Sadly, there is very little solutions-oriented media coverage of youth violence. That is to say tabloids and five o’clock news hacks highlight blood and violence to no end, while more cultivated outlets like the Boston Globe stop short of drawing direct links between the entities which poison and oppress wounded communities and the actual victims of systemic neglect. Meanwhile, poverty and trauma endure, and income inequality runs rampant.
All too often, the public conversation about possible solutions is reduced to passing interviews with scripted reverends and a narrow cast of community power brokers. If there’s any hope, it’s with a number of organizations working at the roots of broad systemic problems. One such local nonprofit with whom DigBoston has collaborated through the years is Press Pass TV, which trains young people to fill voids in the media with their own voices and narratives.
On the hunch that those who work on the front lines know more than bureaucrats and bean counters, we’ve dedicated this week’s news well to our conversation with Hawah Kasat, who is the executive director of the intensive and transformative youth-building nonprofit One Common Unity in Washington D.C. With Press Pass TV hosting the Boston premiere of Fly By Light—his inspirational and immersive new documentary project with director Ellie Walton—this coming Monday, we asked Hawah for his unique perspective on the seemingly unbreakable cycle of violence, both in Boston and beyond.
All images via Fly By Light
Tell us about what’s happening in D.C.
There’s a lot of struggle and turmoil. The schools we work in, 90 percent of the kids are eating free or reduced price lunches. Gun violence has been a statistical nightmare. It’s been a real challenge. All of the poverty and homelessness has created a bad situation for young people who don’t have places to go. In [Fly By Light] you see that struggle of being homeless, of not having an ID, and of trying to stay warm and get food. And we wonder why there’s so much violence in the streets.
What do you do with your program that’s different?
As much good as we try to do, we have to be real and recognize that we’re still a small grassroots nonprofit—we don’t have housing, we don’t have a place for a kid to go if they’re homeless. We’re providing after school programming, we do programming on weekends, we take kids into the mountains, but we don’t have social services. So we’re struggling with our own limits and capacities in trying to make up for the immense disparity in wealth.
Based on your experience, what’s missing from the conversation about problems with our youth and youth violence?
There’s a big debate that has to be had around the nonprofit industrial complex. The same nonprofits are fighting for the same crumbs on the table. We’re all out there applying for the same [$10,000] and $20,000 grants to provide services that really are a bigger institutional problem than we really have the capacity to fix. It requires a serious restructuring in how wealth is distributed through this country. There are conversations happening around police brutality, but I think we have to always come back to the core issue, which is poverty. You can’t expect a kid to learn in school if they’re not eating breakfast.
What problems are common from city to city, and what universal solutions are there, if any?
I think there’s a lot of overlap. I’ve been around this nation working, and teaching, and speaking in schools, and the basic underlying issues remain the same. It’s a question of access, a lack of access, a lack of family structure, not enough role models at home. There’s a disconnect too with what young people are spending their time doing. Without creative constructive time, we’re just going to keep losing young people in the cracks. These are the bigger questions in these cities where you see high dropout and suicide rates and crazy amounts of bullying—and it’s spread out in the suburbs now too.
The real conversation is that we spend so much time valuing and prioritizing standardized testing, and we’re losing so much opportunity to help young people find meaning in their lives. There’s so much of an education that’s missing, and that’s addressing the social and emotional literacy of a child.
What’s it like to hear a 17-year-old say that they have never experienced love, as one of the young people says in your film?
The movie is important because the images allow someone to have a real narrative beyond just the words. These people have real lives, and you can’t quantify this stuff … Violence is a learned behavior, and we have to be honest about that. Violence is something people are more and more desensitized to because of media, because of music, because of what we read, because of what we see and watch. But peace, and caring, and empathy—these things can also be learned. I think it’s really important that we stress that.
We can’t judge the scale of a problem. Our at-risk kids aren’t just the ones living in poverty—they’re also kids whose parents work on Wall Street making six or seven figures, and their parents are nowhere to be found. I think those kids are at risk as well.
What’s it like to put the work you do into a film, and to have that film finally finished after so many years?
You can’t necessarily put the work of reclaiming lives and souls into words … [Fly By Light] was four years in the making. I’m masquerading as a nonprofit director, but I’m an artist at heart, and as an artist, there’s a level of fulfillment and a sense of closure. The fact that we have [these stories] now in this immortalized form is kind of crazy. A lot of blood, sweat, and tears went into this project.
How are you going to go about spreading this?
We want to have a community dialogue and discussion, and to bring other groups that are doing similar work in [other] cities to the table. We want to be proactive about collaborating, and we want to work on helping to inspire a national conversation around solutions. I understand that we’re talking about bigger systemic issues—and this ultimately is still a small program—but what I hope is that this movie generates a buzz, and instigates a conversation about the need for a deep shift in how our schools are operating and how these young people are learning.
Join Hawah and Press Pass TV Co-Director Dr. Cara Lisa Berg Powers on Monday, Nov 9, from 6 to 9 pm at City Year for a screening of Fly By Light with a Q&A to follow. 287 Columbus Avenue, Boston. RSVP at flybylightboston.eventbrite.com.
A Queens, NY native who came to New England in 2004 to earn his MA in journalism at Boston University, Chris Faraone is the editor and co-publisher of DigBoston and a co-founder of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. He has published several books including 99 Nights with the 99 Percent, and has written liner notes for hip-hop gods including Cypress Hill, Pete Rock, Nas, and various members of the Wu-Tang Clan.