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Writing a wrong
by Sara Hoover

A 9-year-old shoots his father dead; an 11-year-old fatally wounds his dad’s girlfriend. Kids are increasingly seeing themselves and their loved ones suffer the consequences of violence. The U of M lends a helping hand through a unique writing challenge.

Writing a wrong

Imagine you’re 12 years old and riding a bike to the park. When you get there, you see your father. He notices your bike and looks around furtively, but he doesn’t spot you. He then makes his purchase. It’s weed. You stop going to that park, where you actually were going to sell drugs, but now you won’t anymore. Or picture your favorite uncle, the one you look up to and admire. You find out he is in a gang, and he convinces your brother to join. You’re confused and hurt, and they want you to join. Or envision the unspeakable horror of witnessing your father kill your mother in a fit of rage in front of you.

These nightmarish scenarios are the kind we wish to shelter children from, not situations that we want as part of their existence. Unfortunately, many kids are all too frequently impacted by violence.

To reduce this trend and provide a forum for youth, a national essay contest titled Do The Write Thing challenges middle school students to relate their experiences with violence and come up with solutions.

“Those are important issues for the kids to think about,” says Kathleen Rutledge (BSEd ’01), a middle school teacher in her third year of participating in the competition. “My kids need a voice. There are hundreds of competitions they could do, but if I’m going to ask them to do something like that I want it to have meaning for them. This one does. It touches their world and what they need to think about.”

Do The Write Thing is sponsored by the National Campaign to Stop Violence and originated by the Kuwait-American Foundation to express gratitude toward the United States for liberating Kuwait from Iraq in 1991. Thirty-five school districts across the country participate.

The U of M provides judging for the Memphis area while the Shelby County District Attorney General’s Office sponsors and coordinates it. There were 500 submissions the first year. Now, in the fourth year, 33 schools participated and more than 1,500 essays were submitted locally.

Seventh- and eighth-grade students answer three questions: How have you been affected by youth violence? Where does youth violence come from? What can you do about youth violence? Their answers can be an essay, poem, rap or song — however students want to express themselves using 500 to 1,000 words.

“We believe that if we get young people to begin to think about violence, write about violence and provide solutions to violence, then the likelihood of them committing violent acts reduces,” says Harold Collins (BA ’88), special assistant to the District Attorney General.

One solution already implemented from a student essay is presentations about violence to middle schools. The D.A.’s office now goes to every middle school in Shelby County and talks about gangs, victims and juvenile offenders.

The competition provides an outlet for children to write about their experiences and a window into their feelings, as previous winner Meisha Richardson’s essay highlights: I wake up every morning to live for all the children who didn’t make it in life. I live my life to keep the spirits of children young and old alive. Violence has caused many children my age to get killed. It makes me sad because I think about that. It could have been me. Two years ago a family friend was killed at a gas station. Violence caused my mother not to let me go many places I used to. To see my friend die and have such a short life was sad. It made me feel so angry. At first I was depressed because I thought it should have been me who got shot. On that day he had asked me to go with him. I should have gone, but then it occurred to me, “If I were the one to get shot he would be writing this essay about me.”

In 2005, the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control listed homicide as the second leading cause of death for youth ages 12 to 17. Regrettably, young people are not only at risk of being victims of violence, but also perpetrators.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, juveniles were involved in 25 percent of serious violent victimizations (rape, other sexual assaults, robbery and aggravated assault) annually over the last 25 years. Juvenile offenders were involved in at least 10 percent of all murders in 2006.

Kathleen Rutledge, U of M alumna, works with her eighth-grade class at Millington Middle School on Do The Write Thing essays.
Kathleen Rutledge, U of M alumna, works with her eighth-grade class at Millington Middle School on Do The Write Thing essays.
The U of M criminology and criminal justice department has judged the contest for the past three years. Criminal justice students select a boy and girl winner from each school.

Initially, some schools selected their own boy and girl finalist and the judging process varied. In an effort to make the judging unbiased and more formalized, the U of M was asked to get involved. The D.A.’s office codes the essays and removes the names before sending them on. This judging method ensures that every essay gets consistent review and the U of M’s involvement adds a level of credibility.

The judging is sponsored by the Criminal Justice Student Association, the Pre-Law Society and the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice. Approximately 30 students volunteer their time. The judging is not related to extra credit or classes.

The submissions are not judged on grammar or spelling, but on content, originality and responsiveness to the questions asked. A team of three evaluates essays in the school they are assigned. The team must be unanimous in its decision of the boy and girl winner.

