Cleveland Youth Testify to Human Rights Violations Fault Community, Teachers, Themselves for Not Doing More

By: Luke Drotar

             On Saturday, May 21st, Clevelanders young and less-young gathered at Trinity Commons (2230 Euclid Ave.) for a frank talk about the truth of what it’s like growing up in Cleveland.  Teenagers of all stripes stepped up to testify at the Youth Truth Commission about what they felt were the worst injustices that they experienced daily.  Truth commissioners Lawrence Stallworth of CWRU, Tom Mendelsohn of the Empowerment Center, Shaniqua Jackson of PPNEO Triple T, and Luke Drotar of NEOCH received their testimony.  The event was coordinated by United Clevelanders Against Poverty.

            Truth commissions are non-judicial, independent panels that investigate and tell the truth about violations of human rights.  Their purpose is to educate and organize communities.  The commission creates a space where the community can come to learn from one another’s experiences in an organized forum and then think collectively about concrete ways to pursue solutions to preventable problems.  They were famously used in South Africa to tell the truth about apartheid and rally people together around the idea of democracy.  They’ve also been used extensively in Latin America as well as in other African countries.

         Cleveland has hosted successful truth commissions in the past; most notably in summer of 2006 when The Poor Peoples Economic and Human Rights Campaign sponsored a national truth commission here.  1,000 people came to Cleveland from 32 states to put poverty on trial through testimonies exposing violations of our economic human rights.

         The Youth Truth Commission assumed a unique gravity due to the circumstances of 2011 that have dramatically impacted and will continue to dramatically impact Cleveland’s youth.  These factors include the new County Administration, the new CEO for the Cleveland Municipal School District, the targeting of East Side public schools for closure, deep city and state budget cuts, and youth unemployment at its highest level since recordkeeping began, among others.

        Teens would walk up to the stage, stand behind the podium, face the crowd, and testify to the need for access to a quality education, for access to adequate sexual health education, for the right to feel safe in school and community, and for the right to shelter for those who need it.  The following paragraphs group and summarize their testimony by subject matter.

        As evidence of a violation of Article 26 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, testimony was received alleging an inadequate state of education for the youth of Cleveland.  The noisy and distracting environment in classrooms was cited as one cause.  It was testified that instruction was also to blame; that although some teachers care, some do not, and others are pushovers; this situation causes teachers and then students to give up, and/or the other way around.  It was added that the dress code also stops some from attending school.

        The lack of accurate sexual health education was oft referenced as an injustice.  The teens said that many people don’t know what to do about their sexual health due to either a lack of instruction and open discussion with their teachers about the topic or due to a strict abstinence-only curriculum.  Their testimony described abstinence-only programs as ‘a waste of time and government money’; that it’s hard for them to reconcile their natural instincts, social pressures, and a dearth of role models by simply saying no.  For these reasons, they explained, so many teenagers, who are still kids themselves, are already taking care of their own children.  The teens proffered curriculum ideas that weren’t just sex and condom-related tips either; they expressed an earnest craving for advice about how to have a good relationship, and for advice and strategies about how to ‘slow things down’ and why.  The commissioners characterized their allegations as evidence of a violation of Articles 26 and 29 of the Declaration.

         The right to feel safe in school was also a hot topic.  The students cited the need for additional and more serious security guards, ones that are on the job at all times and not joking around with the kids.  But blame for safety was not simply lumped onto security guards; the students also described a culture of fear in schools where kids will not talk to a teacher or police officer even if they feel like they’re in immediate danger.  It is fair to describe the rest of their testimony as the following plea to fellow students: speak out if you see something wrong, there are too many kids missing school because of ‘sickness’ (being scared of a bully) and then failing the OGTs as a result; speak out, too many teens have ‘already left this earth’ because we didn’t stand up to the violence when we were needed.  The commissioners couldn’t come to a consensus on how many different Articles these testimonies evidenced a violation of.

          Inadequate access to shelter for homeless and runaway youth was alleged in two separate youth testimonies that day.  One teenager pointed out that new juvenile detention centers are being built, but that no new youth shelters are, and how that sends a message and sets up an expectation for their generation and the generation that will follow.  The other witness to the state of youth shelters stated that there are only two youth shelters in the Cleveland area, one of which is in Berea, and that neither are located anywhere near East Cleveland where there is the greatest need for youth refuge.  The commissioners agreed that their testimony on inadequate access to youth shelter evidenced a violation of Article 25, though perhaps of others as well.

           The Youth Truth Commission was informative, empowering, and cathartic.  To see teenagers come together and stand up passionately and be heard like they did that bright afternoon flies in the face of every stereotype about apathetic young people I hear every day from political cynics, rationalizing do-nothings, and phony know-it-alls.  I’m happy to report that you should feel free to follow with confidence that voice in your head that’s always advised you to pay no mind to that consistently naysayer friend or relative of yours.  You know the one I’m talking about.

     Copyright Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless and The Street Chronicle published June 2011 Cleveland, Ohio