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She didn’t realize how wrong she was about kids until her son joined a gang

Marty Jackson
KUOW Photo/Katherine Banwell

Marty Jackson runs the Southeast Area Network of the Seattle Youth Violence Prevention Initiative. For years, she had worked with Stephan Stewart, trying to keep him off the streets.

And her efforts appeared to be working.

Then Stephan Stewart visited a memorial in Columbia City for a friend who had been shot to death days earlier. As Stewart stood in a crowd there, shots were fired from a passing car. He was killed.

Jackson spoke with KUOW’s Bill Radke about her relationship with Stewart — and the shock she felt when she learned her own son was involved in a gang.

“Although knowing what being gang-involved looks like,” she said, “I don't think I really knew fully why all young people join gangs or what led them to that point.”

Jackson said she believed her son would stay away from gangs. After all, he was close to his big family – and she had put him in private school.

“He was in sports,” she said. “His father was around, I was around, my family was around, he had uncles, aunts, a big family. And so you think that if you keep them involved and engaged in positive activities, in a positive environment, well, there's going to be a positive outcome.”

But there wasn’t. And for that, Jackson partly blames herself.

“I don't think I really understood the disconnect that happens for young people, particularly young men of color,” she said.

Her son felt pressure being part of an activist family, she said. He didn’t feel connected to his community.

“I've never really asked him how he felt or how connected he felt to the work that I was doing and that my family was doing,” Jackson said. “If never asked, you make the assumption that his perception is the same as yours.”

Jackson says that ultimately, her son provided her with the best training for her work. “He's taught me more than any training, any book, any manual,” she said. Mostly, he taught her to listen.

“I grew up in a household where it was very dictator-ish,” she said. “You had a tremendous amount of respect for your parents, and when they spoke and told you to do something, you responded and did it without hesitation.”

But dictating from on high wasn't working. 

“It was a very humbling experience to hear what his perception was and how disconnected he felt from his family, from his parents,” Jackson said. “As a parent you think, why didn't I pick that up? Why didn't I see that?

“It isn't always the kid who didn't have parent support or didn't have his father in his life. Sometimes it's that social-emotional connection to family members. If you can't find that connection with anyone else in your family, well, it can lead you somewhere else.”

Now Jackson believes that communities should acknowledge young people in their midst – especially in southeast Seattle where her son grew up.

“As you're walking by young people, do you say hi to them?” she asked. Do you ask them their names?” 

Year started with KUOW: 2008
Year started with KUOW: 1985 – 1986, 1991 – 2004, 2012