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Forum gives Newark’s youth their own platform

By Starla Muhammad -Managing Editor- | Last updated: Oct 20, 2017 - 9:31:44 PM

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Student Minister Ishmael Muhammad (inset) speaks at youth forum themed, “Are You Ready?” (Above) Youth panelists and moderator during event at North Central High School in Newark. Photos: Andrea Muhammad

NEWARK—Youth oftentimes struggle to find a positive outlet to express their concerns and frustrations or even share their ideas and solutions for issues that concern them.

However, under the leadership of the city’s progressive and grassroots Mayor Ras Baraka, this bustling metropolis dubbed “Brick City” and “New Ark” is providing an area and avenue for youth to express themselves, work toward solutions to important community issues, while also giving young people an opportunity to develop into leaders and change agents.

On Oct. 14 North Central High School was the hub for an afternoon dedicated to, for and about young people at Youth Speak Out, organized and sponsored by the Mayor’s Office of International Relations and Diaspora Affairs and Newark Youth Ambassador’s program.  

The event took place during the 22nd anniversary observation of the Million Man March and Holy Day of Atonement commemorated in Newark this year.

The youth forum, themed “Are You Ready?” was a platform for young people to speak out about issues and solutions explained Shakira McKnight Muhammad, 24, former Newark youth ambassador and a current advisor for the program. She served as emcee during the Saturday event.

The day included musical and spoken word performances, informative and inspirational presentations and speakers as well as a youth-led panel discussion with topics that included: the effect, influence and role of music and social media, the role and responsibility of young people in their communities, and what changes they would like to implement in Newark’s school system.

Youth in audience listen to program.

Shakira McKnight Muhammad (left) is an advisor to the youth ambassador’s program and Alexis Trusty (right) chairs the program. Photo: Starla Muhammad

“Are we ready as young people for what is coming in the city of Newark and what is coming in the world? Are we ready to be the transformation of the world? We can be that change, we can resolve the issues that are going on and we need to be involved,” Shakira Muhammad stated enthusiastically during opening remarks. 

The panel discussion was a highlight of the day where participants shared practical and at times, blunt advice and views to the audience of young people as well as adults particularly when it came to areas of how art and music has wielded such a powerful influence on the psyche of their peers.

“Is art being used as a weapon for us or against us?” moderator Alexandra Bernard-Simmons, entrepreneur and motivational speaker asked panelists to jump start the discussion. The consensus was that though there are positive expressions and messages conveyed by some artists in music, visual art and other realms, the aim and purpose of what is being presented is important.

Artists Sarae and India are sisters and performed during the Youth Speak Out event at North Central High School in Newark on Oct. 14. In this picture the duo India,10 (far left) and Sarae, 11 (far right) stand with their mother TeoLinda (second from left) and KhalladaF. Mita (second from right) daughter of Minister Louis Farrakhan and Mother Khadijah Farrakhan. Photo: Starla Muhammad

“To me, I’m looking at the music industry,” said Josiah Paul, a student at Rutgers North majoring in theater and political science.

“We know that there are a lot of artists out in music that talk a lot of vulgar language so when you hear this topic, we want you to relate it to ‘how’s it being against you’? Mr. Paul said to the audience. “If you’re listening to a lot of trap music and it’s like music that is very vulgar ... it can have some type of effect on you. I want you to think about that, how does that effect you or how does it help you?” he asked.

Music can be used for therapeutic purposes but it can also be used as a form of hypnosis, the substance of lyrical content may not be understood by a child, explained Dennis Hickerson-Breedon, Chief of Staff for the Newark Law Department. “So, when you hear these cadences like ‘row, row, row your boat’ it’s easy for a kid to catch on to that. But it’s also easy to do that in a rap lyric, ‘my chick is bad an bougie, cookin’ up dope with an Uzi,’ The cadence of that is just like a nursery rhyme. …You walk down the street and you can say these things subconsciously without really wanting to,” said Mr. Hickerson-Breedon.

Another hot topic of discussion the panel addressed was the impact and influence of social media on and in the lives of young people.

Jennifer Beady, a blogger said she thinks 60 percent of social media taints and puts the wrong images, priorities and mindsets out there for young people. “Social media is also opening up a lot of doors that would not have been open. I make a career out of blogging, that didn’t exist 20 years ago,” she said. But the part that is negative is concerning, she explained.

“Social media pressures you to use drugs, alter your body, hair and skin complexion, everything. Anything that you have is wrong. Social media tells you it’s wrong …social media really breaks down self-image, self-ego and self-worth and that’s something that I don’t know how we can get control of,” said Ms. Beady.

After the panel discussion which was well received, Jesse Muhammad, a blogger, motivational speaker that also coordinates and manages the Twitter, Facebook and Instagram accounts for the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan presented on how young people can parlay their knowledge of social media into business and money-making opportunities.

Jesse Muhammad, social media strategist, motivational speaker and member of the Nation of Islam presents during forum.
Student Minister Ishmael Muhammad, national assistant to Min. Farrakhan also shared words of encouragement to the young attendees and spoke to them about cultivating their relationship with God that is within each and every one of them, which will help each and every one of them find their purpose.

“The greatest thing that you could acquire is knowledge that allows you to discover who you are and your purpose in life. That’s when we have the greatest joy and the greatest happiness and that’s when you’re truly blessed as a human being is when you discover your purpose in life,” said Student Min. Ishmael Muhammad. 

Alexis Trusty is youth coordinator for Mayor Baraka and chairs the Newark Youth Ambassador’s program. Ms. Trusty said she and Mayor Baraka see the value and importance in training young people to be positive and upstanding leaders in Newark and giving them a platform to express themselves and talk about issues that concern them. There is even a youth office located in city hall. 

The program’s goal is to really develop young people into global ambassadors, Ms. Trusty told The Final Call. Each of the city’s five wards have one youth ambassador, five team members that work with them and an advisor. Youth ambassadors must be high school age but there are some team members that are elementary school age, she explained. “One of the things that is key and important is giving them an opportunity to be at the table with the council, with the directors of the city. With some of the things they’re doing around here, they have the opportunity to play the part in the changes that’s happening throughout the city,” said Ms. Trusty. In the program, youth also are taught leadership skills and how city government functions. 

Essence Moore, 15, an entrepreneur and author who read excerpts from one of her books during the program said the Youth Speak Out forum was important.

“I think that it is important that the youth are acknowledged as human beings. That’s exactly what we are. We have flaws, we have imperfections but we have minds as well and we think for ourselves. Events like this really allow us to embrace that and instill in others that we have ideas and we have things we want to accomplish, we have people we want to inspire and that’s why we’re doing it,” she explained.

The Speak Out Youth forum was coordinated by members of the Newark Youth Ambassadors program and the office of Mayor Ras Baraka. Photo: Starla Muhammad

Mayor Baraka, first ran for mayor years ago at the age of 24, told The Final Call that “it is a science” when asked what is it that inspires him to give young people in Newark an outlet and opportunity for training and development. 

“You know I’m not going to be here forever. If we are interested in having a future, we have to prepare our young people for that and they have to be able to stand on their own,” said the 47-year-old mayor.

“So, our job is to just give them the resources and the scaffolding they need to perform and I think that when you do that, they always step up to the plate and give you more than what you even imagined. They asked could they put this together, we just helped to facilitate it and make sure that it was good and everything that happened here was of their work and I’m very proud of them.”

For more information about Newark Youth Ambassadors, visit or call the Newark Youth Ambassadors Office (973)277-8364.