Education & Youth

Harvey teens take lead on tough dialogue with elected leaders to UPLIFT community

UPLIFT Harvey youth held a forum with south suburban political leadership at Thornton Township High School, Thursday, September 15, to discuss solutions to social issues like abandoned houses, communal spaces, and gun violence in the city.

UPLIFT Harvey program participants curated a dialogue with elected officials at Thornton last Thursday, September 15. Pictured (left to right): Julia Blackwell, Neamat Vhora, AbdulAhad Vhora, William Kling, District Outreach Coordinator for Congresswoman Robin Kelly (13th) Mia Carter, Mayor Chris Clark; Not pictured: Illinois State Senator Napoleon Harris (15th) HWH / Amethyst J. Davis
UPLIFT Harvey program participants curated a dialogue with elected officials at Thornton last Thursday, September 15. Pictured (left to right): Julia Blackwell, Neamat Vhora, AbdulAhad Vhora, William Kling, District Outreach Coordinator for Congresswoman Robin Kelly (13th) Mia Carter, Mayor Chris Clark; Not pictured: Illinois State Senator Napoleon Harris (15th) HWH / Amethyst J. Davis

Two years ago, AbdulAhad Vhora was hanging in his sister’s bedroom when a stray bullet from nearby gunfire pierced the wall right next to him.

It was the second time in three months. Shrapnel flew everywhere, “leaving my sister and I in a traumatized state,” he lamented.

AbdulAhad, now 17, is a member of UPLIFT Harvey, a leadership and advocacy program at Community Economic Development Association of Cook County-Harvey, where he’s calling for a gun amnesty program so people can turn guns into the police without fear of prosecution.

UPLIFT Harvey youth held a talk back with south suburban political leadership at Thornton Township High School, Thursday, September 15 to discuss solutions to pressing social issues in the city.

Students from Thornton, Thornridge, and Thornwood also attended, along with the District 205 Student Board of Education. Guest panelists included Harvey Mayor Chris Clark, Illinois State Senator Napoleon Harris (15th), and Mia Carter, the District Outreach Coordinator for Congresswoman Robin Kelly (13th). Illinois State Representative Will Davis (30th) was invited but did not show.

In 2019, New York-based anti-poverty organization Robin Hood Foundation awarded CEDA $1.5 million to ramp up its programming. That led to several initiatives, including UPLIFT Harvey.

In UPLIFT, participants learn about community development, different levels of government, receive internship placement, and participate in citywide events like the fourth of July parade.

Earlier this year, the youth were compelled to meet with their elected leaders, said CEDA program manager Machelle Anderson.“We set out to do a youth-focused initiative, and we’ve turned a table,” Anderson said. “We’re really youth-led. They’re driving us.”

Harvey native and Homewood Flossmoor High School sophomore Julia Blackwell, 16, voiced concerns over thousands of abandoned properties, proposing some be rehabilitated or repurposed. The teen spent their freshman and sophomore years at Thornton, grew up in a single parent household with substance abuse issues, and was “displaced from Harvey,” she said. This summer, she interned with the city’s finance department.

Neamat Vhora, 15, also left Thornton in favor of Bremen High School, where she’s a sophomore, located six miles away in south suburban Midlothian. “I never had to get my bag checked when walking into the doors and never had to walk through a metal detector,” she said of how different Bremen is from Thornton, which has heightened security measures in response to fighting.

Sitting beside her brother, she bemeanoed a lack of “welcoming spaces” for Harvey youth. While Neamat frequented the Harvey Public Library growing up, she recounted that staff recently kicked out UPLIFT youth before closing hours, making it harder to find spaces to hold planning sessions.

“I only want a place where kids are welcomed and feel safe while being here—where no one is excluded,” Neamat said. “A place where kids have the advantage to watch a movie, play arcade games, [and] get help with their homework,” she added. She requested help finding grants, city staffing, and capital funding for a community center, describing the now-closed Harvey Community Center as less than subpar.

“That wasn’t a community center. That was a building,” Clark told teens of the facility, plagued by black mold and ceiling woes.

The District 205 Student Board of Education sits front row at the UPLIFT Harvey town hall at Thornton. HWH / Amethyst J. Davis
The District 205 Student Board of Education sits front row at the UPLIFT Harvey town hall at Thornton. HWH / Amethyst J. Davis

In August, the City Council recently approved a resolution to construct “six smaller community centers” across Harvey, Clark noted.

What he didn’t mention, however, is that the project also includes police substation capacity.

While the project aims to help build relationships between officers and the public, that presence will likely make some uncomfortable. Younger residents specifically complain Harvey Police Department officers are aggressive, lack accountability, oversight, and the department has not structurally reformed.

The United States Department of Justice investigated the department in 2012, warning structural deficiencies, if not resolved, would lead to possible constitutional rights violations. Federal agents raided the department in 2019.

In November 2021, former internal affairs officer Olivia Cobbins told CBS2 Chicago she was barred from investigating allegations that the current deputy chief punched a handcuffed teen in the chest at Thornton in October 2021.

