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Many Texas Southern Tigers and Houston-area teens filled the auditorium of the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs for a -more than touching- presentation focusing on youth drug prevention. Between the passionate speakers and the heart-rending film, there is no doubt that the audience received more than any fair expectations.

 

Dr. Sharlette A . Kellum- Gilbert of the Administration of Justice Department at TSU was inspired to host this event for the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs. Dr. Kellum-Gilbert believes that “youth in 2017 are in need of guidance.” Before introducing the speakers of the evening, she exclaimed that a major component that inspired the event was to “help save lives.” She believes, “if youth had guidance, supervision, love, and care, many problems would be dismissed.” Her stern welcome and introduction largely set the tone for the evening.

DEA Special Agent Sherod Jones began his speech following Dr. Kellum- Gilbert by detailing some of his thirty-two years of experience in law enforcement, with 17 being in Houston. Jones offered the audience great insight on how drugs have affected our communities over time. Specifically, while speaking about heroin, Jones claimed “that wasn’t a drug people bragged about, that was a drug people were ashamed of.” Since the earlier days in his career he says, heroin is “popular now.” He continued sadly “ I have been around long enough for the drug to become popular.” Jones also discussed some statistics to add perspective to his discourse.  He stated, “Since 2008 drug overdoses have been the increasing cause of accidental deaths in the United States annually, eclipsing vehicle fatalities” In other words, more people are dying from drug overdoses than car accidents. The portrait of the increase in drug abuse was clearly illustrated by this seasoned law enforcer.

Such an illustration lead to the featured film Chasing the Dragon: The Life of an opiate addict. The screening portrayed the disturbing reality of those who have had the unfortunate experience of being addicted to opiates.

Opiates/Opioids – drugs (such as heroin) derived from compounds found in the opium poppy plant, or synthetic drugs (such as prescription painkillers) that contain substances that mimic these compounds. These terms are often used interchangeably. (https://www.dea.gov/media/OPA-CTD%20Booklet06.pdf)

The central theme of the film were illustrations of how all the previous drug addicts were once addicted to a “gateway” drug. That is, the once opiate addicts were also addicted to a different substance before they became addicted to opiates. For example, two of the previous addicts began smoking marijuana at the age of eleven, eventually became addicted to opiates. The film precisely served its purpose of putting a face on “why drugs are not a wise choice.”

Following the film were three panelists whom experienced “hard” times as a juvenile. Two of the panelist, David P (18) and Emmanuel G (23), had experiences with drugs- one as primarily a seller and the latter as an abuser. The third panelist, LaKathryn J (26), had issues more related to anger and violence, which landed her in many troubled situations-like fighting. All three panelists shared heart-wrenching stories that surely will remain in the minds and hearts of the audience. David’s story appeared to be the one of most life changing. While smoking, drinking, doing drugs, and playing with a gun in his living room- he accidently sent a bullet flying into his neighbor’s apartment and killed their six year old son. Unfortunately, the bullet went through the wall after the accidental gun shot and pierced the child in the neck, which lead to the young boy bleeding to death. David was destined to spend five years in prison; however, the young child’s family came to court and forgave him- leading the judge to reduce the sentence to one year in jail. While in jail, David has claimed to have developed a relationship with Jesus Christ. Essentially, David, Emmanuel, and LaKathryn testimonies were nothing short of touching.

Ensuing the panel of three was Juvenile Justice Attorney Stephanie Smith Ledesma who moved the room with her stark words. She shared that an area that she focuses on in her field is the disproportionality of systems. “African American children represent 17% of the population in the U.S; however, they represent 31% of all juvenile arrests,” she boldly exclaimed to the audience. The statistics presented by Attorney Ledesma strongly suggests that African- American youth are much more likely:  to be accused of juvenile delinquent behavior; much more likely to be determined to have committed that juvenile delinquent behavior or to be in need of supervision (CHINS); much harsher punished for this alleged juvenile delinquent behavior; and much more likely to be confined for longer periods of time than their white counterparts. Attorney Ledesma also stated that “more than 130,000 children, ages 10-17, will touch the juvenile justice system in the state of Texas alone this year.” If these prediction are accurate, the African American community must be alerted to and vigilant against   a system that “has a seat available” for their young ones if they choose to make unwise decisions. Attorney Ledesma’s sound advice to our youth is “knowledge is power and it’s as simple as that.” She believes that African American youth have the ability, have the duty and have the opportunity to choose education and positive engagement in their communities over the negative lure of “fast money”, which can often lead to soul-sacrificing activities. “If our children are looking for a role model, let it be someone who brings positivity; if our children are looking for safe haven, let them choose family members, neighbors, community leaders, agencies and organizations that will lift them up, and show them their worth, not tear them down; if our children are looking for a future, she challenges them to find a college, and then a medical school, a law school, a business school, that has a ‘seat with their names on it”.  “Be the future and the leaders, that heal our communities and that restore the culture and the respect of our African American people.  Attorney  Ledesma’s discourse is backed with twenty; many years as a faculty member of the National Institute of Trial Advocacy, where she travels the nations educating and training attorneys on best practices when litigating cases; years of service as a Board Member of the National Association of Counsel for Children; years as a member of the Texas Supreme Court Collaborative Counsel on Youth, Children and Families;  years of service as a member of the State Bar of Texas Committee on Child Abuse and Child Neglect; and years of services as a Law School Professor and Director of Experiential Learning at Texas Southern University, Thurgood Marshall School of Law.

 

Michelle Carey-Redic offered many sound words to the audience about minorities having confidence in not being ashamed of seeking counseling. She believes many African-Americans and Hispanics believe counseling is only worthy of disdain. She stated, “it’s ok to seek help, it doesn’t mean you’re crazy-it just means you’re taking control of your mental health.” Unfortunately, too many minorities do hold a negative opinion about seeking help. Ms. Carey-Redic believes this relates to both physical and mental health in our communities. Her experience is seven years in private practice, and has worked with addicts and alcoholics for thirteen years.

Following the discussion about mental health was a performance by Houston rapper Renald “Ren” Moore. His performance amped up the audience after a evening of visiting many serious topics. Moore claimed that his number was a “love song” for Texas Southern University because “the school gets a lot of negative press.” His performance was nothing short of spectacular. This past December, Moore graduated valedictorian from Texas Southern University.

The evening was concluded with a presentation of congressional recognition from 18th district Congress representative Sheela Jackson Lee by Dr. Sharlette A. Kellum-Gilbert. This recognition represents respect, admiration, and commendation of the United States Congress.

By: Lorenzo Tolbert

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