Teens learn about social justice, advocacy

Jul. 12, 2013 @ 10:24 PM

On Friday, 175 teenagers played the part of jury as they watched a fake trial, in which the defendant allegedly drugged and raped a young woman, unfold on a stage. Jury members were asked to decide — via text message — whether the defendant was guilty or not guilty.

When the texted results came in, among those who voted, the verdict was split.
The teenagers, sitting in an auditorium in NCCU’s H. M. Michaux, Jr. School of Education, had come together for the Young Advocates Institute, a weekend of workshops aimed at educating North Carolina’s 13- to 17-year-olds in social justice advocacy, leadership and sexual assault prevention.
After the skit, a YAI volunteer explained that the trial was based on a rap song that includes lyrics about putting the drug Molly in a young woman’s drink and taking her home. The crime, the volunteer said, is considered second-degree rape in North Carolina.
Violence against women is just one issue that will be covered during the weekend’s educational activities.
“We’re really just hoping to give them the feel that social justice issues, in a larger context, needs this next generation to be dedicated to people,” said Monika Johnson-Hostler, executive director of the North Carolina Coalition Against Sexual Assault, one of the sponsors of the Institute.
The program includes two and half days of performances, skill-building sessions and workshops with topic titles ranging from “Human Trafficking: Very Young Girls” to “The Great Debaters: I Have a Voice and Something to Say about What’s Happening in My Community!”
“Although we give them a wide variety of trainings and topics, the hope is that each of them will choose whatever is most important to them, that they’ll have the skill set to advocate for it,” Johnson-Hostler said.
The Institute, Johnson-Hostler said, was the brainchild of NCCASA’s Tracy Wright, who said she was sexually abused as a child in rural Louisiana.
“At the end of the day, the Young Advocates Institute … merely is for my 10-year-old self,” Wright said.
She said that her family wasn’t able to explain what she had gone through. Since she’s in a healthy place, she said, she wants to be able to educate others.
“Kids can hate everything that happens in here, but we’ve planted the seed, and that’s more than what I had,” Wright said.
According to the NC Council for Women, 13, 214 clients were served by North Carolina rape crisis centers for sexual assault in 2011-2012. Of those, at least 1,780 were between 13 and 17 years old, and at least 2,538 were between 18 and 25.
Additionally, law enforcement agencies in the state reported 561 arrests for forcible rape in 2011, according to the North Carolina Department of Justice and State Bureau of Investigation’s crime report. Fifty of those arrested were under 18. For sex offenses, 1,682 were arrested in 2011; 154 of those were under 18.
Still, Johnson-Hostler noted, sexual violence is still a “highly underreported crime.”
Tony Jones, the Engaging Men & Boys coordinator for NCCASA, said he hopes attendees become more aware of violence against both women and men, and learn to think more critically about social justice issues, such as the fake rape trial they witnessed earlier in the day.
Maya Tisdale, a 15-year-old attendee from Raleigh, said she was interested in the institute because she wants people to know that there is a way for young African-Americans and anybody else to “be above the stereotypes that really do make it impossible for us to want to achieve.”
Last year’s camp saw more than 90 percent African-American attendance, even thought the institute had no specifically targeted that demographic, Johnson-Hostler said. This year, more than half of attendees are female.
Tisdale said she is particularly passionate about encouraging young women her age to respect themselves.
“I’m really just hoping to learn not only how to help myself get out of a shell and to make a statement about what I do with my life, but to help other do the same,” she said.
Tisdale said she hopes that attendees who might not take the Institute seriously — who “were just dragged here,” — have a change of heart and see that they actually need the education.
The Young Advocates Institute costs about $40,000 to put on, Wright said, but each teenager only pays a $25 fee.
The sponsors, which include both NCCASA and Reaching Your Goals, Inc., a mental and behavioral health nonprofit based in Raleigh, provide attendees with NCCU dorm housing, meals, bed linens, toiletries and a T-shirt, Wright said.