike Kelly (UBS), Jeremy Cain (Crash Course Driver Education Center) and Jim Neubauer (OneAmerica). And Mr. O’s dedication to his students and our community were once again very apparent.

The students, however, led the way and shared perspectives that have continued to echo in my head. Even in spotlighting the challenges in our communities, this group of teens made it clear that our community has no shortage of potential. But, as they said, we can’t just sit back in the same neighborhoods, the same roles, the same comfort zones.

I know I’ll be back at JMAC and other schools, making more of a concerted effort to listen to where our young people are coming from. At the end of the day, that’s how we really know where our community is going.

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