Youth of Coventry gives young people a voice in the community
Youth of Coventry wants "to make Coventry a safer place for the youth of today and the youth of tomorrow." Those are the words of Randall Walker, public relations officer for the group.
As a 17-year-old who frequents Coventry Village often, he knows firsthand the impact of recent crime and safety issues, as well as the new special curfew ordinance. He does not want problem-solving that affects him and his peers left up to adults. "We aren’t tools to be used to push agendas," Walker told the Cleveland Heights City Council, after a group protested the alleged racism of the curfew law before the July 18 meeting.
Youth of Coventry has two main goals, according to Adin Colie, age 20, the group’s cochair. They are to communicate information and ideas between the kids and local officials, such as city council, and to represent the "nondestructive" local youth with a voice in the community.
Colie thinks the group—there are 14 active members, but they have many more supporters—is already starting to make a difference. He cited the new curfew ordinance, which bans unaccompanied minors, without legitimate reasons for being on the street, from the Coventry Village and Cedar Lee business districts after 6 p.m. as a major action in response to growing problems of crime and flash mobs in the area. "We had an essential part in that," he said.
The organization that became Youth of Coventry started to take shape a few hours after the disruption at the Coventry Street Fair on June 26. John Nelson, 23, was sitting at home feeling "sick and tired of the way that kids are acting in this day and age" when he started talking to his friend John Waltrip, 20. "We need to get something concrete going," Nelson said.
On June 27, a group of young people appeared at the meeting of the Cleveland Heights Council Committee of the Whole to present council with legislation amending the curfew law to prohibit all unaccompanied minors from public spaces in Cleveland Heights after 9 p.m., and announced their intentions to appear at every subsequent council meeting until their concerns were addressed.
"We just want to have our Coventry back," Nelson said. "We want our peace back in our P.E.A.C.E. Park." Youth of Coventry was born.
After Mayor Edward Kelley met them outside to tell them that council was considering a similar curfew amendment—one that would eventually become the new special curfew ordinance—the youth found a receptive audience inside the meeting room.
"I think it’s great that you came," said Council Member Bonita Caplan "It’s really nice to know that you’re supportive of this." Youth of Coventry then spent more than 30 minutes meeting with Mayor Kelley and Cleveland Heights Police Chief Jeffrey Robertson to brainstorm ways to make the community safer for young people.
"They’re a breath of fresh air," Kelley said, adding that he would not be surprised to see some members of the group become council members themselves. "They’re our future."
Caplan also met privately with members of the group after Nelson offered to teach city officials how to use social media in a more positive way. He suggested that, as a government body, the city might ask Facebook to take down events such as flash mob gatherings that would be detrimental to the community. "We didn’t know that," Caplan said. "I’ve learned a lot."
Adin Colie said that council has been receptive to the group’s ideas, and that city officials expressed their appreciation for the young people’s participation. "We’ve got a great future together with the Youth of Coventry." Kelley said.
In addition, Caplan said she has been trying to help the group grow and make themselves a sustainable organization. Youth of Coventry has been very appreciative of their city leaders’ time. "We love you guys," Nelson told council at the July 18 meeting.
At another meeting, Nelson sat down with Big Fun owner, Steve Presser, to share his concerns and exchange perspectives following the decision to cancel the second Coventry Street Fair.
While most of the kids are from the Cleveland Heights community, the group’s impact has not been limited to a single city. Members of Youth of Coventry have talked with Cuyahoga County Councilman Pernel Jones and Sheriff Bob Reid. In addition, Nelson and Colie said parents from several other Northeast Ohio cities have thanked them for the group’s actions and asked about their efforts in Cleveland Heights.
Not everyone has been supportive of Youth of Coventry’s message, but Walker thinks the problem is a lack of information. "A lot of people are misinformed," he said. For example, group member Dominique Davis told council at the July 5 meeting (when the exceptions to the curfew law were expanded) that she had been upset about the ordinance until she learned exactly what the ordinance said and the rationale behind it.
"The issue is that a lot of people just don’t know the full extent of what’s going on," Walker said. "If they do, they’ll be with us."
One of the most passionate issues for Youth of Coventry is the perceived racism in the new curfew ordinance. After the Imperial Women’s protest against this alleged bias, in front of city hall on July 18, Walker, who is black, said the protest’s leader, Kathy Wray Coleman, "thinks she’s speaking for the black kids when . . . she’s not."
"I don’t see any evidence of racial discrimination," Colie told council after the protest. Colie then invited any young people who thought the law was racist to join Youth of Coventry so they could share their perspectives.
Tyson Russell, 21—currently the oldest member of the group—echoed Colie’s philosophy of inclusiveness. "We’re open to suggestions," he said. "We’re open to any youth who want to stand up and speak."
Nelson and Waltrip are no longer part of Youth of Coventry, but the group they created plans to stick around for a while. Walker said he hopes to have them registered as a 501(c)(3) organization—a process Caplan has helped advise them about—within the next three months.
Walker also said that he wants to expand Youth of Coventry beyond Cleveland Heights, either by bringing young people from other cities into the group or by setting up a network of similar organizations throughout the county.
Russell, who was elected treasurer of the group even though it has no funds yet, said the organization’s officers are in place so that, "when we get big, we’ll be ready."
"We plan to be around as long as we are needed," Walker said, adding, "We feel like we are definitely needed."
Lewis Pollis is a lifelong Cleveland Heights resident and a graduate of Heights High. He is an Observer intern and a sophomore at Brown University. Read more on his blog: WahooBlues.com.