The 2016 buildOn Chicago Dinner celebrated the transformational power of service, uniting buildOn students, community leaders and Citizens of the buildOn Movement to celebrate the impact service is having on youth, their communities and our world. The evening showcased the stories of buildOn student service leaders who have personally been impacted by serving others. Michael Johnson, a junior at Orr Academy High School, shared his personal story of using service to break the cycle of violence, and he received a standing ovation from nearly 500 guests in attendance.
I live in the West Garfield Park neighborhood where people are born knowing violence. Violence makes you cool, it makes people respect you, it makes you feel invincible.
Whether it’s a gun on the streets of my neighborhood, a fight in the hallway of my school, domestic disputes at home, or cyber bullying — people in my community think that adapting to the streets around us is the way to survive. I am standing here today, by the grace of God, to share with you that even though violence surrounds me, I refuse to let it define me.
“I am standing here today, by the grace of God, to share with you that even though violence surrounds me, I refuse to let it define me.”
Two years ago I lost my 13-year old cousin, Samuel Walker, to gun violence. He had just graduated from 8th grade. By blood he was my cousin, but by heart, he was my brother. When Samuel died rage took over me. My first and only solution was violence.
The end of my freshman year I was walking through the local neighborhood when I saw my peers on their way to service. They convinced me to follow them and we passed out groceries to homebound seniors. I saw my peers having fun and really engaging in service. I thought to myself, “this is kinda cool.”
Pictured: (Above) Michael takes a break from service to talk about violence in the West Garfield Park neighborhood where he lives. (Below) Michael shares his story of breaking the cycle of violence at the 2016 buildOn Chicago Dinner.
Fast forward one year later and I was going with buildOn to build a school in Burkina Faso. I had already served over 200 hours in my community. I felt a little different inside. Wait, scratch that – I felt a lot different inside. Our host families in Burkina accepted us into their homes with such love and openness, it left me speechless. People on the worksite gave it their all, every day. There was no complaining, fighting, violence. Just hard work towards a common goal.
One afternoon we met with the village elders. I learned that when there is conflict in the village people do not solve it with violence, the elders make a decision on it. There were no weapons in the village. I took this to heart, I had never seen another way of life so peaceful and warm and I learned from it. Coming home, I knew I was different. I was involved in buildOn more than ever before and serving my community made me feel amazing.
“Not only am I an advocate for anti violence in my school and to my peers, but I am an agent of change in my community. Communities can not change without the people inside of them lifting from within.”
But, my newfound happiness was obliterated four months ago when my good friend, 16 year old Martel Anderson, was shot and killed walking unarmed to school at 8:00 a.m. I was crushed and isolated.
Then, I remembered my time in Burkina. When someone passed away there were no tears, but instead a celebration of their life. I celebrate Martel’s life. I feel no rage towards whomever took Martel’s life, only forgiveness. This felt so different from when my cousin, Samuel had died just years earlier. I knew I had to do something about it.
Through buildOn, myself and my peers created a service program called Stop the Violence, focused on ending violence in our neighborhood. Our goals are to educate young people on the dangerous effects of violence, expanding their point of view.
I have learned the solution through my experiences in buildOn. Not only am I an advocate for anti violence in my school and to my peers, but I am an agent of change in my community. Communities can not change without the people inside of them lifting from within. Choosing to treat each other with respect, instead of violence, choosing to lend a hand instead of pulling out a weapon.
Pictured: (First) Michael digging the foundation of the new school he helped build in Burkina Faso, a service trip that changed the way he saw violence in his own community. (Second) Michael and other buildOn students work on a mural they painted as part of their efforts to prevent violence on Chicago’s West Side.
Photos by Guest of a Guest, Lauren Major and Brandon Worth.