Eleven-year old Summer has no shortage of ideas about what she might do when she's grown up: “I want to be a chemist, vet, nurse, artist, florist, singer,” she says. Other kids at the Whatsoever Community Center in Kansas City, Mo., have big dreams, too—Darron, who's 16, wants to be a police officer in a K-9 unit, and 14-year-old Jordan wants to have his own business.
As middle and high school students, they know these jobs are a few years off. But they're also looking at the world around them today, considering how decisions made by the government affect their day-to-day experiences in Kansas City.
Summer, Darron, and Jordan were part of a group that produced a three-minute video for the “If I Had a Trillion Dollars” youth film festival, a project of the American Friends Service Committee and the National Priorities Project. In making their videos, youth from across the country show how they would redirect the $1 trillion the U.S. government spends annually on the military and other federal spending, including tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans.
Darron begins the video by stating, “If we had $1 trillion, we would invest it into helping youth homelessness and helping keep the youth off the streets.”
Summer explains that they decided to focus on homelessness because they see it so much in their own neighborhood, which Jordan and Darron describe as “dangerous” and “bad.” Violence is widespread, hearing gunshots is normal, and some of the youth have lived on the streets themselves.
“We came up with the idea because we saw older people that were homeless. Then we dug deeper to teens that you don't see on the street very much,” says Summer, who lent her animation skills to the production.
The group found that there are at least 2,000 homeless young people in their city.
Through interviews with the youth and adults, the video considers some of the causes and effects of homelessness in Kansas City and offers ways to keep young people out of trouble.
One idea is to build a safe space where youth can go to have fun without getting in trouble or doing drugs.
They contrast a complex picture of their under-resourced neighborhood with the bloated U.S. military budget and tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans.
One part of producing the video was learning about the federal budget.
Jordan says that the most surprising thing he learned was that “60 percent goes to the war. And not to our school.” Summer adds, “What surprised me was that education was a low number when education is important.”
In Washington, they'll join youth from 14 other states for three days, learning lobbying skills, sharing their perspective on the federal budget with lawmakers, and taking part in a Tax Day demonstration against military spending.
“I feel so proud and excited,” says Summer about the trip. “I hope to have my voice heard.”
Summer, Jordan, and Darron are all excited about the chance to share their video in Washington, but somewhat pessimistic about their neighborhood's future. In their lifetimes, they've learned that homelessness and violence are just part of life there—that “it's been and always will be a problem,” as Darron says.
What they learn about themselves and their generation in Washington may change their minds about the power of their own voices.
After all, their video ends with this: “We are the future. Invest in us.”