In the aftermath, Clark fired then-Police Chief John Moseley in an effort to clean up the department. Clark retorted that Cobbins didn’t come to him and identify the source of the corruption, and said she had previously been asked to return to patrol to put more boots on the ground.

Since then, Deputy Chief Cameron Biddings has served as interim police chief while Clark announced a nationwide search for a permanent replacement.

Earlier this year, a federal grand jury indicted former HPD Lieutenant Derrick Muhammad, brother of former mayor Eric J. Kellogg, for extorting local tow companies in exchange for city contracts between 2011 and 2019.

A common refrain within UPLIFT proposals was a call for additional staffing to support these initiatives and synergy between elected leaders to get it done.

"We have so many vacancies that remain unfilled because we can't get qualified and competent staff to come and work," Clark explained.

Thoughts on elected officials’ responses, which touched on s taffing issues, lack of funding, and or institutional constraints, were mixed.

While the teens all agreed that elected officials showed passion and genuine care for their issues, some felt the focus was sometimes misplaced.

“It felt as if it was about him,” Blackwell said of Clark’s responses. Some comments appeared disconnected from the discussion.

But, youth dialogue with leadership is still critical, Blackwell said.“We let the title of people change us, but they’re really the same people that we are,” she told the HWH. “It’s just the occupation [that] distracts us from the human part.”

AbdulAhad, a Thornton senior, was satisfied with officials’ responses, he said. Clark later provided AbdulAhad with the contact information for Harvey police leadership to talk further about gun amnesty.

“The one thing I didn’t want them to do is give them the impressions that they had to suppress their feelings for the sake of someone’s feelings,” Anderson said, adding she appreciated different levels of government coming together to speak with Harvey youth.

“While the conversations that we had were difficult, they were necessary to evoke the change that the youth of Harvey would like to see occur within their community,” said CEDA project director Michae’ Wiley-Edgecombe. “We believe that this conversation is only the beginning. We plan to keep our conversations going until changes occur.”

Carter and Senator Harris encouraged young people to be more involved in their communities and local politics. The city seeks to curate a “student City Council,” Clark said, but added it’s a struggle to find young people who want to get involved.

However, the solutions-driven forum only occurred because young people took the lead on bringing policymakers to the table—not the other way around.

T here’s a growing sentiment in Harvey that elected leaders aren’t proactive enough to engage younger residents. Some residents have even formed local community groups in response to that frustration.

For organizations already doing youth-oriented activities in Harvey, there’s a need to consider how leaders are spreading the word and if those programs are appealing, Anderson said.

Students from Thornwood High School in South Holland, pictured behind CEDA UPLIFT Harvey staff and participants, also attended, along with students from Thornridge High School in Dolton. HWH / Amethyst J. Davis
Students from Thornwood High School in South Holland, pictured behind CEDA UPLIFT Harvey staff and participants, also attended, along with students from Thornridge High School in Dolton. HWH / Amethyst J. Davis

“Give us the chance to make worldwide decisions,” Blackwell said about how older people can engage young people in Harvey. “It’s [them] still not giving us a chance to do anything—I don’t know if it’s because of our age.”

There’s a shared belief that older residents must do more to welcome a new generation of leaders, equip them with the tools to effect change, trust, and respect them.

“They belittle us,” Blackwell said. “We need bachelor’s and associate’s [degrees] to do anything, but I was just doing accounting for the city at 16.”

“As we know,” AbdulAhad began, “we are the future leaders of not only Harvey but also this country—to help make it better than what it was in the past.”

UPLIFT participants heralded CEDA as a model for investing in Harvey’s youth.

“They’ve been amazing mentors,” AbdulAhad said of CEDA staff. “Both my sister and Julia have been amazing peers,” he added of his co-panelists, who he complimented for their personability. “They know how to interact with other people outside of UPLIFT Harvey.”

While she was nervous at first, Blackwell was excited as she “always had support and motivation” from CEDA and “it felt like having family.”

“The next steps of our leadership program are to connect with the mayor, senator, and congresswoman's office,” Wiley-Edgecomeb said, “to continue the conversation about and start making progress towards some of our mutual goals.”

Carter invited Blackwell to participate in Kelly’s Congressional Youth Cabinet, where high schoolers help shape youth-specific policies across the 13th district.

“My hopes is that this program actually does go toward the talking phase. Most of the time,” AbdulAhad said, “when politicians talk about implementing programs, about 60% of them—they don’t go through the talking phase and into society.”

Moments after the forum, Clark, who—along with Senator Harris—arrived nearly 15 minutes late, didn’t offer many specifics when asked how his administration would do more proactive youth engagement work going forward.

“We’re gonna support whatever it is they want to do. You were in there,” Clark told the HWH. “I was here to help support them. That’s what we’re talking about.”

This came a day after the mayor’s private security detail intervened in an attempted armed robbery on Chicago’s North Side.

Clark also dispelled news reports that he owns a Chicago home.

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