Voices of Youth: Local youth speak out on Washtenaw County's gun violence epidemic and how to end it

Local youth have felt the grave impact of rising gun violence, and they're advocating for more gun control to address the situation.  
This article is part of Concentrate's Voices of Youth series, which features content created by Washtenaw County youth in partnership with Concentrate mentors, as well as feature stories by adult writers that examine issues of importance to local youth. In this installment, Concentrate staffers chatted with local young people about gun violence – an issue of importance raised in our listening sessions with local youth.

Washtenaw County is no stranger to the United States' gun violence epidemic. Since 2019, the county has seen a 16.5% increase in felonious assaults, which are defined as attacks with a dangerous weapon, with Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township representing 60% of those assaults. Local youth have felt the grave impact of those statistics, and they're advocating for more gun control to address the situation.  
Morgan Horgrow and Ramses Leon are both 16-year-old Ypsilanti-area residents, students, and members of the Ypsilanti nonprofit after-school program Educate Youth. They have been personally impacted by gun violence and want adults in their lives to do something about it.
"It makes me feel sorrow to hear such stories," Leon says of recent shootings in Ypsilanti. 
Horgrow says a fellow member of the Educate Youth clubhouse wrote a poem about his brother being shot, and she thinks adults need to talk less and do more. Both Horgrow and Leon say they know classmates who have bragged about having a gun or even shooting people.
Morgan Horgrow. 
"Me, personally, I think it's dumb to have guns at a young age. You don't need one if you're still in high school," Horgrow says.
Keyla Garcia-Rodriguez, an Ypsilanti resident and rising senior at Washtenaw International High School senior in Ypsilanti Township, has similar worries about the easy access kids have to guns. She recalls doing school lockdown drills since kindergarten, and says guns have made her fear being in school and public places.  
"I do remember the first time we ever did a lockdown drill," Garcia-Rodriguez says. "I didn't know what was happening and I just remember crying because it's very scary to tell a kindergartener, 'Just in case something happens, you guys have to do this and be quiet and hide.'"
"It's just too many kids, and I'm tired"
Local teachers and paraprofessionals have also noticed the negative impact of gun violence on their students.
"I get so down and so heavy-hearted about these kids," says Charlotte Tillerson, teacher at Achieving College and Career Education (ACCE) in Ypsilanti Township. "Lives just end so early because of gun violence. Either [students have] been a victim of gun violence, or they caused gun violence."
Tillerson has lost numerous students to gun violence throughout her career.
"These kids got their whole life in front of them," she says. "And to have their lives be interrupted because they go to jail is so disheartening."

Ypsilanti resident and ACCE paraprofessional Carla Whitsett has also seen not only many of her students, but also her own son, fall victim to gun violence.
Ramses Leon.
"Everybody is connected in some type of way, and it's sad because it is so much gun violence," Whitsett says. "As a mother of a kid that played with guns, I got on my knees and I got to praying. It's so sad. It's senseless violence."
Tillerson reflects on the life of her student, LaRonte Benion-Phillips, who was shot and killed this past March. 
"He was a writer, and I was just wondering what he could have become," she says. "It's just too many kids, and I'm tired. It's too many kids in the Ypsilanti area that have been killed."
Tillerson believes the number of gun violence incidents has increased since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and the reopening of in-person classes and public spaces. 
"Now it's like [once a] month, or every other month, that a kid that I've taught has been killed or headed to prison," she says. 
Tillerson also thinks her students have become desensitized to the senseless killings of their friends and family members because gun violence is so common in their lives. 
"I think what's happening is, [the students will] stop for a moment for that kid," she says. "They'll do balloon releases with T-shirts. They grieve. They go to the family hour, to the funeral. And then it's like, after that, it's back to business as usual. We need to find a solution."
Ending an epidemic
Local students and their teachers have a variety of opinions on how to address the gun violence epidemic. Elleona Kristine Ragland, an Ypsilanti resident and student at Arbor Preparatory High School in Ypsilanti Township, lost her brother, Brandon D. Cross, to gun violence in 2017. Creative arts, including music and dance, have kept Ragland going as she grieves the loss of her brother. Her family has also been active in advocating for youth through their arts nonprofit, Elevation Youth. The organization is dedicated to Cross, who was an artist. 
However, Ragland also wants to see broader social change to ensure no one else has to live through the tragedy her family has experienced. Ragland stresses the urgent need to address gun violence, especially given the widespread problem of guns in schools. 
"There should be better protocol when there is a gun in the school or rumors of someone having a gun," Ragland says. "The real question is, 'Where did they get the gun in the first place?' So that relates to locking up guns and no longer purchasing [them] so students don't have access to them in the first place."
 Elleona Kristine Ragland.
Leon says that even if a young person feels bullied or physically threatened, waving a gun around isn't the answer.
"In that situation, just talk to someone, preferably an adult," Leon says. "Try to think of a way to handle it better than resorting to violence."
Tillerson believes that one way to solve this issue is to teach kids how to resolve issues without picking up a gun, or feeling like they need to get even with someone if they get upset. 
"They think that's the quick answer to resolving issues," Tillerson says. "This generation's communication is their phones, social media. They really don't know how to sit down and have a conversation to resolve issues." 
She praises the work of programs like the Ypsilanti-based Student Advocacy Center of Michigan (SAC), which supports students and their rights to education. SAC provides resources that empower Ypsilanti youth, keep them engaged in school, and protect them. 
 Keyla Garcia-Rodriguez.
Through her own advocacy and nonprofit organization, Better Me Youth, Whitsett wants to end the cycle of gun violence in Ypsilanti. Better Me Youth teaches students the value of going to college, building a career based on their interests, finding a trade, and how to ask for and receive help when they need it.
Students and teachers agree that easy access to guns is one of the biggest contributing factors to the rise in gun violence. Ragland believes gun control is vital to the survival of her community. She suggests enforcing stricter rules for purchasing guns to ensure people are mentally fit to carry them. She believes gun owners need safe ways to lock guns up to decrease the amount of children who can easily access them. Tillerson echoes Ragland's sentiments.
"How do 14- and 15-year-olds get guns so easily? Kids will tell me, 'It's easy. It's nothing to get a gun. I can call right now and get one,'" Tillerson says.
As a teenage mother, Garcia-Rodriguez has experienced both fearing for her own life and raising a young son who will also likely face the same fears. She believes people shouldn't be able to carry guns in public and that there should be foolproof mental health screenings to make sure the people who own guns are stable enough to carry them. She says it's troubling that guns are more accessible to the public than government aid is for mothers trying to raise their children.
"Like WIC, you have to go through an application, but guns are easier to get," Garcia-Rodriguez says. "I shouldn't have to go through this as a high school student and as a mother."

For more of Elleona Ragland's thoughts on gun violence, click here to see a painting and poem she created for Concentrate's Voices of Youth program.

Maria Patton is a lifelong Ypsilanti resident. She is currently a student at the University of Michigan, working towards a bachelor's degree in Spanish and Communication and Media. You can find more of her work in The Michigan Daily, where she is a columnist for the Michigan in Color section. She can be reached at pattonma@umich.edu.

Monica Hickson is a freelance writer currently based in Ypsilanti. She joined
 Concentrate as a news writer in 2020 and is the author of a book, "The COVID Diaries." You may reach her at monica_alexis@yahoo.com.

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of
 On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

All photos by Doug Coombe.

To learn more about Concentrate's Voices of Youth project and read other installments in the series, click here.