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Gang violence concerns prompt "Summer of Safety" flag football game, open mic night

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In June, as concerns about gun violence cropped up in the wake of several high-profile shootings, state Senator Michael Johnston co-hosted a meeting at the northeast Park Hill office space he shares with the Prodigal Son Initiative, an anti-gang organization. The attendees, which included city officials, youth nonprofit leaders and regular citizens, came up with a goal: to put together a calendar of positive events for youth in order to divert them from trouble.

About a month later, Johnston met with young people from The Youth Connection, a nonprofit that aims to use urban arts to help youth build careers. Johnston staffer Leslie Colwell says the youth weren't thrilled with the calendar, which included events such as yoga in the park. "They kind of said, 'This isn't the stuff we would be into,'" Colwell says.

So they brainstormed ideas for the types of events they'd like to attend and last week, the first of three came to fruition. On August 1, about nine youth gathered at Johnston's office, which is across the street from where gang members burned down the Holly Square Shopping Center in 2008, for a graffiti art class and impromptu DJ lessons.

Events such as these are important because "they build community within young people that they didn't think could build together," says Heidi Grove, co-founder of The Youth Connection. As proof, she tells a story about a teenager whose father saw a flyer for the graffiti event and called Grove, who offered to give his son a ride. When she picked the boy up, Grove says, he seemed unsure. "He gets in the car and he's a little, 'I don't know about you people,'" Grove says. But when she drove him home two hours later, his demeanor had changed. Grove says he told her he'd made a decision.

"I said, 'What's that?'" Grove recalls. "And he said, 'I think I need to stop robbin' fools. I keep surrounding myself with bad people and I keep catching cases. I'm making my parents sad. I'm about to turn eighteen, and I need to make a new start.'"

Next up on the schedule of events that Johnston and The Youth Connection have dubbed "Denver's Summer of Safety" is a flag football game this afternoon at 2 p.m. at Manual High School. In March, eighteen-year-old De'Quan Walker-Smith was gunned down near the school. The Denver Police have categorized his killing as gang-related.

And on August 15, Denver's Summer of Safety will continue with an open mic night at Civic Center Park from 4 to 6 p.m. We hear both Johnston and Mayor Michael Hancock will attend. No word on whether they'll take a turn at the microphone.

Click through to see more photos of the mural.

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