Middle School, Gangs, and Sexual Assault

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Middle School, Gangs, and Sexual Assault

Every once in awhile, I get a healthy does of reality.  And I’m a more effective environmentalist for it.

Although my passion for the environment consumes my thoughts (actions and time)… there are so many compelling issues that demand attention in this world — and I recently got a big reminder.  I was moved and inspired by 12-14 year old students, willing to share deeply personal stories… and touching visions for a better future.

More Than My Middle School


Last week, two of THE MOST AMAZING teachers in our city invited me to join a panel of judges for their 8th Grade class presentations — Hip Hop: Rhetoric and Rhyme.

The two instructors — Emily Lang and Kristopher Rollins — are rock stars.  The kind of teachers and students that Hollywood makes movies about.

This Hip Hop class has become a family for these youth… giving them an outlet to creatively express themselves through writing.  An 8th Grade Literacy elective taught at Warren G. Harding Middle School in Des Moines Public Schools, Emily and Kristopher use the class to connect hip-hop, literacy, and the social sciences, so students can build writing, fluency, comprehension, and life skills.

Outside of the class, the students stay engaged in a variety of ways via Run DSM, founded by Lang and Rollins.  It offers:

  1. Movement 515 – a weekly creative writing group
  2. Minorities on the Move – a 2 week summer program
  3. DSM Teen Slam – an annual teen poetry competition
  4. Share the Mic – poetry fundraiser 3 time per year

Now, before you ask… no, I am not a hip hop anything.  Although, I am quite proud when I rattle off most of Macklemore’s top hits with flawless accuracy!  (The return of the Mac, hit ’em…)

No, they asked me to share with the students… months earlier… because of my experience founding a non-profit in Des Moines.  Their semester assignment — which blew me away (these kids are in 8th Grade!) — was to create their own non-profit organizations to meet a need in their community.  They asked engaging questions about programming, how to reach their audience, and how to partner for success.  Below is a sample “Thank you” letter from the manila envelope full that really choked me up… arriving in the mail the week after.


Several non-profit speakers were invited to return in May to judge the final presentations (about which we were given no prior information).  The winning team… “got funded.”  Which meant that they got a limo ride to a group dinner downtown to celebrate being chosen.

The principal, another instructor, myself with Urban Ambassadors, Libby Crimmings from ONE, and Amy Ostrander-Croll from Community Youth Concepts comprised the judges panel.

All of the students were incredible

  • They dressed up… many in suits, ties, dresses, etc.
  • They spoke in teams on an auditorium stage… even when nervous (remember, 8th Grade)
  • They developed websites and shared marketing brochures
  • And, they fielded tough questions from us… sometimes forgetting they were in 8th Grade


After a lengthy, in-depth discussion, scoring each group on multiple aspects of their presentations… the judges were stumped.  We eventually had to ask special permission from the instructors  to award two groups… a tie!…  for first place and the limo/dinner.

It was just the right thing to do.  Here’s why…

Escaping Gang Life


I grew up outside of a 500 person town, on a farm in southeast Iowa.  Yes, we had meth labs, but I never was exposed to one.

These students are growing up in an urban landscape, very different from my own childhood.

3 of the 8 teams created organizations that helped children avoid or get out of gang membership.  And they did so because they had personal stories — their own, friends, and family —  that made them care deeply about the issue.

One team wanted to create a mentor program for 4th and 5th Graders — with 8th Graders as mentors.  I asked a silly question.  “Why target such a young age?  Do they have the resources to make that kind of decision or overcome peer pressure?”

The answer: Most youth join a gang by the 6th Grade.  (Seriously, the 6th Grade!)  If you don’t educate and equip them to make a different choice, it’s often too late by then.


One of the winning teams — Generation X — had a BIG idea for a solution.

They wanted to create a residential program for existing gang members… an escape.  Away from their gang territories.  With security.  Where they could be safe from gang members pressuring (or threatening) them to return.

The location would have an on-site sports program and a resource center tasked with providing programming that (among other things) helped them envision a better life for themselves and their communities.

It was well thought out, and actually could fill a real need.  The BIG vision could also attract funding in a community that already believes in and supports a residential homeless shelter and YMCA housing.

The two young men speaking, also commanded our attention with their personalities and personal conviction.  A winning combination of experience, ideas, and delivery.

Healing Sexual Assault


While less distant from my childhood than gang life, it packed a punch seeing another 3 of the 8 groups create organizations to provide sex education and combat/heal sexual assault.

sexual assault

The other winning team — Runaway Love — created groups that provided fun activities, and also a safe space for various ages of sexual assault victims to share their stories, realize they are not alone, and heal.

Their plan carefully considered the barriers to reporting sexual assault, access to licensed counselors, and the creation of a mentor program from one age group down to the next.

What really sealed the deal was their speaking.  Both young ladies (in 8th Grade) shared effortlessly from the heart.  They were clearly passionate.  During the Q&A both openly shared how lucky they were to receive this kind of support in their own personal lives… and that they were committed that it be available to all students who were victims of this nature.  We felt honored just to be there and listen.  It was powerful.



What I was left with was this…

My passion is the environment.  And, I need to remember that other people have had a very different experience of life than I have.  Very real, and very unique problems that they are facing — or have faced.

Those experiences shape who we are.  And it is only when we can listen to others — share our stories and connect on a deeper level — that we can have a tremendous influence on each other.  Last week, I was the lucky one.  These kids had an impact on my life.

It never crossed my mind to tell 8th Grade students — who were already completely passionate about art, writing, and solving gang and sexual assault issues — that they should start an organization focused on the environment instead.

First, it would be incredibly disrespectful.

Second, that’s exactly what they were already doing.

Maybe not “the” environment.  But they were talking about “their” environment.  Their family.  Their house.  Their schools.  Their streets.

Their neighborhood clean-up was a social and moral clean-up.  And it was not only immediately relevant… but it was required before anyone could begin to worry about ecology.

Active gang members and those living in fear for their physical safety don’t have time to worry about ecology.  When real people who care about them help them out of “their” dangerous environment… then they can be free to turn their attention to such things as “the” natural environment.

Support This Work
in Your Communities


Please, if you know of teachers doing amazing work in your city or town… support them.  Thank them.  Tell everyone you know about them.  Donate to their work.  Help them with supplies.  Volunteer.  Connect them with resources they need.

If you are in Des Moines…

Donate to Run DSM today!

Attend an event.  Or encourage student to take a course.

Next year, Lang and Rollins are starting a high school elective as well — Urban Leadership 101 — offered at Central Campus.

Thank you, Emily and Kristopher… for inviting me to be a part of something magical!  Keep up the amazing work.



Adam Hammes is the executive director of the Iowa Sustainable Business Forum, a consultant, author, and motivational speaker. He specializes in helping businesses and sustainability professionals with environmental and social performance.

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