How It Started
After the deaths of two classmates, students and faculty at the Southeast charter school Thurgood Marshall Academy (TMA) were at a loss.
In September 2017, TMA high school senior Zaire Kelly, 16, was shot and killed in an attempted robbery. Then, only a few months later in January 2018, Paris Brown, 19, a junior at TMA, was shot and killed.
In the wake of these sudden losses, a small group of juniors and seniors decided to start meeting in the classroom of their AP government teacher, Karen Lee. First, to commiserate and grieve with each other, to be frustrated, mad and all the things one feels when someone is viciously taken from them without reason. Then, to share ideas, opinions and potential solutions to the issues affecting their communities.
Seated around a long table at the front of Lee’s classroom, students discussed things like rap culture, education, how materialism drives robberies, how suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder can cause someone to act out violently, how to make their neighborhoods safer.
The group existed informally throughout the school year and grew in size. Senior Lauryn Renford, 17, was with the group from the very beginning, but she, along with other members, recruited more students like seniors Jayla Holdip, 17, and Anthony James, 17.
It’s tough to know the number of active members. Meetings aren’t regularly scheduled and are largely dependent on students’ schedules. The group is still in its infancy; it wasn’t until the summer when it decided on a name.
The most active participants are the seniors, and TMA alumni keep in touch from college. According to Lee, the group’s faculty advisor, the school has been incredibly supportive.
‘It’s an America Problem’
James, who lives in Ward 8 with his parents and five siblings, realizes now that the near-daily threat of violence and gunshots doesn’t faze him as much as it used to, even though he’s never felt safe in his neighborhood. He makes sure his headphones aren’t turned up too loud while walking home at night, and that people aren’t following him. He sometimes hears gunshots outside his house.
“I feel like I’ve become numb, in some way, because it’s so common, and that’s obviously not a good thing,” James said. “It’s a problem. I just don’t think this is something that should be normalized, especially.”
“I felt like [gun violence] wasn’t my problem until Zaire passed away,” Renford said.
The national conversation about gun violence rose to prominence after February’s shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where 17 students and faculty were killed. DC, however, has been dealing with its own gun crisis for decades. According to the Metropolitan Police Department (IMPD), the District has seen 158 homicides in 2018, a 44 percent increase from 2017.
“Too many children have died, too many people have died,” Holdip said, speaking softly but candidly. “Everywhere, not just DC … It’s not a ward problem, it’s not a community problem, it’s an America problem.”
But Pathways 2 Power focuses on a wide-ranging set of issues, not just gun violence.
“Our movement exists in many different forms for different causes,” James said. “It’s for anything you want it to be when you come.”
Each member of the group brings their own experiences and expertise to meetings. Renford, who lives in Ward 5, comes from a family that has historically fought against institutions that disadvantage black people in the South. She focuses on education and widening the scope of what’s taught in schools as African-American history beyond slavery. She also spoke at the Rally for DC Lives last March.
James is passionate about mental health, and spoke at a mental health conference hosted by the Adolescent Peer Support League. Holdip, who is from Ward 5, rallies on unifying the city, and wants to become a civil rights lawyer.
“We all learn from each other,” Holdip said. “All the time.”
Premiering Their PSA
Last year, students partnered with Ground Media, a studio based in Southeast DC, to create their own public service announcement.
The PSA features nine students, including Renford, highlighting the issues around their communities in a spoken-word-style speech, with powerful close-up shots of the students themselves. Shot in Southeast and Capitol Hill, the PSA serves as a wake-up call to neighbors and politicians. The students are tired of losing friends and loved ones, and made clear what they wanted: accountability, safety and a stop to the violence.
The PSA also challenges viewers to “Recognize Greatness.” While Pathways 2 Power was born from tragedy, it wants to pivot and recognize what makes neighbors and neighborhoods great, and, at the same time, ways to make them even greater.
Pathways 2 Power premiered the PSA at Ben’s Chili Bowl in October. Councilmembers Kenyon McDuffie and Trayon White attended, as well as DC Police Chief Peter Newsham, among others. Renford, smiling confidently, handed Chief Newsham her business card before the PSA played.
After the screening, one student told the officials, “Don’t let this be the last time we see you.”
With projects still in the works, Pathways 2 Power hasn’t reached back to elected officials or members of the MPD. But they plan to, once the time is right.
What’s Happening Now
Sitting in Lee’s classroom, around the table where Pathways 2 Power holds its meetings, Holdip points to her copy of Michelle Obama’s new book, “Becoming.” Lee watches a video of a former student and member of Pathways 2 Power performing Langston Hughes’ poem “America to Me.” James and Renford compare what colleges they are applying to. Renford mentions a mural she plans to create as a memorial for the slain teens of DC. She’s secured funding, a wall and an artist, Martin Swift. She has set up a GoFundMe page for the mural, as well.
“Zaire and Paris are going to be on it for sure,” she said.
It shouldn’t be shocking how mature, thoughtful and articulate these teens are. That seems to be the norm for most kids their age nowadays.
While it’s tempting to claim that the students in Pathways 2 Power are the next generation of DC’s leaders, their teacher looks at it differently. “I think we have to stop thinking of them as the next ‘anything,’ and as the people right now who are doing it,” Lee said. “As long as we delay the power and their leadership by saying they’re the next, we take away the power of the moment when, truly, they’re galvanizing their community.”