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'They want to be kids': Black leaders in Denver talk youth well-being and violence prevention

 Denver Mayor Michael Hancock stands at a podium speaking into a microphone with his left hand raise for inflection.
Leigh Paterson
Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, whose term ends later this month, speaks during a roundtable discussion on youth safety at New Hope Baptist Church on Thursday, June 6, 2023. Gun violence, he said, cannot be solved by politicians alone.

Black leaders from across Denver gathered Thursday night to make recommendations about how to support young Black men and boys and reduce gun violence in the city.

The meeting was the third in an ongoing series of conversations hosted by the Colorado Black Roundtable. The group had been considering holding discussions on how to support Black youth since last summer when communities were coming out of the pandemic, according to Chair of the Colorado Black Roundtable John Bailey. The group wanted to get ahead of concerns related to socioeconomics and education as well as youth gun violence, which has been an ongoing issue in the city. Then, in February, a teen was shot and killed near Denver's East High School. The next month, a student shot two administrators at the school and then shot himself.

The members of the roundtable knew it was time to act.

At Thursday's meeting, over 100 community members, parents, coaches and officials gathered to discuss how to support young Black men and boys, touching on a variety of important and connected topics from youth mental health to employment to the public school system.

Mayor Michael Hancock, Mayor-elect Mike Johnston, Police Chief Ron Thomas and District Attorney Beth McCann were all in attendance, along with a panel of experts and advocates including a pastor, a psychologist and a football coach. They talked about supporting Black young men in a variety of ways, from education on African culture to keeping guns out of the hands of youth and providing kids with more extracurricular activities, especially during summer breaks.

“When there's nothing for these kids to do inside of their own communities, you know, we start to lose them,” education activist Brandon Pryor said.

 Brandon Pryon sits at the far end of a panel speaking into a microphone while four other panelists sit beside him.
Leigh Paterson
Brandon Pryon (far left) talks about the need for kids to have community spaces where they can spend time in the evenings and during summer breaks.

Pryor noted the lack of commercial recreation spaces, like bowling alleys and arcades, in some neighborhoods.

“They're tired of roundtable discussions, they want to be kids,” Pryor said. “They want something fun to do. Somewhere for them to exist and let their hair down, so to speak.”

Mayor Michael Hancock acknowledged several deadly shooting incidents in cities across the country over the July 4 long weekend. He talked about the high numbers of guns stolen from cars and homes in Denver, and the need for gun owners to securely store their firearms.

“We've got to start getting these guns out of the hands of these young people who have no business having them, no experience using them, and don't give a damn who they are pointing them at,” Hancock said. “And we also have to educate our community about how to properly and securely store their weapons.”

According to a recent proclamation issued by the Denver City Council adopting June 2 as National Gun Violence Awareness Day, in Denver last year 73 people were killed by guns and another 293 residents were shot but survived their injuries.

While gun violence has a massive impact on communities, experts say that a relatively small number of young people are involved.

“There's only a handful of young men that are involved in violent behavior. Now, that’s not to minimize the impact that they have. Really, what that should do is provide a sense of hope for all of us in this world, because all of us in this room can now double down and focus our efforts on those handful and really give them the hope,” Jonathan McMillan, head of the state's Office of Gun Violence Prevention, said.

Many of the panelists emphasized the importance of maintaining positivity and acknowledging the successes of existing programs like Kids’ Kreations, a youth-run ice cream company born out of an entrepreneurship foundation in Denver.

“We have to get on their level,” Jason McBride with the Struggle of Love Foundation said. “And if we do that, we can solve a lot of these problems just by getting these kids engaged and interested in school again. That's all we need to do.”

As KUNC's Senior Editor and Reporter, my job is to find out what’s important to northern Colorado residents and why. I seek to create a deeper sense of urgency and understanding around these issues through in-depth, character driven daily reporting and series work.
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