“I saw this as an opportunity to contextualize learning. We’re training the future police officers, corrections officers, attorneys, case managers, social workers and probation officers in our department right now,” says Dr. Wayne Pitts, assistant professor of criminal justice and coordinator of the U of M judging process.

“We can allow them the opportunity to develop a greater sense of empathy for our community. We watch the news and see the violence in Memphis. But when you’re reading a middle school kid’s account, unrefined raw emotion comes through. A kid’s talking about, ‘We don’t eat dinner at the table anymore because of stray bullets.’ This is the other side. Students oftentimes are a little gung ho and it’s all about the punitive portion, but there are victims behind these crimes.”

One young girl’s submission heart-wrenchingly exemplifies victimization: I had a mother that showed me love and home but because of violence she is gone. You all have seen me on the news when a dismembered woman was found in Mississippi. That woman was my mother and I was a 12-year-old that witnessed her death. I watched her die and boy does it hurt. On that day and for a while I couldn’t eat or sleep. All I could think about is what I saw. It was terrible because I saw my daddy kill my mom. Every step of that tragedy was witnessed by me. And after all of that I was told to clean the remains of what was left.

Ellecia Johnson, a senior majoring in criminal justice, was on the judging team that read this essay.

“I cannot even begin to explain what she was going through. It just gave me a whole different outlook on the world. Reading something that actually happened here — in your community and your surroundings — is nothing like learning about what is going on in textbooks, merely just statistics. It is a whole other dimension to your learning process,” says Johnson, who volunteered “to experience something new.”

Another U of M student, Jayne Cox, volunteered as a way to give back.

“I think that many children are affected by violence in many ways. This gives them an opportunity to think about what is really going on in their environments, their school, their homes,” says Cox, a senior chemistry major with minors in biology and criminal justice.

Cox plans to become a forensic analyst and feels this experience will benefit her career.

“I am going to deal with a lot of different kinds of people. So you have to understand where everybody is coming from,” says Cox.

Millington Middle School students brainstorm for submission ideas for the Do The Write Thing contest.
Millington Middle School students brainstorm for submission ideas for the Do The Write Thing contest.
Shelby County Attorney General Bill Gibbons makes an appearance at the judging event and congratulates the U of M students on their volunteerism and reiterates the necessity of this competition. He also sends an individual thank-you letter to each volunteer.

“This is an example of how the University can work with the community for a good cause. Students in the criminal justice department are getting to read about crime in our neighborhoods from the vantage point of young people. That has got to help in terms of their overall perspective on crime in this community and what their future careers will be in the criminal justice system,” says Gibbons.

After the boy and girl finalists are selected from each school, the essays are forwarded to a panel of nine community judges who select the boy and girl winner from Memphis/Shelby County. The panel includes Gibbons and Collins from the D.A.’s office, Dr. Pitts from the U of M and other prominent community members like attorneys and judges.

The school finalists are invited to an awards banquet along with their parents, teachers and administrators. The overall boy and girl winner are announced in front of approximately 400 people, including Shelby County Sheriff Mark Luttrell (MPA ’74), Memphis Police Department director Larry Godwin, school superintendent Kriner Cash and Gibbons. Each finalist gets a trophy and his or her picture taken.

Local sponsors play a large part in recognizing the finalists and helping Do The Write Thing happen each year. Sponsors include Hope Presbyterian Church, Captain D’s, Memphis Grizzlies, The Commercial Appeal and First Student, the Memphis/Shelby County school bus company.

The U of M volunteers are also invited to attend the banquet and represent the University.

Millington Middle School students brainstorm for submission ideas for the Do The Write Thing contest.
U of M criminology and criminal justice students prepare to judge more than 1,500 essays from Memphis/Shelby County.
“Our students see the larger context of how this is all pulling together,” says Pitts. “They get to see the actual winners walk forward and their families. You can tell some of these kids had never been singled out and honored for anything. To know that they had some part in that and saw the full cycle, they begin to see these kids don’t look depraved. These are good kids but they’ve had some horrible experiences in their life already. We see that this whole situation could be different.”

Past winner Demarrius Banks’ essay reflects the fine line many children teeter upon: I am being raised by my grandmother. My grandmother told me to do what is right. If I do see my uncles and brother involved in gangs and doing drugs, I should not start their bad habits. I should continue to be a leader and not a follower. It does get hard for me at times. My mother was killed in an act of violence. It is painful for me to talk about it at times. However, when I am feeling down, I have to talk to my grandmother and she encourages me to stay on task. I have an uncle who is in a gang. He is one of my favorite uncles that I looked up to. I was hurt when I discovered he was involved in gang-related activities. When I grow up, I want to be able to help people like my uncle and children who are involved in violence. I am a seventh-grade young man who is on the honor roll at my school. I am very respectful to my classmates, friends and everyone I come in contact with. My grandmother taught me to treat others the way I want to be treated.

