Eric Holder issued an urgent call to action on the problem of youth violence in America on Thursday, speaking not only as the attorney general but also "as the father of three wonderful kids."
Holder, who headlined the National Summit on Preventing Youth Violence, a two-day summit in Crystal City, Va., said he considered tackling the challenge "a personal priority."
Speaking to a crowd of U.S. attorneys, members of Congress, community leaders and youth representatives from across the country, he acknowledged that "resources are scare," and said that issues of violence and trauma must be addressed not only with national policy, but also with changes at the community and family level.
"Our actions must be rooted first and foremost in what we can accomplish as parents, as friends, as mentors, as advocates, as scout leaders, as little league coaches," Holder said. "Our records will only be successful if we can ensure that our kids grow up in neighborhoods where adults reach out to them."
Children - many of whom were victims of crimes themselves - took center stage at the summit. From California to Louisiana, high school and college students who had survived violence in their own rough communities, and in many cases participated in violence too, spoke about what was and was not working in their neighborhoods.
"Instead of preparing for the act or filling out college applications or even going to prom or graduation," Briana Winters, 17, of Memphis said, "youth in my city are dying because of senseless violence or being put in jail for pulling the trigger."
But these young people also expressed optimism, often singling out individuals or organizations that had made a difference in their lives.
Robert Scates, an 18-year-old from Chicago, mentioned one non-profit he worked with called the Green Light Movement, which hosts hip-hop events and community projects for neighborhood kids. "I've got flyers right here," he said, showing them to the full banquet room.
Members of the youth panel told the adults that because of their age, not in spite of it, they were the ones with the answers.
"I strongly believe that I have the power to make a difference in communities because I can relate to youth and I can show them how I've changed," Rebecca Esparza, 19, of San Jose, Calif., said after describing a rocky childhood filled with fights, abuse and neglect.
Darren Alridge, from New Orleans, talked about mentoring other high school students after he was released from prison and completed his GED. "They all loved it when I was coming to school and feeding them positive thoughts, so I kinda figured if I can talk to 10 men and change one to two lives, then I can talk to 100 and change 10 or 20."
Jamira Burley, 25, a recent graduate of Temple University, spoke of the day her brother was gunned down and killed.
"The scariest moment in my life was in 2005. It was a Friday. I was on my way to school and I heard that my 20-year-old brother, Andre, was shot and killed and for me it brought everything home," she said. "For me it really was a shocker. It showed me that anyone can die and that young people need to be the ones to help and change and stop it."
She said the experience has helped her talk to teens.
"For me it is kind of therapeutic. I meet other young people who are experiencing the same things and they're not very comfortable talking about it. But hearing other people share their stories is a way to kind of build bridges but get other young people involved in the movement," she said.
The adults in the room seemed to hear them.
"I am not writing their remarks, these are their words," said Theron Pride, senior adviser of justice programs at the Justice Department, said. "And I will be working for Jamira later."
Holder agreed, "Consequences of inaction in the face of such trauma would be too great to ignore."