Seniors at Camelot’s Excel Academy of Englewood in Chicago March Against Violence

 In Camelot Blog

Watch WGN’s coverage of Camelot’s ‘Graduates Over Guns’ march.

Students and staff from Camelot’s Excel Academy of Englewood in Chicago joined with the local community to hold the school’s annual ‘Graduates over Guns’ event on Thursday, May 23, to march for peace and to promote unity and education over the violence that has plagued Englewood and so many other neighborhoods in and around Chicago.

“We started this community event four years ago,” said Kevin Sweetland, Camelot Education’s regional director. “We wanted to bring attention to and focus on the positive things that happen in this community. There are students in these schools with post-secondary education plans and community groups that are working hard, at the grassroots level, to make things better. We want to highlight these efforts.”

Umi Brooks, the school’s Career Counselor, along with Celeste Sulaiman, Director of Student Services, co-founded the ‘Graduates Over Guns’ march. Brooks said that ypically, as the summer season begins, urban communities, unfortunately, begin to see an escalation in gun violence, and the ‘Graduates Over Guns’ march is just one of the local initiatives aimed at curtailing the violence that overshadows the lives of many young people.

“It always starts the weekend of Memorial Day,” Brooks said. “One reason so many of our students get involved in this event is that they either have family members or friends who are victims of gun violence. Their lives are scarred by this needless violence. We’re proud of the fact that the local community sees the need for events like this to promote peace.”

One of Excel Academy’s education partners is Stagg Elementary School, whose eighth graders participate in a ‘Passing the Baton’ ceremony during the event. “There are 45 eighth graders [at Stagg]. They’re the next group of graduates – our rising group of high school freshmen – and they want to be a part of positive change in this community,” Brooks said. “Without community engagement, there can be no progress. We can’t survive without unity.”

Sweetland echoed Umi’s sentiments.

“We can’t move our communities toward peace without each other; we can’t do it by ourselves. The ‘Graduates Over Guns’ event is an opportunity to link arms and form a network to help prevent our young people from getting caught up in violence. Our students come to us because they have a troubled past. Some of them are parents; others have problems with housing or addiction. They’re playing the hand they’ve been dealt and responding to what they see. Our job at Excel Academy is to show them a path to success, to give them hope.”

Taylor Smith, 18, a senior from Excel Englewood, was recently featured for her work with the ‘Graduates Over Guns’ group and its connection to another promotion of peace called WE Day, an event that took place on May 8 at the Allstate Arena in Chicago.

WE Day motivates young people in their desire to take action and celebrates their positive impact.  When she and Umi first organized the ‘Graduates Over Guns’ march years ago, Celeste Sulaiman also saw an opportunity to integrate the work with the WE organization’s mission. Through her hard work, that vision became a featured part of the ceremony this year.

WE Schools helps students, with the support of their educators and parents, to make a difference and transform that desire into concrete action for positive change. WE is a movement that believes that when people come together, a better world can be created.

“I think we can all make a difference,” Taylor said. When asked why so many young people’s lives are marred by violence, she said much of it starts in their homes. “They have a lot of anger inside. They see no hope for themselves or their families. They don’t have a job, so they do what they can to provide for their families, often through illegal means. Many have been brought up by their grandparents, and many are parents themselves. It’s a detrimental cycle of life, but it doesn’t have to continue. These are problems that have solutions, and our young people are seeing they can be part of those solutions.

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