Quick Hit Ashlee Rezin Thursday May 16th, 2013, 12:47pm

Brighton Park Students Gather To Discuss Gang Violence, Ways To Unite The Community (VIDEO)

In the interest of fostering a broad educational community in one of Chicago’s most gang-ridden Southwest Side neighborhoods, the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council (BPNC) hosted its annual Youth Summit at Loyola University Wednesday afternoon.

“I’m so proud of myself,” said Danny Zamudio, 14, an 8th grade student at Nathan Davis Elementary School. “I’ve evolved because of this, I think I have a stronger character and I’ve become a better speaker.”

Zamudio was one of 23 youth leaders to help plan and lead a day of workshops for 325 seventh and eighth grade students from six Brighton Park schools. Called “Teen Life 101”, the fourth annual five-hour summit focused on social issues that, according to organizers, are not taught enough in the classroom.

The BPNC brought in representatives from non-profits such as CeaseFire and the  Heartland Alliance to conduct workshops and educate students preparing to transition to high school.

The nearly one-hour workshops discussed social issues pre-selected by the team of youth leaders. Topics ranged from bullying, gang violence, depression, eating disorders, and teen pregnancy to individuality, adulthood and stereotypes. Each student attended two workshops of their choice depending on availability.

“These workshops give you the information you need to take care of yourself,” Zamudio said, who has participated in the program for three consecutive years. “The whole point of this is to build confidence and leadership skills while we talk about important issues like bullying and gang violence ... We have a lot of gangs in our neighborhood.”

Students in attendance came from Davis, John Burroughs Elementary, Calmeca Academy of Fine Arts and Dual Language, James Shields Middle School, Pope John Paul II Catholic School, and Frank Gunsaulus Elementary Scholastic Academy.

The summit is an example of bringing schools together for broad community development, something Chicago Public Schools cannot do if they continue to shake up the district with school actions, said Patrick Brosnan, executive director of BPNC.

“This is about developing relationships that help us organize a very strong and powerful community,” he said. "Then we can start working on these issues that the youth themselves have identified as important to them."

Brosnan said Brighton Park was very “blessed” to be spared from CPS’ next round of school actions. But because the schools are “bound together by a community education effort,” he says if there was ever a threat of school closures, the schools would present a unified front and work together to prevent it.

Brosnan also said the district should put more emphasis on social issues, especially considering Brighton Park is a neighborhood with a lot of "threats", such as poverty, gang violence and a weak social service infrastructure.

“In these workshops the students are learning about topics they’re not necessarily learning in the classroom,” he said. “CPS doesn’t resource efforts such as this, but social issues have an impact on the educational environment.”

As an example, he said if there is a shooting in the neighborhood, the kids take the impact with them into the classroom. Brosnan says the CPS administration needs to recognize the importance of addressing that.

In CeaseFire’s gang violence workshop, groups of about 25 students heard from former gang members and discussed violence prevention. Choose Respect hosted a bullying workshop that educated students on different forms of bullying, the damaging effects it can have, and intervention methods. Corazón Community Services lectured on the importance of using contraceptives and practicing abstinence to avoid teen pregnancy.

The youth summit was funded by donations from the United WayMcDougal Foundation and a BPNC grant from Marquette Bank. Approximately 60 individuals from BPNC, United Way and participating schools volunteered to facilitate the program. Loyola University provided the space free of charge to BPNC.

“(The summit) makes me feel like I can make a difference in my community,” said Jonathan Herrera, 14, an 8th grade student from Calmeca Academy of Fine Arts who was participating in the youth summit for the first time.

Herrera, who was also a youth leader for this year's program, said he’d like to see less gang violence and teen pregnancy in his community.

“(The workshops) helped me understand how I shouldn’t fall for that stuff,” he said. “I have a career to follow and school to go to; I know I shouldn’t ruin my life with those things.”

Meanwhile, Dr. Santos Gomez, the principal of Davis Elementary, said he’s buried a former student nearly every year throughout his six-year tenure at the school.

“There’s so many opportunities these students don’t know about,” he said. “After today, I hope they’re inspired to make better choices.”

Gomez was particularly excited his students were provided the opportunity to visit Loyola University.

“They could attend this school some day, and it’s important they realize that.”

Here’s more from Gomez:

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