Florida International University

Jonas Ortiz no longer confronts his anger with raised fists. Instead, he vents with spoken-word poetry. 

Jonas, 16, is among some 20 young men who are a part of Empowered Youth, a program that offers support and mentors to recently released juvenile offenders.
The program sponsored “911: Hear Our Voices,” a public forum held Sept. 11 at the Belafonte TACOLCY Center where Jonas and other Empowered Youth members discussed the problems they see plaguing their community and those around them.

It’s at Empowered Youth that Jonas learned how to use poetry as an alternative to fighting.

Colleen Adams, director of events for Perry Ellis, founded the club in 2006 after reading an article on youths in juvenile detention.

But it was an accompanying photo of shackled young boys, eyes gazing downward, that led Adams to believe the problem extended deeper.

“When you have broken families and broken communities, you have broken kids,” she said.

The problems the young people brought up included pressure from peers not to “snitch” on one another and violence stemming from turf wars among rival gangs.

One way to counter this, Jonas said, was with “more peace officers instead of police officers” in the community.

Adams said she plans to present the views of the participants to community leaders, the Department of Juvenile Justice and elected officials.

Allison Austin, the TACOLCY Center’s CEO and a candidate for the Miami City Commission, said tactics such as enforcing a teen curfew have not curtailed youth violence. That was why forums like this one were important.

Adults “need to stop talking and start listening,” she said.

One of the most pressing problems, Adams said, is that most Empowered Youth members find it difficult to get jobs because they have criminal records.

Without money, many resort to “crimes of survival,” she said.

Through Empowered Youth, she’s linking them with landscaping, catering and laborer jobs while encouraging them to continue studying for their GEDs.

In the program, nearly 40 volunteers and a dozen mentors meet with group members twice a week in an effort to prevent them from becoming repeat offenders.

Subjects members and mentors tackle also include disrespect and how to react to it. Though they’re often met with some reluctance, the mentors teach that even if after being “dissed,” it’s often better to do nothing and live another day.

Adams thinks the mentors, many of whom are older males, can offer what many of the youth lack: family stability

“The absence of fathers is the genesis of this problem,” she said.

The youths are often typecast, deemed lifetime criminals, she said, because of what might have been isolated incidents or because of their race.

“These kids find themselves where they’re the wrong color in the wrong neighborhood,” said Adams. “They’re just trying to survive it.”

But not everyone is happy to be a part of Empowered Youth.

Luis Arroyo, 17, said he gets along with everyone but his time could be better spent.

“It’s not helping me,” he said. “I’m here because my lawyer recommended it to me to cut my probation.”

Ronnie Figueroa may be reached at rfigu003@fiu.edu.