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Rally counsels youth: Choose wisely

In St. Petersburg, pop culture is the medium and decisions the message of speaker, hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons.

By NICOLE JOHNSON
Published May 19, 2006


ST. PETERSBURG — Hundreds of teens in T-shirts and sneakers mingled with others dressed in designer jeans and heels.
Impromptu dance competitions broke out in the aisles, while high school rivalries were set aside and replaced with talk of summer. It was a come-as-you-are type of day Friday at Everyone’s Youth United rally, which attracted more than 500 people.

“You have a choice every minute of the day,” hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons said. “And the choices you make are critical to your future.”
To youngsters attending the rally at the St. Petersburg Coliseum, 535 Fourth Ave. N, seeing Simmons was like seeing Santa.

“He’s got the shoes, he’s got the music,” said 15-year-old Nashawbe Smart, a sophomore at Gibbs High School. “He’s got it all.”
United, a nonprofit St. Petersburg organization, has performed community outreach to at-risk youth since 2000. Friday’s rally was the first in what organizers hope will become an annual event.

“Our goal is to help guide today’s youth so they learn to make appropriate and healthy choices,” said Eric Green, founder and chief executive officer of the organization, with headquarters at 700 43rd St. S.

Other panelists included WBTP-FM 95.7’s morning show host Olivia Fox, Tampa Bay Buccaneer Shelton Quarles and Rep. Frank Peterman, D-St. Petersburg.

Simmons, 48, discovered some of hip-hop’s biggest acts such as the Beastie Boys and Run-DMC. He founded a multimillion dollar fashion line and produced two HBO series. He recently has taken up youth awareness as a mission.

The Queens native founded the Hip Hop Summit Action Network in 2001, with civil rights leader Benjamin Chavis.

Green and Simmons made a connection while growing up in the same New York neighborhood during the 1960s and ’70s.

As adults, they discovered that both were championing youth empowerment. “This year it came to reality that we could possibly reunite,” Green said. “And we wanted to do that in the area of helping with social change and teens.”

Simmons will appear in Miami today  as part of the Hop Summit on Financial Empowerment.

The event, sponsored by Simmon’s nonprofit organization, will take place at Florida Memorial University’s A. Chester Robinson Athletic Center and aims to educate urban youth on how to better manage money and build wealth.

At Friday’s event, the crowd of mostly tweens and teens from Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, enjoyed hip-hop dance troupes, a sassy poet and hip-hop and R&B performances, all by youngsters involved with Everyone’s Youth United.

“It’s a reflection of us as black children,” said 17-year-old Roy Blake, a co-captain of the organization’s marching band, the Marching Bobcats.

“A lot of people don’t understand it, but we want to give people in our community a chance to choose something positive.”
After the performances, participants were able to ask the panelist questions.

Topics ranged from how to obtain scholarships to advice for teen mothers to alternative oil sources.
The breadth of the questions was a pleasant surprise to Quatavia Harden, a 15-year-old sophomore at Gibbs High.

“I think for some teens, they want to put on a show, they act like they don’t care or that they don’t want to work for anything,” Quatavia said.

“So I was like 'Wow, they’re asking these questions?’” They must actually care.”
Frazier Pollard, a bail bondsmen, brought his 6- and 12-year-old sons to the forum so they could better understand why staying away from criminal behavior was important.

“For half the bonds I write, the kids come in bragging about being put in jail,” Pollard said. “I want them to know there’s another side from Mom and Dad that’s going to grab them, and when it does I want them to be ready to go to war against it.”

In the end, Simmons promoted a spirit of giving to the audience, urging them to be tolerant of all types of people. “That’s really all there is — giving,” Simmons said. “Every prophet told you the same thing, really whatever you give the world is what you get back.”