Greensboro collects feedback at sparse teen forums

by Eric Ginsburg

Sixty folding chairs, a table full of snacks and a cooler with Capri Suns awaited teenagers at the city of Greensboro’s first in a series of teen forums last week. At the peak, about 20 people from the Claremont Courts neighborhood fidgeted in their seats, some listening to Human Relations Director Love Crossling and many whispering before ducking out before the hour-long meeting hit the halfway mark.

Most of the neighborhood kids in attendance said they aren’t teenagers yet — many are in middle school and a few haven’t reached fifth grade. Still, some of them stayed until the end — nine in total — to offer feedback about how the city can improve services for and relationships with teens.

At the second of six scheduled forums, held Monday at the Caldcleugh Multicultural Center next to Smith Homes, the set-up was different. A youth panel discussion and breakout groups replaced the city-led format where ideas were listed on a giant notepad. The city partnered with the National Conference for Community and Justice’s Anytown program ensuring participation from area high schoolers, but this time, no neighborhood teenagers attended.

Two younger kids who live nearby, the older of whom said he is 12, joined the meeting as it was winding down.

City spokesperson Donnie Turlington said after the first meeting that while the city didn’t want to discount the feedback from attendees, staff are aware that it is a struggle to reach teenagers who may not be willing to talk to the city or come to a forum.

“I think that’s the nut that’s going to be toughest to crack in this whole scenario,” Turlington said. “While the strategy is still going to be the same… we’ve got to think about some of the different tactical-level things that we do to entice the older teenagers to come out.”

The forums come on the heels of Greensboro City Council’s emergency meeting to implement a teen curfew on July 3 after a series of incidents downtown that led to a few teenagers being arrested. District 1 Councilwoman Dianne Bellamy-Small, the only one who voted against the curfew, quickly hosted a well-attended teen forum to collect feedback and wanted to see more meetings spread across the city to reach out to teenagers about their opinions and what they need.

Bellamy-Small was the only council member or city council candidate to attend either of the first two teen forums. The curfew, which was set for 90 days, expired earlier this month but as of press time, council was scheduled to discuss it at its regular meeting on Tuesday.

At both forums, Bellamy-Small addressed the young people in attendance at the end of the meeting, offering bus passes at the first to anyone who wanted to attend some of the free events at the 17 Days arts festival and encouraging teenagers at the second to reach out to their friends to continue collecting feedback. Attendees at both events lit up as she spoke to them, especially after she sang a Negro spiritual at the first forum when the group expressed interest in the performing arts.

“I want to respect you as the young adults you are becoming,” Bellamy-Small told almost a dozen Anytown teens. “The city is as much yours as adults.”

Bellamy-Small said that despite low attendance, the forums are an important way to collect feedback and follow up quickly with teenagers. Expressing frustration that she feels other council members don’t genuinely care about teenagers, Bellamy-Small offered a few ideas about increased engagement: inviting teens to tweet @greensborocity, bringing the Greensboro Youth Council and Anytown to the table together and expanding on a youth Lego robotics program held at the McGirt-Horton Library this summer.

The panel of teenagers on Monday dealt with a variety of questions about their sense of belonging in the city and how to improve outreach and services, with most agreeing the best way to communicate with a large number of teenagers is the school system. One panelist noted that including information about forums or events on a scrolling monitor in class would be ideal, given that it’s where students look when they’re bored.

Panelists also repeatedly emphasized that their experiences and opinions aren’t necessarily representative of teenagers in the city, acknowledging their privilege and access to resources — such as cars — and information about programming or opportunities like Anytown. Four of the panelists attend Grimsley High School, one goes to Page High School and another is a student at Greensboro College’s Middle College.

The four remaining feedback sessions will be structured similarly to Monday’s meeting — Anytown students hadn’t completed their training for the first event but will now be on hand to help facilitate and lead future meetings as they did on Monday, Crossling said.

At the second forum, Crossling said that the city knows it needs to find innovative ways to “hear what is needed,” adding in an interview that city staff is considering several approaches in addition to forums. City staff passed out flyers in the neighborhoods around the site of each meeting in the days leading up to the events, she said, adding that some teens seemed reluctant to attend because they weren’t sure their input would be valued.

“Naturally that’s a trust-building process that will have to come with other outreach efforts,” Crossling said. “There are some community member who are already convening young people and they’ve built relationships where [teenagers] already feel safe.”

Crossling suggested that the city may create a way for teenagers to mail in feedback and added that some teenagers have already called her office or sat down with her individually to talk

At the end of the first forum, Bellamy-Small led attendees in a repeat-after-me of the city’s phone number, and drew a few laughs at the second meeting when mixing up the lingo and inviting teens to “twitter, twat, tweet or whatever” at the city.

Ernestine Surgeon, an adult resident and community leader in Claremont Courts who attended the first meeting, said it may be difficult to reach older teens but that they would need to see that they are trusted. Different programming could draw an older crowd too, she said, especially if it focused on jobs and job training that many teenagers sorely need. They also need regular support and role models to help see a path out of poverty, Surgeon said, adding that she’s working with the Claremont Courts Residents Council to assist teenagers by bridging a gap between the community and the school system.

When asked which adults support them, youths at the first forum almost exclusively listed family members and denied having strong relationships with teachers, though a few said they like and trust Surgeon.

The younger kids in Claremont Courts, like their Anytown counterparts, offered a few ideas on the programming they’d like to see created, with some at each meeting saying they intend to continue working to improve their communities.