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Save Our Sons Summit Struggles To Change 'Culture Of Death And Violence'

Peter Haden

Hundreds of Jacksonville high school students gathered at Edward Waters College Friday for the third annual Operation Save Our Sons Summit. The day’s events reinforced why the Summit was started in the first place: to challenge young men to think differently.

Changing the culture

Bishop John Guns of St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church on the Northside organized the Summit and chose the theme: Young Lives Matter. Guns worked to bring in speakers like the Mayor and Superintendent of Schools and worked with the high schools to bring the students. Those students have two things in common: they’re all male and nearly all black. Guns says there is a culture of death and violence pervading the city, and the Summit is a step to turning that around.

“This is about you. We’re tired of burying you guys,” Guns told the audience. “We’re tired of giving you away to the streets. We’re tired of giving you to jail cells.”

Students break into groups by grade level — mixing the different schools together. Speakers talk to the groups about values, respect for authority, and the value of education. The goal is to give the students strategies for managing life, managing conflict, and making good decisions.

One step forward

Gun says, “Our goal is to plant seeds. To plant seeds to cause them to think, to cause them to re-think and ultimately when they get in certain situations to make the right decision: to live.”

Some of the students are visibly moved by the messages. Jackson High School student Clemie Gibson says he appreciates the effort. He says if he were around positive people like these speakers more often, it would make a big difference in his life.

“I feel like they’re really trying to help us and keep us out of trouble,” Gibson said.

Two steps back

But the goodwill doesn’t get through to everyone. A scuffle breaks out between students at rival high schools. Police and community leaders separate them and use the moment as a teaching tool — trying to get the students to think and re-think — what violence was really going to solve.

A tearful Guns called for everyone to come into the basketball gymnasium.

“You know why we’re here? All we’re trying to do is help you! And you’re gonna come here — and act like it’s about you!” Guns said. “Man, we’ve gotta stop this. We’ve gotta stop this.”

In the end, all of the students join Guns in the center of the basketball court — in a prayer for unity and guidance.

On the way out, one student told WJCT, “We didn’t come here to listen. We just came here to fight.”

Peter Haden is an award-winning investigative reporter and photographer currently working with The Center for Investigative Reporting. His stories are featured in media outlets around the world including NPR, CNN en Español, ECTV Ukraine, USA Today, Qatar Gulf Times, and the Malaysia Star.