When I first saw the news accounts of the three Newark kids killed execution style, I knew that one of them, Terrance Aeriel, an 18-year-old graduate of West Side High School who was going back to Delaware State University in the fall, sounded familiar. Then, when I saw his face, it all came rushing back. I did know this kid.
Terrance was one of the star participants in a leadership and communication program called “Stand & Deliver: Communication Tools for Tomorrow’s Leaders,” started by a group of us a little over eight years ago to provide Newark youth with leadership, communication and life skills. Today, there are over 300 Stand & Deliver participants who are involved in workshops and seminars lead by a group of dedicated and committed mentors. Every year, the top ten are selected to participate in what we call the “Night of Eloquence” in which our hardest working kids get up and perform on the stage at NJPAC. Some recite poems, others perform dramatic reenactments from plays. In 2005 Terrance Aeriel delivered a sermon called “The Grace of God.” He delivered it as a passionate and charismatic minister.
But it was a long road for Terrance to make it on stage at NJPAC that night. Our adult mentors had selected him to present, but he was nervous and scared. He wanted to stand behind a podium and read, and I remember, together with Stand & Deliver mentor Derrick Watkins, convincing him to get rid of the script. On that April night, in front of a packed house he walked to the edge of the stage at NJPAC and said, “My name is Terrance Aeriel and I am a junior at West Side High School in Newark. The name of my piece is ‘The Grace of God…” He started slow, his voice a bit soft, but he built momentum as he went and soon he had the crowd in the palm of his hand. His voice rose, his face was alive and he was preaching. He was connected on a deep, personal and human level. It was clear that on that night Terrance Aeriel represented the best in the city of Newark. He was a talented young man with a bright and promising future.
When his four minutes on stage were up, the crowd went wild. They were on their feet cheering and Terrance had a huge smile on his face as he took a bow. He conquered his fears and seized the moment. Now he was going on to bigger and better things.
Along with Iofemi Hightower and Dashon Harvey, the other two young adults killed on August 4, Terrance has been referred to many times as a “good kid,” which I guess makes the way he was killed in the playground at Mount Vernon School in Newark all the more horrific. Now Terrance Aerial is gone. His sister Natasha (also a Stand & Deliver participant) was seriously wounded that night and barely survived, yet has given authorities valuable information on the alleged killers. Tragic doesn’t even begin to describe what happened to Terrance and the countless other Newark youth who have lost their lives to violence.
What happened to Terrance Aerial has become all too common in cities like Newark, the city of my youth and a place where my heart will always be.
Consider this, one year after Terrance spoke at the Night of Eloquence, a 16-year-old Stand & Deliver participant named Kelvin Kelley was also killed on the streets of Newark. His brother Jimmy Kelley was scheduled to present at the Night of Eloquence that year. Jimmy had prepared an original piece called “The Lame Excuse.” It was a poem about a Newark teen killed on the streets and a mother who was left without a son. Kelvin was gunned down two days before Jimmy was scheduled to present. Amazingly, he insisted on doing it as a tribute to his brother. Slowly, with tears in his eyes he got through his speech, with one of the most chilling lines being; “…So we are forced to live where we know it ain’t safe. Pow!!! Pow!!! Pow!!! It’s the barrel of a gun and then a mother crying cause she lost her son…”
When Jimmy finished, hundreds of people in the audience had tears in their eyes and were cheering. So there you are. Terrance Aeriel and Kelvin Kelly were two young men from our Stand & Deliver program who didn’t deserve to die. “Good kids?” Yeah, they were “good kids,” but what exactly does that mean? The “not so good” kids in Newark deserve the unimaginable fate of being shot in a drive-by or executed in a school playground?
What do we do? We pray, we cry, we complain that there aren’t enough cops, we blame politicians or the criminal justice system, and we hold our own kids tighter and realize how fortunate we are. But something more has to be done. A lot more. And no one mayor or chief of police or youth leadership program like Stand & Deliver is going to do it alone. We are all in this together regardless of where we live or the color of our skin. Terrance Aerial and Kelvin Kelly should never have died. Neither should the hundreds of other kids in our cities. We say that our children are our most precious resource. The time has come for us to back up that lofty rhetoric with a sustained and serious commitment to ending the violence as soon as humanly possible. There is no issue or policy more important in New Jersey and America. It doesn’t matter where you were born or where you live now. We are all in this thing together, whether we like it or not.