Each Wednesday evening, dozens of teens and young adults crowd into a meeting room on the first floor of Pathfinders, 4200 N. Holton St. What goes on next is part counseling session, part community organizing, largely informal and 100 percent therapeutic for members of Youth Rising Up.
Participants in the group have all, at one point or another, received assistance at the Pathfinders drop-in center for homeless and exploited youth, but they don’t want to be characterized by that. Rather, they want people to look past the tattoos, the scars and their struggles and see them for who they are, young people in search of a better life.
“They could stereotype us, and it might always be like that; but we want them to respect us for who we are, rather than (judge us by) how we look,” said Shamonte Wright. Despite coming from a background he described as full of drug dealers, Wright joined the group to help uplift the spirits of the youth of the streets.
Wright hopes to be a professional boxer someday.
The group meets each week to discuss varying issues such as violence, hot topics in local and world news, and education, while also sharing a communal meal.
“Other than housing situations, there are drugs, alcohol, unemployment, mental illness and dropping out of school, along with other more basic obstacles these teens are facing,” said Marty Hagedorn, assistant program coordinator at Pathfinders.
On this day, they talk about raising funds to help Bradley Tech High School and MLK Elementary school buy copies of the classic novel, “The Catcher in the Rye.”
Like the protagonist in the book, Holden Caulfield, the young people here struggle with feelings of alienation, confusion and angst.
They talk about whether they feel safe in their neighborhoods or schools. They talk about presenting ideas to the school board. They talk about fairness and the lack of resources at their schools.
They lament the fact that their textbooks are dilapidated.
Most important though, is that they talk. According to Hagedorn, the most important function of the group is to help the youth find their voices.
“It’s an opportunity for our young people to be heard in the community, to share their experiences; they’re craving it because most of them haven’t had a creative outlet like the group where we can talk about their problems and create strategies to deal with them,” Hagedorn said.
Youth Rising Up is one of several programs at Pathfinders that aim to help young people take charge of their lives, connect with resources and contribute to the community, according to Hagedorn.
Oscar Walton is one member who is taking charge of his life. Now a youth advocate at Pathfinders, he started going there in 2008 after growing up on the lower east side of Milwaukee, in a Vice Lords neighborhood on Keefe Street.
Walton, who described his upbringing as chaotic, said he ran away when he was young after his house was shot up. That’s when he found Pathfinders.
Walton, who emcees and hopes to break into the music business, takes classes at MATC and upon graduation plans to move on to the social work department at UWM.
“All of us here at Youth Rising Up came from very humble beginnings,” Walton said, but we’re all here to make a difference in our community and through hard work and determination we will all reach our goals.”