This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: When you think of someone responsible for starting a community outreach program, public speak out sessions with fire fighters, police chiefs, city officials, superintendents and youth engagement events, a seasoned campaign worker with years of invaluable experience is likely to come to mind.
But in this case, the instigator is 17 years old.
Jaqueline (Jami) Cox, a rising senior at Cardinal Ritter College Prep High School, has done all the above. Following the fatal shooting of a middle-school classmate late in 2009, and the devastating effect it had on the community, Cox decided something had to be done.
“I wrote a letter to University City Mayor Shelley Welsch,” said Cox, in an interview with the Beacon. “The youth in the community didn’t have a voice, and I just felt like we weren’t being heard.”
Much to her surprise, Cox heard from Welsch quickly, as she expressed interest in taking this to the next level.
“I was immediately impressed she wanted to do something and came and tried to get input from others,” said Welsch. “She had the commitment to try and get something going in the community.”
Welsch invited Cox, along with her mother and a few friends, to the office to discuss what they thought were the main issues, the things that needed to be ironed out in the community.
This led to the birth of the University City Youth Society (UCYS).
The society, founded by then 15-year-old Cox, had one simple goal: to engage youth in the University City area with community activities and services.
The first event, with just a few youths in attendance, was a speak-out in January 2010. Held at the community center in University City, the event brought fire fighters, police chiefs, city officials, school superintendents and the teens to remember the life of the boy who had lost his life as well as policemen killed in the line of duty.
“It was called New Year, New Start,” said Cox. “We had the young boy’s mother come out to speak to us and also the mayor.”
Afterward, tables were arranged so youth could meet up with adults, teachers, city officials and discuss the problems they saw in their communities.
“We tried to get a good mix of people at each table, adults and youth,” said Cox.
Following the success of the speak-out, UCYS organized a local basketball tournament in the winter with the aim of keeping youth off the streets through these colder months.
“When it’s cold outside there’s nothing much for people to do and that’s when bad things start to happen,” said Cox.
The original goal was to have six teams, but 12 ended up participating.
“It was a hectic few days!” Cox said. “We went around to local restaurants in the Loop and asked for donations, even local supermarkets who donated water. Our mission statement was ‘for youth, by youth, kids doing stuff for other kids’.”
Cox was also responsible for heading a coordinated donation drive at three different schools across the St. Louis region. Gathering toiletries and home care items, Cox and other UCYS members were able to raise a significant number of items to give to the St. Patrick's Center for the homeless.
The UCYS is also participates in the annual University City carnival, hosting a stall where youth can come and chill.
“We try and find fun activities for them to do while they are there,” said Cox. “You see, a lot of kids go to the carnival but don’t have the money to go on all the rides, but they still want to be there. That’s how trouble gets started. So we had a water balloon throwing contest, lemonade cart, played music; just somewhere where they could come and chill.”
Cox displayed a willingness to support others and enact proactive change from an even younger age.
“She was president of the student council in elementary school when they decided they were going to stop the yearly Halloween parade,” said Jackie Brooks, Jami’s mother. “Concerned about the incoming students, rather than complain, she went out to get a petition, setting up a meeting with the principal. She went in with an alternative resolution: If we can’t have it during school hours, why not make it an after school event?”
The principal agreed, and they did. Cox was only 12 years old.
Issues in the community
Cox says that the problem now is not so much gang violence, which has died down, but more with bridging the perceived gap between adults and youth.
Cox believes one of the biggest problems lies in trust and responsibility. The array of curfews -- not being out of your house past 1 a.m., or in the Loop past 10:30 p.m. or without an adult at the Galleria past 3 p.m. -- all reinforce this issue.
“We’re always fighting the teen image, said Cox. “The rowdy, lazy and disruptive teen; store owners don’t want us in there, they say we don’t buy anything and cause all their paying customers to leave.”
Mayor Welsch agrees though she suggests that these issues are not necessarily new.
“Throughout history there’s always been this divide, adults are sometimes fearful of younger people’s different outlook toward life,” said Welsch. “Friends of mine get angry when they see youngsters wearing drooping pants, they’re just nervous about them making the wrong decisions.”
The University City Council has yet to act on a bill to help bridge the age gap. If passed, a Commission on Youth Issues would try to set up a more fluid line of communication between adult and youth, tackling some of these perceived issues in the community.
Cox is also quick to note that the ball rolls both ways; the youth also play a role in transforming society. She says that many incoming freshmen are trapped in a mindset of having no ability to make changes and so make no effort to engage with these issues.
“The problem is they have no drive anymore, you look at all the after-school classes, art classes, they’re empty, “said Cox. “Kids are tired of being told how bad they are, what they can and can’t do, not being trusted to go to a mall.”
After focusing more on her studies in her junior year, Cox is looking to re-engage and target middle schools, hoping to instill a sense of responsibility in some of the younger students.
“Young people need to change but the adults need give them the space to maneuver,” said Cox. “Kids emulate other kids. That’s what I’m trying to show through this project. We can do something positive instead of just sitting around.”