Jordan High School junior DeWarren Langley has serious eyes, a firm handshake and an even firmer grasp of local politics. His long list of extracurricular activities reveals a decidedly political bent: He is founder and executive director of Teens Politically Active, chapter leader of the National Student Advocacy Alliance, a member of Jordan High School's site-based decision-making team, a steering committee member for Durham County Kids Vote, a former page for the North Carolina House of Representatives, a peer educator for Planned Parenthood and a member of the National Youth Rights Association and the Future Business Leaders of America.
Listening to Langley delineate the differences between this fall's mayoral candidates' stances on development is enough to assume him to be of voting age. But get him talking about his family, his church or his successes with Teens Politically Active and a smile spreads all across his 17-year-old face, giving his age away.
Langley says it was on the suggestion of his cousin, Durham City Council member Angela Langley, that he got up extra early one weekend last spring, dressed quickly and rushed down to the West End Community Center for a town-meeting-style forum led by Durham Mayor Nick Tennyson. As Langley made his way into the forum, his neighbors were speaking emotionally about increased gang activity and young people at risk. His own aunt was in tears as she spoke of the risks youth face and called for a citywide curfew to keep kids off the streets.
"I could understand where people were coming from, but all around me people were talking about the problems that young people were causing," Langley says. "I was the only young person there, so I stood up and expressed my ideas."
DeWarren Langley is never at a loss for ideas or opinions, and he very strongly believes that teenagers should be heard within the institutions that influence their environments. When Langley spoke that morning, he was adamant that teens shouldn't be punished by a curfew because of "a small number of young people who make the wrong decisions." Instead, he called for more resources for teens, arguing that a curfew would cost more to implement and enforce than, say, a club where teenagers could pass the time safely.
Langley's confident, articulate speech struck a nerve. When the forum ended, he was faced with a swarm of TV news cameras and reporters waiting to follow him home. That afternoon he sat down on his front porch with his cousin Angela and crafted a mission statement--what DeWarren calls "building a foundation for our house to stand upon."
A few months later, Teens Politically Active (TPA) had its first meeting. TPA is designed to give teens a say in politics, helping foster communication between school communities and the school board and local government. Recruited from all Durham schools, the 36-member organization has tackled practical issues ranging from a review of Jordan High's evacuation procedures to examining the logic of locker placement to taking a stand on proposed citywide curfews for teens. TPA spoke up when members felt that the school board was allowing issues like crowded classrooms, gang activity and a shortage of bus drivers to go unaddressed in the midst of infighting over the evaluation of superintendent Ann Denlinger. DeWarren stood up at a school board meeting, challenging the board and informing the community that students were paying attention.
Langley believes that students have a responsibility to understand local government, to voice their concerns, and that elected officials have the responsibility to listen.
"I've wondered what kind of leadership are we attempting to create within the Durham community if we continue to have crowded classrooms where individual needs are not met," Langley says. "If we are not given the opportunity to have decent schools, what is there to keep us in school?"
Langley says that a 1999 trip to Washington, D.C., was the inspiration behind TPA. As part of the Duke-Durham Partnership for Youth, a local organization that pairs teens with community and academic mentors, DeWarren worked with a group of peers on the issue of teen privacy, researching the topic and striving for a balance between respect for privacy and school safety. The group crafted a position paper that they presented to the staff of Sen. John Edwards.
"What DeWarren took away from that experience is that students, like all citizens, have a right and a responsibility to act on issues of public concern," says Leigh Bordley, director of Duke-Durham Partners for Youth. Bordley says that it wasn't long after that trip that Langley announced plans to form his own organization. "He is a big dreamer and very optimistic about what people can do by working together," she says.
If DeWarren's optimism helped him envision TPA, it will be his pragmatism and organizational skills that will keep the group afloat after he leaves for college. He's taken the time to recruit members for an advisory board and a board of directors, bodies that include community activist Theresa el-Amin, Planned Parenthood's Robin Schryer, Angela Langley and Duke director of community affairs Michael Palmer. He's recently filed as a nonprofit corporation and has arranged for a permanent mailing address for the group.
TPA's long-range goal is to form a city-county youth council, composed of student-elected representatives who work with the mayor and city council, weighing in on youth issues and making recommendations. The group has researched similar programs in Connecticut and Virginia. Last month, the group received a grant to aid in their efforts and they've gained the support of two City Council members. "The only people that truly understand the problems that youth face are youth themselves," Langley says. "Young people are a big part of this city and they have issues as well."
Langley hopes to attend Morehouse College and plans to major in public policy and American history, because "we have to understand where we've been before we know where we're going." He would like to become mayor of Durham and the first African-American president of the United States. Lofty goals. But Michael Palmer and others working with Langley are the first to agree that he is headed in the right direction.
"He's mature and focused beyond his years," says Palmer. "If I look into his crystal ball, I see a very successful future statesman."