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'Not Going Anywhere': Hartford Youth Group Finds Voice In Fight Against Gun Violence

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Gunfire brought chaos to the West Indian Day Parade in Hartford a decade ago. Some parade goers assumed fireworks — until they saw a kid on the ground.

His head was soaked with blood.

“All I remember is just running,” Tyrek Marquez, 17, said on a recent morning. “Then after that, it was blank.”

The 2008 shootout killed one man and wounded six young bystanders. Among the survivors, Marquez had the most serious injuries. He was that 7-year-old boy bleeding from a stray bullet to the head.

“It’s been a struggle,” said Marquez, now a senior at a public safety magnet school outside of Hartford, Conn. He remains partially paralyzed on the left side of his body. “But you’ve got to overcome obstacles and that’s what I have been doing.”

Marquez has been advocating against gun violence as part of the Greater Hartford Youth Leadership Academy, a group of 15 students of color that has devoted Saturdays over the past year to research and strategizing. They meet and go over heavy stuff like poverty, mass incarceration, educational disparities and the effects of trauma — some of the societal issues, they explain, that factor into the cycle of gun violence in cities like Hartford.

The youth leadership academy has presented its ideas to Hartford leaders and politicians. They include sweeping recommendations: alleviating poverty, improving schools and creating more jobs, along with calling for “common sense” gun reform.

Next on their agenda is getting the vote out for the midterm elections, even if they are too young to vote themselves. Most of the members are teenagers in high school, although a few are younger. Many bear connections to gun violence, so it feels personal when they come across apathy instead of outrage.

“It’s just that they’re so used to it,” Marquez said. “People talk about seeing change, but they don’t actually fight to see it.”

The Greater Hartford Youth Leadership Academy traveled to Washington, D.C., for the March For Our Lives rally earlier this year.
Credit Hartford Communities That Care

‘Anyone Listening?’

The Hartford group traveled to Washington, D.C., for a big March For Our Lives rally in the aftermath of the Parkland, Fla., school shooting. Students later recalled the lopsided attention on another group of travelers from Connecticut — those who came from the suburb of Newtown.

When there’s a shooting “in the urban community, it’s looked at as, ‘Oh, that’s normal,’” said Joshua Fee, 15, a sophomore at a Hartford magnet school. “It shouldn’t be that. It should be, ‘That’s not normal, what can we do to stop it?’ ”

It was a weekday evening in August and Fee sat near Nelba Marquez-Greene in the offices of Hartford Communities That Care, a nonprofit in north Hartford that runs the youth leadership academy. Marquez-Greene’s daughter, Ana, died in the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown. Ana was 6.

Another March For Our Lives rally was happening in a few days — this time, in Newtown. And thanks to Marquez-Greene, the leadership academy from Hartford would have a speaking role. But first, she wanted to meet the students and encourage them to keep speaking up.

Joshua Fee, 15, left, listens to Newtown mom Nelba Marquez-Greene. Fee says gun violence in urban communities is seen as "normal ... That's not normal, what can we do to stop it?"
Credit Vanessa de la Torre / Connecticut Public Radio

Long before Marquez-Greene’s family settled in Newtown, Hartford was home. This is where Marquez-Greene went to public high school and where her husband, saxophonist Jimmy Greene, began honing his jazz talent. The high school sweethearts bought their first house here. But they also knew of gun violence in the cities.

“So we decided … that we would work very hard and move to a safe community,” said Marquez-Greene, a licensed marriage and family therapist.

After living in Canada for a few years, the family of four relocated to Connecticut. They moved to the Sandy Hook village of Newtown months before the December 14 shooting.

The Hartford youth advocates were curious how Marquez-Greene handled her loss. What went through her mind, one boy asked, when she got word there was a shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary? Her older son and first-grader Ana were both Sandy Hook students.

“ ‘There’s no way.’ That was my thought,” Marquez-Greene answered. “We were in Newtown. ‘There’s no way. Somebody probably shot a deer outside.’ That’s what I was thinking.”

Ana was the only black and brown child who died at Sandy Hook, Marquez-Greene pointed out. She said race and geography often affect how people respond to victims of gun violence, and that she has seen the inequity up close. Since the massacre, Marquez-Greene has met with grieving mothers from Hartford and other cities who have also lost their children to gun violence, she said.

