PATERSON, NJ- They may have come for the music, dance, and fashion, but the more than 500 Paterson youth that attended the 20th annual Teen Summit on Saturday left with something far more valuable than the selfies and social media posts with well known performers such as Hood Celebrity, DJ Lil Man, and DJ Quest Flavor.
While all of the attendees may not yet understand the full gravity of the lessons imparted on to them by speakers such as Benny Pough, Adenah Bayou, or power couple Darien and Charisse Dash, the event, co-hosted by the Paterson Police Department and the Paterson Housing Authority, if measured by how well it showed attendees paths to achievement and personal greatness, was a resounding success.
With the boys and girls separated, both groups would hear from a range of passionate speakers delivering important anti-violence messages and sharing business success stories. Even before the first panel started one attendee, Agate, 12, a sixth grader at the Young Men's Leadership Academy, revealed that he understood the strategy of getting the teens together under the guise of a celebration, telling TAPinto Paterson that the fun atmosphere would "help teens relax and have a good time with friends."
The day was more important than that though, he continued, as it was also a chance for the leaders present to "give us ideas to help us when we're grown."
Offering startling statistics about youth violence in the United States Zatiti Moody, principal at Great Falls Academy who served as the moderator the boys throughout the sessions, set the tone early by informing the young men that they were there to respect each other and to "learn to communicate" to prevent violence.
"The drug dealers on the corner that tell you they're your family," Paterson Police Captain Patrick Murray warned, "they're not." On the job for 30 years, and just hours after bullets flew in the city striking three victims, including a 14-year old, the veteran law enforcement officer continued to say he has never seen a drug dealer in a hospital room comforting a victim of violence, a spot, he said, that's always reserved for grieving family members.
While the boys remained largely subdued throughout their panel discussions in the auditorium the energy level continued to rise in the gym as the girls were reminded regularly that they should be empowering themselves and each other to greatness.
Joining together to tell their stories of success and growth were the three female members of the Paterson City Council, joined by Pamela Powell, Chief of Staff to Superintendent Eileen Shafer.
Sharing her dream to simply have her own bed after they lost everything in a fire while she was a child, Martiza Davila spoke about struggling in school but aspiring to more and eventually earning two college degrees and, as of July 1, becoming the Latina to hold the top position on Paterson's City Council. Davila would be followed by Councilwoman Ruby Cotton who spoke of playing a role in helping her mother care for her siblings instead of having the opportunity to pursue outside interests, a limitation that didn't stop her from winning her own position on the Paterson City Council, including one year as its president, and using the post to help other "be where they're supposed to be."
"Uplift each other," the always positive Cotton asked her audience. "Help everyone be the good person they have in them."
With time running short Councilwoman Dr. Lilisa Mimms, shared her own educational experiences, including her days as a failing high school student, before she learned to be a "gift to her family and community."
"I bossed up," Mimms shouted into the microphone, continuing on with how she went on to earn a Doctorate with top grades, worked in a top position for Verizon, and learned how to walk into any room and be a force, before rising up on to her chair and, to sustained applause from the hundreds of young women in front of her, encouraging them to do the same.
Among the girls motivated on Saturday was Eboni, 16, a PCTI student who took the microphone to personally give thanks to successful entrepreneur Adenah Bayou for the opportunity to intern in the Center City Mall's IHOP.
Paterson is "full of hidden talent," Eboni suggested before lamenting that Paterson youth are too often seen as statistics. The summit, she believed, showed another side with speakers giving their time because they see those in the room as future lawyers, doctors, and business people."
That faith in their ability, she said, is "encouraging."
For Kasey, 15, and Jahir, 16, both students at PCTI, the messages received from speakers on Saturday were clear, if they want to lead successful lives they need to "stay in school and off the streets."
"All it takes is one stupid idea," Jahir, who was encouraged to see so many of his fellow teens "listening, relating, and thinking about change" said, "thirty seconds to get locked up for life."
Asked about his own prospects for a life after schooling Kasey offered that he didn't yet have plan, but that "whatever I do," taking a page from his father's book who he referred to as his role model, "it'll be big."
With the panels over attendees were able to go back to being kids, and, in the confines of JFK High School, away from any worry of violence or dangerous distraction, returned to bouncing along to the music and streaming their fun out to an limitless audience via social media.
Know a story we should share with readers? Email editor Steve Lenox and tell him about it.