Catholic school students serve as D.C. Youth Mayors, advocate against gun violence
Nov. 8, 2018
Like thousands of their peers, Keron Campbell and J’TA Freeman wake up and go to Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Washington five days a week. But unlike other high school students, they also serve in an elected capacity as D.C. Youth Mayors.
Campbell, who is a senior at Archbishop Carroll High School in Washington, and Freeman, who is a senior at Bishop McNamara High School in Forestville, participated in the Marion Barry Youth Leadership Institute over the summer, which culminates with an election for positions that are designed to be a replica of the D.C. government. Both students had to get 75 signatures in order to run for Youth Mayor, which Freeman said pushed her to go out of her comfort zone to speak to strangers and explain to them what she stood for.
For both Freeman and Campbell, one of the most important issues facing Washington is gun violence. Both of them have friends and family who have been harmed or killed because of gun violence, so finding a way to stop it is personal.
“I don’t like seeing my cousins in caskets, killed innocently,” said Campbell. “…Just seeing that, it moves you to say ‘enough is enough.’”
The two of them recently led a peace walk in Southeast Washington, where they spoke about the issue of gun violence and led a crowd of people down the streets. Though Campbell is interested in a career in politics, he said he knows “you can’t solve everything with laws,” and ending gun violence will require a societal change.
“We have to say, ‘It is not cool to have a gun,’” he said.
Likewise, Freeman said she hoped the walk would empower people to look out for each other, telling their friends to put down their gun or put down drugs, so “we can make a change together.”
Freeman grew up in Southeast Washington and recalled feeling unsafe when she walked through her neighborhood. When she was as young as 13, she said she carried mace and even a knife at times because she was “so afraid I am not going to make it home.” When she would try to go to sleep at night, she could hear gunshots.
“I did not like growing up in that setting,” Freeman said, adding that she is now fighting for an end to gun violence so her seven-year-old brother does not have to do so.
“My fight is for him; it is not really for me,” she said. “I don’t want him to grow up in a world where people are afraid to walk outside or go to school.”
Public education is another issue that is important to Freeman because of her experience growing up in Southeast Washington.
“I am fortunate enough for my parents to be able to afford this education,” she said, referring to Bishop McNamara, but many of her friends in her neighborhood do not have the same opportunity. “It is not fair to the rest of D.C. that they are not receiving a quality education,” she added.
Freeman experienced this firsthand, when she had to leave Bishop McNamara in 10th grade due to a disciplinary matter. She attended her neighborhood public school, and said it was an eye-opening experience. While she had once wanted to go to public school with her friends, “when I went, I was like, ‘it is not safe, I don’t want to be here, they are not preparing me for college,’” she said. She became afraid that if she stayed at that school, she would not reach her full potential.
“I needed to be pushed more, I needed to be challenged more,” she said.
Freeman was grateful that Bishop McNamara accepted her back to the school for 11th grade, but said the transition back was a hard one. When she won this election for D.C. Youth Mayor, she said she believed, “It was a sign from God saying, ‘You are doing great.’”
Robert Van der Waag, Bishop McNamara’s director for Mission Advancement, said everyone at the school is happy “to see how far she’s come since she has been here.”
“She’s gone through a lot since she’s been here. She is very bright and very talented,” he said. “…We are all very proud of her.”
Campbell is also grateful for his experience at his Catholic school, saying that during his time at Archbishop Carroll, “I’ve really grown to the best of my ability. I’ve really become myself…I’ve really felt the presence of God and community.”
Larry Savoy, Carroll’s president, said the school community is proud to have him as Youth Mayor.
“His passion for advocating and supporting his peers is evident here at Carroll,” said Savoy. “This position will give him a bigger platform to reach more students, to empower them to be positive change agents across the city."
During his time as D.C. Youth Mayor, Campbell said he has met people from all different backgrounds – from people who grew up in the wealthy parts of the city to people who grew up in some of the poorest parts, but he knows he is called to love them all because “they are made in the image and likeness of God.”
“God is a loving being that loves everyone,” said Campbell. “Even if we are messed up in some way, He loves us. God commands us to love people where they are. If I want to be Christ-like, I have to do that.”
Campbell said that includes people whom he does not agree with, which he believes is lacking in the current political climate. He says he tries to listen to everyone, and ask, “What can I do to make that better?”
“Meeting people my age who are energetic about life…gives me courage to keep going,” he said.
Campbell hopes to study political science in college, and then continue with a career in politics, although he doesn’t know exactly what that will look like yet.
“I just want to go wherever God leads me,” he said. “I would love to go to Congress and the Capitol…[but] I keep it in His hands. If He wants me to go there; if He wants me to stay at a local level; if I go all the way to the White House, thank God for it.”
Right now, Freeman said she hopes to attend college, join the Peace Corps, and then go to medical school to become a pediatrician. She said her experience of attending the Congressional Black Caucus gave her hope that she could be whatever she wanted to be.
“I’m sitting in a room with these big, corporate people, and they look like me,” she said, noting that she doesn’t often see African American women in positions of power. That experience taught her, “as long as I stay steadfast in faith and I continue to work hard, I can do whatever I want,” she said.
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