Each year, since 2013, the children of Cameron Community Ministries’ after school program have been marching for peace and their right to play in a safe neighborhood.
Tomorrow, these students, in partnership with the Healthi Kids Coalition, an initiative of Common Ground Health, and the Lyell/Otis Neighborhood Association, will once again host the neighborhood’s Annual Peace Walk. They will lead their friends, community members and family in their daily route along Cameron and Otis streets, and Lyell Avenue. Following the march, children ages 5 to 12 will share their thoughts on the impact of violence in their neighborhoods.
The Rochester Beacon posed a few questions to Jennifer Muniga, executive director of Cameron Community Ministries, to get her thoughts on the event and its impact.
ROCHESTER BEACON: It has been six years since this annual march began. What prompted it in 2013?
JENNIFER MUNIGA: In 2013, there was a string of violence in the neighborhood. On multiple occasions, we received calls from the Rochester Police Department to take the children inside, from off of the playground, because there was an active pursuit at the time and it was not safe. After being disrupted a couple of times during outside play time, the kids were upset and decided they needed to do something. We encouraged them to advocate for themselves and the idea of a peaceful protest came about. The kids enjoyed walking the route that they take to and from school and to places in their community, such as the library, while waving handmade signs calling for peace.
ROCHESTER BEACON: How has it evolved since then? Why do you think it has staying power?
MUNIGA: It has evolved in that it has gained more and more attention. The kids invite elected officials and leaders in the community to join them. It is now not unusual to have more than 100 people join the walk. The staying power comes from the powerful experience that walkers get from joining. Seeing the hard work put in by the kids themselves to organize it as well as hearing personal testimonies from the kids themselves creates experiences that one cannot forget.
ROCHESTER BEACON: Children who live in the Lyell/Otis Neighborhood experience a higher violent crime rate than those who live in the city as a whole. Can you share some statistics and experiences these children have had?
MUNIGA: According to a recent study by Common Ground Health, “Kids in the Lyell-Otis neighborhood experience a violent crime rate 6.5 times higher than the rate in the suburbs. The rate is also nearly 60 percent higher than the overall city average.” As mentioned, on multiple occasions, the kids have had to go inside off the playground to avoid active pursuits.
In 2017, on a Friday at 9 a.m. in the morning a shooting happened across the street, as our kids were getting off the school bus at School No. 54, a father of two of our students was shot to death. Cameron Street is full of rental properties that have unfortunately turned into drug houses. We’ve been stuck inside on lockdown mode while SWAT invades homes with tanker trucks right out front. Several of our students have parents who are incarcerated or whom have died. Violence is a very sad reality for our kids.
ROCHESTER BEACON: What do you hope this year’s march will evoke in the children and the neighborhood?
MUNIGA: We hope that all of the work that the kids have put in is continued to be recognized. We want them to understand that the pens used to make their signs demanding peace are indeed mightier than the swords or guns used to invoke violence in their neighborhood. We hope that the right people take notice and that our kids can have a peaceful summer in the Lyell-Otis Neighborhood.
The Annual Peace Walk in the Lyell/Otis Neighborhood takes place at 4:30 p.m. Cameron Community Ministries will also feature its new Teen Center that is expected to play a key role in keeping teens safe.
It is high time we listened to our children and took action in the epidemic of violence within our city. Gun violence is a public health issue and, until we recognize this in our country, we will continue to see the empty “thoughts and prayers” that are offered up on an almost daily basis by our local, state, and federal leaders.