By Pamela Cyran
She witnessed her mother get hit by her father for the first time. It is a memory she will never forget.“My eyes saw a hand, my heart felt a thump,” Stephanie Santiago of Somerville said in a poetic recitation at Late Night with Teen Empowerment, Somerville’s 7th annual peace conference.
The 18-year-old youth shared the story of when she was younger, and was paralyzed with fear over the domestic violence occurring in her home.
“My eyes water, but my body does still not move,” said Santiago. “Is this what love turns into after so many years?”
The peace conference held April 6, 2013, was the kick-start to what will now be known as Peace Month. Lasting through April, the month evolved from what had been a single day event. Sponsored by Somerville’s Center for Teen Empowerment, Peace Month is a time when different organizations come together to host several events for the city’s youth.
The Center for Teen Empowerment is an organization with a mission to empower youth and promote social change. It hires youth ages 14 to 21 to plan and promote community events and to raise awareness of community issues. It has multiple locations, two in Roxbury, one in Dorchester, one in Somerville, and one out-of-state in Rochester, NY.
Director of External Relations Stephanie Berkowitz calls the youth “social change agents.” According to her, the city of Somerville struggles with violence, bullying, substance abuse, and especially the youth/police relationship.
“What are the strengths youth have? What are their talents?” said 36-year-old Berkowitz of Brookline. “We believe they could be the solution to those problems.”
Currently, the Somerville center currently employs ten youth organizers that started in the fall for a one-year term, and hired an additional 16 youth associates for an 8-week term specifically for the peace conference.
Santiago, who is a youth organizer, said a friend introduced her to the center and she “fell in love” with it.
“Not all of us have a voice, they actually gave me a voice…the power and adrenaline to speak,” said Santiago with a lot of enthusiasm. “Teens that have worse problems than me, they need that.”
Santiago’s story of domestic violence had a bittersweet ending.
“Daddy stop!” shouted Santiago as she retold the memory of that night. Her mother finally defended herself, her eyes said, “enough is enough.” Santiago heard in her ear her mother’s voice, “it’s all OK now.”
Santiago said the message is to make people aware that they can stand up for themselves. She said the center gives her the drive to succeed.
“I wasn’t listened to before coming here, maybe I didn’t say it in the right way, but they teach you how to say it,” said Santiago, who will be studying international business at Suffolk University in the fall.
Santiago is not alone, and her story is not uncommon. Youth in Somerville are learning to stand up for themselves and bring peace to the community, said Berkowitz.
Iesha Guerrier is a 16-year-old youth associate. She performed spoken words titled “Blooming Warrior” at Late Night with Teen Empowerment. Guerrier said her name represents just that.
Loud, ghetto, fat, gorilla, worthless…the names pushed Guerrier to think she was cursed.
“Why me, Lord? Why freaking me?” Guerrier shouted during her performance at the peace conference.
Guerrier says people see her like that without getting to her, but she won’t change to be who they want her to be.
“You can be my friend or not, but I won’t change who I am,” said Guerrier.
“But who am I? I’m a blooming warrior,” were the last words of her performance. The boisterous crowd chanted her name.
Guerrier knows she has a lot more growing up to do, but said The Center for Teen Empowerment brought her to where she is today.
Teddy Thelemaque, a 16-year-old youth organizer, said what he learns from the center he brings to school.
“I’m more organized with Teen Empowerment,” said Thelemaque. “They teach you how to be a better person.”
Jamie Lederer, program director, works closely with the city to help move the program forward. The center is a part of the Youth Worker Network, where more than 20 organizations come together to collaborate on youth issues and how to address them.
One method the center uses is through Youth/Police Dialogues. Youth and police come together to talk and break down the stereotypes they have for one another.
“We didn’t give them a voice, we helped them find one,” said Lederer about the youth of Somerville. “They have a voice, they have the right to be heard,”
Throughout Peace Month, the youth will meet with the Somerville Police Department for more Youth/Police Dialogues.
Berkowitz said the problem lies within the way youth and police perceive each other.
“Both look at each other as one entity,” said “It influences their reactions and it escalates into one youth getting an unnecessary record and the police not getting information on the crime they were investigating in the first place.”
Similarly, the youth will meet with Somerville Aldermen for Youth/Alderman Dialogues to discuss city issues and solutions.
“We truly believe they can, and they do, make an important change in their communities,” said Berkowitz.
Duvinson Norestant, who played the host of Late Night with Teen Empowerment, said the center helped change is life of crime to a life of community service. At 21-years-old, Norestant is now looking for ways to give back to the community by helping others.
“Youth have a voice, they just need to learn how to use it,” said Norestant.
At the peace conference, his message was clear.
“Every youth makes a mistake, but you have to have the desire to get back up, and it’s never to late to get back up,” said Norestant.
Rounding out Somerville’s Peace Month, the Armory is hosting the Villens’ All-Out Bash! The event takes place Friday April 26, 5 – 10 p.m. at the Arts at the Armory, 191 Highland Ave.