Access to opportunity and a community of caring adults is what local youth think it will take to stop a recent spike in auto thefts in Dane County.
On Thursday evening, the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County hosted a youth town hall meeting to give young people a chance to share their feelings about their neighborhoods, schools, peer pressure and access to opportunities for employment and mentorship.
The town hall took place at the club's location on Madison's south side. Twenty-five students from Madison, Sun Prairie, Fitchburg and Verona participated in the event.
The Boys and Girls Club declined to share students’ names to encourage kids to speak candidly about their experiences, without fear of retribution from law enforcement.
Tommy Walls, senior director of programs at the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County, said the event was inspired, in part, by a recent rise in car thefts by young people, particularly middle school students.
Walls said local leaders, including Boys and Girls Club CEO Michael Johnson, have held meetings in recent weeks to address the thefts and connect with youth who are involved in the behavior.
“These are kids who are looking for some guidance, but they are not lost. They know exactly what direction they want to go in, but they don’t have any support to do that,” Walls said. “Tonight is an opportunity to celebrate them, not for the actions that they’ve caused, but to show them that the community is here, and there are opportunities for them to better themselves.”
Gloria Reyes, deputy mayor of public safety for the city of Madison and current candidate for the Madison School Board, also participates in weekly meetings with Johnson and other community organizations. Reyes said the group is working to show the youth that car theft is not their only option.
“We want to wrap around support, try to engage them to recognize that there is another way,” she said. “We have so many resources (in Madison), all we have to do is collaborate.”
Walls, who moderated the town hall, also saw the event as a space to give youth a chance to express their opinions about community programs that affect them.
“The youth just want to be heard. I don’t think we, as adults who work with youth, do a lot of listening. We hear them, but are we listening?”
The youth sat in the center of the room, surrounded by parents, BGC staff and service providers. In the beginning, students were hesitant to share their thoughts but began to open up after a pep talk from Johnson.
“I need you to be loud tonight and speak up,” Johnson said to the students.
Teens were particularly vocal about the thefts, with many cautioning their peers not to get involved with it.
“I don’t want to see my best friend or brother doing it because it makes them look bad,” one teen said. “They are messing up their future. If everyone gets together who cares about that person, maybe they can stop it.”
One youth, a middle school student who said he was involved with a group that stole cars, said he and his peers are a part of a “brotherhood.”
Another teen pushed back.
“If they are your brothers, why would they want you to get in trouble? Half of (the group) is going to jail,” she said.
Wanda Smith, a community activist who ran for the Fitchburg Common Council last year, warned the teens that their actions could land them behind bars.
“We want to help you live,” Smith stressed. “(The crime is) grand larceny, that’s a felony. You are going to be headed to prison if you don’t stop."
Other adults around the room shared sobering statistics about African-Americans in Dane County, invoking the Race to Equity Report. The 2013 publication highlighted disparities in education, incarceration and employment among blacks in the Madison area, compared to white residents.
“When people see a group of black kids versus a group of white kids doing the same thing, they think of (the black kids) differently,” an adult spectator said. “Black kids have to face the consequences of their actions... Everything is disparate in Dane County.”
Kelli Thompson, public defender for the state of Wisconsin, shared remarks to educate students about what may happen if they are involved with a crime, including that 17-year-olds are considered adults by the state’s criminal justice system and the backlash of posting criminal activity on social media.
“You make it really easy for law enforcement to find you,” she said.
Youth and adults collaborated for a brainstorming session where kids shared their fears, resources they need to be successful, and things they wished the community knew about their identities.
A student from Sun Prairie said he wished there were more African-American teachers in his school.
“I just had my first black teacher, and I am a junior in high school,” he said. “I feel like she looks out for me. Right off the bat she took more interest in caring about me and my well being.”
Another student, who recently moved to Madison from Chicago, said he wishes his Madison peers understood the dire circumstances he faced back home and encouraged them to be grateful for the relative safety of their community.
“People out here (in Madison) making up gangs when there are people who can’t even walk down the street in Chicago,” he said.
Another student added, “don’t be a follower, be a leader.”
At the end of the event, Mt. Zion Baptist Church pastor Marcus Allen led the group in prayer, asking God to watch over the children.