ROCHESTER — Only 17 years old, Denzel Loyd is a former gang member and drug dealer.
And Denzel also is the father of a 1-year-old daughter.
It was the birth of his child that prompted him to make the choice to turn his life around. He is now enrolled in a GED program run by the Urban League of Rochester and is employed with Teen Empowerment. And Denzel does everything he can to stay away from the friends that still find themselves in trouble, he said.
But the choice has been a lonely one, Denzel admits.
"I pretty much avoid the temptation of the street and don’t associate with friends who are doing things that are negative," he added. "I isolate myself. It’s tough."
Denzel was one of the 30 kids that kicked off the second-annual Youth Activist Movement, a six-week training for area teenagers to promote peace and leadership. The movement takes place during the Season for Nonviolence, which was created by the United Nations in 1998 to promote these ideals on an international basis. The season begins on Jan. 30, the date of Mohandas K. Ghandi’s assassination, and ends on April 4, when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Local events and activities for the Season for Nonviolence are coordinated by the M.K. Ghandi Institute based at the University of Rochester.
Denzel said that he learned about the season’s Youth Activist Movement through his job and didn’t hesitate to sign up.
"Everything I was doing put me on the wrong path," he said. "I played the streets … and made a lot of bad choices. When my daughter came, I felt I needed to make a change."
Helping such young people discover how to make those changes in their own lives and their own communities is the ultimate goal of the movement, explained Kit Miller, director of the Ghandi Institute.
"If we’re going to be peaceful, we have to be practical," she said. "Our youths face a lot of challenges. They live in such a violent culture. They’re inundated. Violence is … even pleasurable. So strong mediation (is needed) to help people see that’s actually not the case."
In addition to workshops on conflict resolution, anger management and martial arts, public speaking and "violence de-escalation," the youths also will participate in choosing, planning and taking part in community service projects, Miller said.
"A small cadre of committed people … is all that’s needed to change the world," she said, paraphrasing anthropologist Margaret Mead’s famous quote.
The group gathered for the kick-off event on Feb. 16 at the One Favor Street Recreation Center got acquainted with each other and peace concepts during small group activities. They also watched an Indian dance troupe from Rochester Institute of Technology and took part in an audience-style survey on violence in their own lives led by RIT’s Center for Public Safety Initiatives. The group’s responses were shown on a large screen only minutes after they clicked in their answers.
The youths also heard from members of the Positive Peace Warrior Network, who travel around the county to train students and adults on nonviolence in the philosophy of "Kingian Nonviolence Conflict Reconciliation." By teaching people how to effectively respond to different situations, the network seeks to curb violence and transform communities for the better, explained Kazu Haga, coordinator of the network’s San Francisco Bay programs.
"We feel very confident that by investing in our young people … and help them take a stand, things can change very quickly" for the better, Haga said.
Fifteen-year-old Erik Trim said that he can attest to that. During the survey discussion about school violence, he talked about the daily fights he would get into during the year he spent at East High School and how he found himself being suspended constantly as a result. His mother eventually had him transferred to Rochester Academy Charter School, and he is doing well away from the "drama" of his old school, Erik said.
"When I went there (East), everyone thought of me as a little person and I got bullied," said Erik, referring to his slight build. "I fought to protect myself."
But the smaller population at Rochester Academy Charter School helps everyone get along, he said. And the skills he learned from taking part in the inaugural Youth Activist Movement last year helped as well, Erik noted.
"It helped me learn how to say out of negativity," he added. "To walk away from fights … and learn to solve my problems."
While Khadija Muhammed doesn’t face those kinds of conflicts as a sophomore at Brighton High School, she feels it helps teens from all different backgrounds connect and learn from each other. She also helped plan this year’s youth movement.
"If we understand each other, we can get past (any) barriers," she said. "As young kids, we need to work together."
EDITOR’S NOTE: For more information about the Season for Nonviolence or the Youth Activist Movement, visit http://bethechangerochester.org or call 585-463-3266.