All the school finalists’ essays are published as a local collection. The regional winners’ essays are also published in The Commercial Appeal.

That’s not all the regional winners receive. The overall boy and girl winners are awarded an all-expense paid, weeklong trip to Washington, D.C., with a parent to meet with other winners from across America. They are recognized at the Kuwaiti Embassy and among prominent American government officials. A book of the regional finalists’ essays from around the country are published and placed in the Library of Congress.

“We don’t languish over this. Anyone we choose, this is going to be huge for their lives,” says Pitts of the community judging panel’s decision.

It certainly may be huge for youth like Marquavius Westbrook, a Memphis winner, whose gang activities and home life seemed insurmountable to overcome: Youth violence has affected my life by getting in a gang. It made me want to get a weapon, and when I used it I got nervous. It made me scared. I put it back in the house. I needed some money to get a gun to get friends so they will say I am hard with that gun because I need to feel like a man and have drugs and sell it. I went to the grove. I have seen my daddy buying some weed and he seen my bike in the yard. He look around and then he almost seen me on the street. I stop selling weed because he goes to the grove himself. I got out. Now, I am a better person and I have the Lord in my life.

The competition’s message to young people is an old one: the pen truly is mightier than the sword. Or as one middle schooler put it: “It’s better to write than to fight.”

Recognition Week in D.C. is in July, and Pinnacle Airlines provides the roundtrip airline tickets. Students, parents, teachers and regional directors of the program attend. Those from Tennessee also visit with U.S. Senators Bob Corker and Lamar Alexander. All the winners receive t-shirts, identification cards and a tour of the Capitol. The trip has a lasting impact on the participants.

“You may end up taking a young person and their parent on their very first plane ride, which is something in itself,” says Collins, who accompanies the delegation as the local director. “They realize they’re among other students from across the country who have written essays and been selected to represent their area. They get to spend time with other teens talking about violence and things that’s going on in their communities.”

Middle school teachers also benefit from the Recognition Week by getting to attend and meet with other teachers across the country about what works in their schools.

Jonathan Jones-Edwards, last year’s Memphis winner, enjoyed his first trip to D.C. and had no idea he would be selected.

“I was very surprised. I had no idea. I was shocked. My heart was beating fast. I was amazed.”

Jones-Edwards’ visit included a trip to the Capitol Building, Library of Congress and Interior Building, where he met the Secretary of the Interior.

Last year’s Memphis regional winners, Takila Williams and Jonathan Jones-Edwards, in Washington, D.C.
Last year’s Memphis regional winners, Takila Williams and Jonathan Jones-Edwards, in Washington, D.C.
An important component is an evening at the Kuwaiti Embassy. All the winners are greeted by the Kuwaiti ambassador and exposed to Kuwaiti culture.

“We ate different types of foods and listened to speakers,” says Jones-Edwards.

The event includes Mediterranean food and Kuwaiti music performances.

“The ambassador personally speaks to every child. He shakes their hand, looks them in the eye and tells them how important it is for him to meet them and how honored he is for them to come and share their life stories or their essays with the people of Kuwait,” adds Collins.

Jones-Edwards’ mom, Delores Edwards, went with him and her first trip to D.C. was eye opening.

“The thing that stood out the most was the children. We were at the Library of Congress and several of the children had been chosen to read their essay. I felt like I’d been living in a corner somewhere after listening to the children and how violence has personally affected them. A lot of the parents were crying, including me.”

Another poignant part of the contest for Edwards was after her son’s essay was published in The Commercial Appeal.

“When his essay was published in the paper, this lady in Germantown wrote him a letter commending him on his thoughts. It was touching. To see his essay had an effect on grown people. I framed it,” says Edwards.

Although he had fun, Jones-Edwards realizes the implications of being a finalist.

“I want to do the right thing. They say as a representative of that, I should set an example for others.”

Jones-Edwards’ essay reflected his intention to set a good example and was partially why he was selected: I can help stop youth violence by participating in random acts of kindness, organizing groups or clubs to help those with personal problems, helping someone rather than talking about them. Letting others know that they can do anything as long as they apply themselves. We can teach our children to do things that will affect them in a positive way. Youth violence is holding our children back from being where they need to be. Keep our next generation and generations to come safe. Together we can stop violence.

This is a message that U of M students are honoring with their volunteerism to the contest.

Visit www.memphis.edu/videos to see a series of videos on Do The Write Thing.

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