On July 22nd, more than 100 youths from Pittsburgh's most violent neighborhoods gathered in Market Square for a peace rally.
As the crowd thickened for the event titled "Silence the Violence," a rap boomed on the stereo: "We're from the Hill, stop the violence 'cause it will kill." Banners were strung up across the stage and around the area with messages emphasizing the importance of community and peace.
"We know that each group is dealing with this issue of violence so we wanted to bring all the groups to rally together in one place," says Phil Koch, program director of the Marilyn G. Rabb Foundation's Murals program.
MGR is a Chicago-based organization, with a branch in Lawrenceville, dedicated to helping "overcome social and educational barriers for at-risk youth." In a bid to put an end to violence in Pittsburgh's disadvantaged neighborhoods, several groups have been organized to provide after-school and summer programs that encourage young people to employ their artistic impulses as agents for peace.
Some of the groups that attended the rally included Gwen's Girls, of Point Breeze; Mission Discovery, of the Hill District; Amizade, from Lawrenceville; and Koch's program, Murals.
All groups were represented in a revue that embraced African-American culture, including original poetry, spoken word, and raps by students as a group of drummers sat in front of the stage to lead chants. Students familiar with violence overseas -- Somali refugees from the Amizade program -- did a traditional dance.
Between performances, activist veterans such as former City Councilor and current President of the Coro Center for Civil Liberties, Sala Udin, and Paradise Gray, organizer of One HOOD, took the stage to impart wisdom gathered from their years of experience.
When Gray asked the crowd how many knew somebody who had been murdered, an alarming majority raised their hands.
His response was a call to action and accountability.
"Don't let anybody tell you [that] you are the future. You are the right now," said Gray. "The decisions you make today affect the future. So don't be afraid to make intelligent decisions. Don't be ashamed to be that voice of intelligence in a hard time."
The emcee of the event, a 12-year-old named Fletcher, who was a participant from the Mission Discovery summer camp, said in his spoken word performance, "I'm at an age where I'm finally starting to understand the ways of the world."
The event emphasized the idea that young people can deflect an environment of crime gives them hope that they can be agents of change.
"Become surgeons with your art. Use your art to cut out the cancer within our community," said Udin. "Use your art to heal people, sew them back up, put them back together."