Aaron Hoagland grew up surrounded by violence. In his community in Flatbush, Brooklyn, shootings are common. “A lot of my father’s friends [were] stabbed, shot, killed,” Aaron says. “We have a lot of candle lightings, we have Rest in Peace t-shirts.” The neighborhood’s 67th Police Precinct reported 10 shooting incidents in 2018 and 5 as of April 2019. In February, a 15-year-old boy was shot in the lobby of his Flatbush apartment building.
Aaron is 16 years old and doesn’t want to be part of this cycle. So last October, he became a member of Youth Organizing to Save Our Streets (YO S.O.S.), an eight-month after-school program for teens who want to help end gun violence in their communities.
Like Aaron, most of the participants have been affected by violence in some way, whether they grew up hearing gunshots outside their home or have lost a friend in a shooting. “Violence is [all] around me,” he says. “It makes my mother scared sometimes.”
When I met Aaron he, was clad in black and white. Before answering each question, he sat in silence for a few seconds, deliberating on what to say. He is introspective but confident in his ability to make a difference. He has been trained to be a peer leader and community organizer, setting examples to help other young people in his neighborhood see that violence is not the only way to solve problems.
“The brothers around me look at me as somebody who’s supposed to make it out,” he says. “They all look up to me to make it out, not to fall into what they fell into.” Aaron plans to go to college, and though he says his main career goal is to play in the NBA, he’d also like to start a business in his community.
Through his training at the program, Aaron understands how his own behavior can change the outcome of potentially violent situations. If someone is trying to start an argument with him or get into a fight, he has learned strategies to defuse the conflict: “Just walking away, taking a breather, gathering yourself, analyzing the situation…He’s trying to bring you down, and you’re trying to go up.”
Aaron hopes that when others see him handle things this way, they’ll do the same. “I have shown my friends ways to walk away from situations that could escalate,” he says.
YO S.O.S. teen leaders also participate in what the group calls “flashmobs” to spread their anti-violence message. A few weeks before we met, Aaron and the others in the program gathered outside a McDonald’s. There, they staged a fake fight in front of the restaurant to get people’s attention. Once they had an audience, they turned on music, started dancing and rapping, and held up posters that read “STOP SHOOTING, START LIVING.”
Talking to Aaron underscored for me that activism is not exclusive to adulthood. “I feel like teenagers can have a big impact,” he says. “If you see somebody, like an old person, trying to tell a young person what to do…they wouldn’t pay them any mind. But when you see a young person talk to another young person, they’ll actually pick up on what you’re trying to say.”
Get involved at neighborsinaction.org/yosos.