The Whole Gritty City promotes dialogue on youth engagement

Participants encouraged by young people’s resilience, desire to ‘step up’

 By Charles Hallman, Staff Writer

Young people still need encouragement, especially during turbulent times. This was the impetus behind last week’s free screening of a documentary about New Orleans at Oak Park Youth and Family Center.

“Showing the film served a two-fold purpose,” explained Pillsbury United Communities [PUC] Parent Network Manager Edwin Irwin on The Whole Gritty City, the 90-minute documentary following three New Orleans all-Black marching bands — two high schools (O. Perry Walker and L.E. Rabouin) and The Roots of Music, a new middle-age children’s band — as they prepared for a Mardi Gras performance.

Scene from Whole Gritty City
Scene from Whole Gritty City

The film aired nationally in February 2014 as a two-hour special hosted by Wynton Marsalis on CBS’s 48 Hours Presents: THE WHOLE GRITTY CITY. Since then, communities across the country have hosted screening at local theaters, community meeting places, and school campuses.

The Richard Barber film followed several individuals including 11-year-old Bear, 12-year-old Jazz, and Skully, an 18-year-old high schooler, among others, through their joy and sorrow. One of the film’s climatic scenes was the funeral of a former band drum major who had recently graduated from high school and was brought back as assistant band director only to be tragically killed by his newborn son’s mother’s boyfriend.

Edwin Irwin
Edwin Irwin

“We are trying to promote community dialogue around critical issues on how to engage our young people in positive ways,” continued Irwin of the post-film discussion that was moderated by Malika Musa. “One of the things the documentary didn’t say as much [about is] that… hurricane Katrina wiped out the structural youth programs, and [they were] shut down for over a year. You had young people not engaged, so it was the band that created art that filled that void of positive engagement for young people.

“There were many metaphors in the film,” added Irwin. Youth can have “high expectations, and they can do it. The whole thing of thinking out of the box of those false expectations that we have for our youth. They don’t have any high expectations of themselves — they don’t accomplish anything because we don’t expect them to accomplish anything.”

On the film’s tragic scenes, “So many times we want to water the story down, or we don’t take the story into full consideration. It’s the whole story,” said Irwin.

The participants of the post-screening discussion produced several “action steps” responses based on questions handed out by Musa. These included “reclaim our narrative,” “culture change and vision,” “controlling the message” and “need youth leadership.”

Malika Musa
Malika Musa

Musa pointed out that the resilience shown by the New Orleans youth in the film also exists on the North Side of Minneapolis. She told the MSR afterwards that there are some similarities between post-Katrina New Orleans and North Minneapolis.

“One of the similarities is the hidden drive that some of these young people have. It is really hidden because you got to search for it and you got to push them to the limit… to show them their resilience,” noted Musa. “We see it in the documentary, and we see it here every day. I see it with my friends and I see it with the young people I work with on a regular basis.”

She added that another similarity is the “mistrust with authorities and the adults in the community” that young people have in both cities. “The mistrust is there simply because of the superiority, and it is divided by power. They had it after Katrina just as much as they had it before.”

“We talk to young people. We talk at young people. We talk about young people. But we never ask them, or sit them down and listen to what they have to say,” said North Minneapolis resident Tiffany Brewer. She and her son took part in the post-film discussion.

“I loved the film” as well as the discussion, “and so did my son,” eight-year-old Tyree Jackson, added Brewer afterwards. “I think it was a real positive view on children wanting to do better, even in their midst of tragedies, hardships and poverty, [but] they still want to do better. It was important for them to have mentors who want to show them and gave them their time.”

The film “was good,” said Tyree. “I like drumming and music.”

“I brought my 13-year-old son to see it,” said April Graves of Brooklyn Park. “I asked him for his opinion of the film. He really felt like the ability to make different choices was an important thing. He said he was impressed when all the bands came together even though they were rivals for the young man’s funeral. He agreed that it was a more honest portrayal of African Americans than we typically see — it’s either overly negative or overly humorous.”

“How do we get them to think outside of the box?” asked Irwin. “Sports are great, but not all our youth are sports-oriented. What other rich traditions [do] we have here in Minneapolis that we can [use to] engage our community to really think about positive youth development and positive youth engagement?

“Our young people are stepping up. Part of it is to realize the opportunity that our young people can [have] and [what they] will do given the right opportunity, resources and support from their elders. Sometimes that means stepping out of the way,” noted Irwin.

Last week’s crowd of 20 or so at Oak Park, which included a New Orleans-style meal, was smaller than expected, reported PUC Family Engagement Coordinator Nikki McComb. “I had about 80 RSVPs and they didn’t come,” she noted. “It could have been the weather. But I was glad there were a lot of kids here.”

“Within dark times, you have to show some light,” said Musa on the film screening during these turbulent times. “The documentary showed people within this really, really dark time for these young people in New Orleans. They were able to come together when people think they weren’t going to be able to bounce back.”

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to