Youth Among Those Leading Change in Canton, OH

by Alissa Kiefer

The city of Canton, located in Northeast Ohio, was once a booming industrial city like its neighbor 30 miles north, Akron. Instead of rubber, Canton primarily produced steel and drew in both immigrants and Americans, with job opportunities and promises of economic growth and at one time had a population of over 120,000. Growing up, we were told stories about how important our city was; that we were on the list of the top 10 targets for a nuclear strike due to our mass steel production, and how we were the birthplace of football and the NFL. Now a part of the deteriorating rust belt, Canton is looked at as a place most people want to leave, citing decreased school performance, increased violence and low city morale.

On June 16, 2017, Canton landed itself at spot 20 on the 50 Worst Cities to Live In. This list of cities uses data collected by 24/7 Wall Street, looking at crime rates, poverty level, education attainment and various other factors, to determine how poor the quality of life must be. Canton has also found itself on other lists, including the list compiled by Times Union of America’s 20 Most Dangerous Small Cities, where my hometown came in at number two. Judging a city by its statistics is easy, however living in the city and making a change is what has proven to be difficult.

Disproportionately affected by this declension has been the city’s youth. The declining neighborhoods, lack of viable career paths and an increase in violence has caused young people to turn to gangs for purpose, comradery and safety. While those who join these gangs may feel a sense of safety, they often find themselves on the wrong side of a gun. Gun violence, stemming from gang violence in some, but not all, cases, has been the topic of conversation and also concern, in Canton this year. With multiple students that I walked the halls of McKinley High School, being killed in cold blood, due to drugs, mistaken identity, and gang violence, my fellow alumni and many current Canton City students, have taken to social media to express their concerns about the safety of our city.

An outsider looking in would think that the youth community didn’t care about the problems in our city. However, that’s exactly the opposite. Richie Harper, a Canton McKinley alumnus, current Georgetown University Law Student, community activist and friend, reached out to members of the community, including city councilmen, police officers,community leaders and myself to discuss what we can do together to stop the violence that has shaken us to the core, but also looking to answer the question: how we can provide hope and purpose for our city’s young people?

On June 26, city officials and young people came together at our neighborhood community center to have a discussion: how can we make a change in the city we call home. City officials offered that we must take ownership of our city. Ideas shared included starting social media campaigns, working to create mentoring programs for younger kids and intervention programs for our peers, as well as a youth council for the city and involvement in neighborhood associations. Flaws in the city’s handling of issues related to our youth were discussed as well, with the young people present suggesting our own ideas and solutions.

While change won’t be immediate, it is happening, and it’s going to start with us.
I am so proud to be a part of this change that is happening and I am so excited to see where we can take our city and how we can help our youth. As a student at Ohio University, nearly 160 miles from my home in the Hall of Fame city, I was blind to what was happening in my city, but now, with eyes wide open, I can see the problems and want to be a part of the solution.This is why I chose to get involved and will do as much as I can while still attending school in Athens. This city is what raised me and made me the unique, cultured individual that I am today.

FullSizeRender-1Leaving my city behind, while I moved on to what some might call “bigger and better” things is something I see as selfish, which is why, after graduation this year, I plan to move back home and work harder than ever before on helping the children, my peers and my city, as a whole, succeed. The change to our city isn’t going to be overnight, but if the coalition that formed Monday night, between the young people and city officials, can serve as any indication our future will be bright and collaborative.

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