“But not all of us had received the same love and compassion that we had in Newtown,” Marquez-Greene told the students. Her family got special attention because of where they live, she said. “And that really impacted me … . Be mindful that I have access to the table because of my zip code, but there are a lot of people behind me who don’t that look just like Ana.”

Voter registration at the March For Our Lives event in Newtown, Conn.
Credit Vanessa de la Torre / Connecticut Public Radio

That mindset brought her to this conference room in north Hartford. All summer, young gun-control activists in charge of the national March For Our Lives movement had been traveling across the country on a “Road To Change” bus tour, staging rallies and registering people to vote. The August 12 visit to Newtown would be the last stop.

Marquez-Greene said she spoke with organizers and they arranged for a charter bus to bring the students from Hartford, so their voices would be included.

“I just remember being this age and just feeling powerless, like, is anyone listening, right?” said Marquez-Greene, executive director of The Ana Grace Project. “But people do listen, they will listen, and every little thing you do, like this program, takes you one step closer to that next thing.”

She told the students they give her hope.

“If I have one prayer, it’s no more crying moms,” she said. “No more tiny caskets.”

‘Not Going Anywhere’

The charter bus arrived on a Sunday morning. It parked alongside a playground in Hartford that was built in memory of Ana Grace Marquez-Greene and other victims of gun violence.

“God, we thank you for waking us up this morning,” Eddie Brown, program director for Hartford Communities That Care, said over the bus intercom. “We ask you to give us traveling mercies as we travel the road, God, for a good cause.”

Greater Hartford Youth Leadership Academy members Dayzra Bournes, left, and Joshua Fee give a speech at the March For Our Lives rally in Newtown on August 12.
Credit Kent Ashworth

In Newtown, hundreds of people and a line of TV cameras gathered under a big white tent on an expansive green. Tyrek Marquez, the teen who was shot in Hartford when he was 7, stood on stage with activists such as Emma Gonzalez from Parkland. After several speakers had their turn, Joshua Fee and Dayzra Bournes went up to the mic. They were chosen to represent Hartford.

“Thank you for inviting us to participate in today’s gathering, bringing young people at the forefront of a movement that should not be ours to fix,” Bournes, 17, said.

“But we are here,” Fee and Bournes said together, “and we are not going anywhere!”

The duo dove into some of their group’s recommendations, from expanding gun buyback initiatives to providing “books and broadband Internet access to build literacy.”

The cheers were loud and steady. The Hartford group met new allies that day. And by the time the rally wrapped up and students in the leadership academy walked back to their bus, a few of the teenagers said they felt hopeful they weren’t alone.

“I think the main message is we kind of need to get out of our own way and actually do what’s right,” high schooler Zion Wright said. “You know, stop being stubborn and actually vote. And we can’t talk about what we’re going to do and then don’t have a plan to do so. It’s kind of like, don’t bark if you’re not going to bite.”

Mission: Voter Turnout

On the first Saturday of autumn, the crew got back together at their usual meeting spot at Hartford Communities That Care. A full agenda was on deck.

“All right, so… We’re going to talk a lot about the midterm elections,” Brown told the group. Their recommendations to reduce gun violence, he said, are reasons to convince people “why we should vote, why it’s important to vote.”

Tyrek Marquez, left, works with the Greater Hartford Youth Leadership Academy during a recent Saturday meeting at Hartford Communities That Care.
Credit Vanessa de la Torre / Connecticut Public Radio

Tyrek Marquez was taking these reasons to Los Angeles, too. In late September, he flew across the country as one of 100 delegates chosen for a national summit called #WeVoteNext, an initiative founded by actress Yara Shahidi to mobilize young voters. A mission for Marquez was to bring back strategies to help get the vote out in November.

Marquez smiled when he talked about his own opportunity to cast a ballot next year. His 18th birthday is in the spring.

“I’ve been waiting,” Marquez said. “I’ve been wanting to vote. So it’s going to be kind of exciting.”

This report is part of the public radio collaborative Sharing America, covering the intersection of race, identity and culture. The initiative is funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and includes reporters in Hartford, Conn., Kansas City and St. Louis, Mo., and Portland, Ore.