If any group of young people today warrants a favorable nickname, like those of their predecessors, surely it is the Youth Council at Empowering Youth, Exploring Justice (EYEJ).
A group committed to action over talk, to addressing and solving the profound problems they and others face every day, this elite wing of Cleveland’s social justice nonprofit may be the region’s own “greatest generation” in the making.
“I think of them as family, as great kids,” said Mai Moore, co-founder of EYEJ and the group’s executive director. “How can I dare complain? With everything they have going on, they still show up. I look up to them.”
Many adults, certainly, could learn a thing or two. These are teenagers who feel not only all the usual pressures of school, work, and family but also a drive, to quote the mission of EYEJ, to foster a more equitable and inclusive world.
As minorities in one of the most segregated regions in the US, they live with toxic stress. They experience racial injustice, sometimes firsthand, and regularly witness tense relationships between police and their communities.
Some of them know what it is to be homeless or live in poverty, or to lack access to vital resources. Some are single parents or students holding down jobs to help their families. Even if they themselves have reliable broadband internet, they likely know somebody who doesn’t, and is struggling as a result.
They, though, aren’t just sitting back and taking it, or observing it. They may not have the ability to solve the world’s problems, but they’re trying to do something about them, brainstorming their own solutions and underscoring the urgency of social injustices by raising and lending their voices to calls for reform.
They’ve held online protests, organized and executed social justice discussion events, and appeared on television. They want to do more than just talk amongst themselves. They want to guarantee that people in power hear them.
“We’re not a group that just sits around and talks,” said Arunima Gupta, a Council member based in Morris County, New Jersey initially attracted to EYEJ by its digital literacy efforts. “We’re a group that takes action. It’s really cool to be a part of that.”
Moved to action
Gupta isn’t alone in living outside Cleveland. Another council member, Richa Kuklani, calls into monthly meetings – most of which take place online, even before the pandemic – from Delaware County, Pennsylvania, outside Philadelphia. Both said they take what they learn and apply it in their home communities.
Even so, the Youth Council is squarely focused on the problems and people of Northeast Ohio. Moved to action by the death of Trayvon Martin and inspired by peers at Plymouth Church in Shaker Heights, Moore established EYEJ in 2013, and has been fighting for the young people of Cleveland ever since, always taking care to listen to and take her cues from them.
Youth Council was one of Moore’s first efforts. Fulfilling the “empowering” half of the EYEJ’s identity, she established a group of about 20 young adults ages 15 to 25 and set about turning them into the change-makers of tomorrow, working with experts to develop curriculum that trains young adults to understand public policy, speak in public, and advocate for themselves. Already the group has appeared in local media, met with federal politicians, and executed successful fundraising campaigns on behalf of causes important to them.
“It has grown and become bigger than anybody ever expected,” Moore said, pointing to the group’s accomplishments since 2013 and EYEJ’s overall growth from an annual budget of $850,000 to a projected $7 million by fiscal 2024. “There have been so many points of impact. We are undervalued in Cleveland.”
Moore “acknowledges that we’re putting in work,” added council member Treyah Gray, a resident of Cleveland. “She’s not afraid to tell the truth.”
Tackling the digital divide
One of the biggest truths Moore and the Youth Council are working to tell today is that of the digital divide, the gulf between those with and without internet access in Cleveland. In some Cleveland neighborhoods, EYEJ has found, as many as 50 percent of homes do not have internet subscriptions. As the COVID-19 pandemic has shifted almost every aspect of life online, notably education and work, the group has made reducing or closing this gap its top priority.
They know firsthand that the free hot-spots and computers provided by schools are helpful but not a long-term solution in homes with multiple children or parents simultaneously conducting work online. They know, anecdotally or firsthand, that children aren’t attending online school or completing work. Moore said she knows students who’ve loitered outside fast-food restaurants just for a few moments of free WiFi, and that every day the divide persists, economic disparities in Northeast Ohio get wider as people fall further and further behind.
This has placed many other important issues on the back burner, even as those issues continue to simmer. Diamond Bottoson, a 17-year-old council member and resident of Garfield Heights, recalled making progress in pre-pandemic talks with police about their relationships with their communities but said the Digital Divide struck them as even more urgent and readily actionable.
“We had some good and really important conversations, and that issue is still very relevant,” Bottoson explained. “But that’s going to take years.”
Informing policy decisions
They’ve been busy on the digital front. In 2020, while the City of Cleveland, Cuyahoga County, and other organizations boosted laptop and hot-spot availability to the public school students in the region, the Youth Council held a virtual protest, compiled a history of the digital divide in Cleveland, and presented testimony and recommendations to the Ohio Senate regarding House Bill 13.
They’ve also contributed research to a Digital Access Map, a significant effort underway across EYEJ. Once completed, this online tool in intended to better inform policy decisions by enabling the public to study the problem for itself in detail, to view block-by-block inset maps of where high-speed internet is both available and affordable, and where it’s been adopted.
Much like the problem of redlining in housing, there’s a strong correlation between internet service and poverty or race, and many pockets without access are close to schools. “It’s clear those communities are minority groups,” Gupta said. “You can just see the difference.”
As hard as they work on behalf of others, EYEJ Youth Council members receive much in return. A few, Moore said, earn stipends or other forms of wages based on need and the extent and nature of their work, and all who’ve engaged with the group have seen their lives transformed for the better.
Whether or not social justice figures into their career plans, most current members – most alums are still working their way through college – now intend to remain active as volunteers. They may not become professional social justice warriors, but they’ll always be experienced amateurs, the nurses, teachers, and engineers on the front lines of the struggle for equality.
“This is the first time I’ve really done something social justice related,” Kuklani said. “It’s a way to try to actually make a change. It’s all virtual right now, but I feel like we’re really doing something.”