Lost & Found

Transforming adversity into advocacy, two DC youths use bereavement as a tool for social change

Episode 5: Lauryn Renford & Destini Walker

A Before We Could Drink Series

“Last year, I received an email from one of my Washington contacts. She shared the Pathways 2 Power website with me, and I was really moved by the message.

“Lauryn & Destini have taught me the value of strength and resilience on an entirely new level. They’ve empowered so many with their work. They’re an absolute credit to D.C.”

– Leah Judson, Before We Could Drink Creator

Photo 2022 © Leah Judson | FUJIFILM GFX100S and GF45mmF2.8 R WR

Lauryn Renford’s adolescence was molded by loss. In the fall of 2017, her boyfriend was killed in an armed robbery, gunned down a mere 300 feet from his front door. A keen athlete, Zaire Kelly had won various accolades in track meets across the country. He could run a mile in 4.2 minutes.

Just before his fateful encounter, the 16-year-old had been walking home from College Bound – a preliminary after-school program for prospective university hopefuls. He’d planned on pursuing a career in forensic science. It would never happen.

Four months later, Paris Brown was shot and murdered in Southeast Washington. A close friend of Lauryn’s, hopes of lyrical prominence stirred the aspiring poet, but his writings wouldn’t reach the hands of potential publishers. Instead, those words lingered heavy in the hearts of family and friends, gathered at his crowded memorial service. He was just 19.

“I remember feeling those deaths very acutely,” Lauryn recalls. “I was attending Thurgood Marshall Academy at the time – that’s where Zaire and Paris studied, too.

Photo 2022 © Leah Judson | FUJIFILM GFX100S and GF45mmF2.8 R WR

Photo 2022 © Leah Judson | FUJIFILM GFX100S and GF45mmF2.8 R WR

Photo 2022 © Leah Judson | FUJIFILM GFX100S and GF45mmF2.8 R WR

“Everybody rallied around a sense of solidarity. It was like we were all experiencing it together, as one.”

Situated in the historic neighborhood of Anacostia, Lauryn’s school was founded in 2001. Named after the Supreme Court Justice of the same name, the public charter institution was a passion project led by the students and professors at Georgetown University Law Center, founded on the principle that all children should be able to attain their full potential. As blossoming lives were tragically cut short, the murder of students presented a grimly ironic set of circumstances. Pupils were shaken – Zaire and Paris could’ve easily been them.

“Everyone around me could empathize,” Lauryn corroborates. “We may have been caught up in the wrong place, at the wrong time. It’s scary that you can do everything right… get good grades, stay out of trouble, and still wind up in a situation like that.

“I’ve thought about this a lot, and I still think we were in a lucky position. The teachers around us really cared – they knew how to navigate the grief we would experience. They acknowledged that it wasn’t a linear process, and always ensured that support systems were there.”

Photo 2022 © Leah Judson | FUJIFILM GFX100S and GF45mmF2.8 R WR

In 2020, gun violence became the leading cause of mortality for Americans aged 1-19. Overshadowing cancer, car accidents, and drug overdoses, the US endured a cascade of firearm-related fatalities, surging 29% from the previous year. Since 1981, more than 170,000 youths between the ages of five and 24 have fallen victim to this epidemic – a truly sobering statistic.

“A lot of us began to rally against the normalization. We didn’t have to accept this as ordinary. Looking back, I know that I had a voice, but sometimes you need a catalyst to be loud and proud about it.”

One day, Lauryn and her peers sat riveted in a social studies class, absorbed by the arguments of an impassioned debate. Emotions ran high, but grief had a potency that inspired. Amid those conversations, an idea had begun to develop.

“Eventually, we agreed to set out our ideas as a unified front. That’s how we came up with Pathways to Power.”

Photo 2022 © Leah Judson | FUJIFILM GFX100S and GF45mmF2.8 R WR

Photo 2022 © Leah Judson | FUJIFILM GFX100S and GF45mmF2.8 R WR

Photo 2022 © Leah Judson | FUJIFILM GFX100S and GF45mmF2.8 R WR

Although it currently sits within the budget of Lauryn’s former high school, the aims of Pathways encompass Washington, D.C. as a whole. Working to create dialogue with the city’s policymakers, the group strives to nurture inclusive relationships between governing bodies and the population at large.

As co-founder, Lauryn wants to provoke uncomfortable conversations. In August 2019, she incited debate when a commemorative mural was unveiled outside The Fridge – a multipurpose arts center in Washington’s Eastern Market district.

“The solution is layered, but it begins with empathy,” Lauryn explains. “This mural should be a source of discomfort. I think there’s meaning in unease – driving individuals to get up and do something.”

Designed by artist Martin Swift, the ‘Limestone of Lost Legacies’ depicts paintings of Paris Brown, Zaire Kelly, Jamahri Sydnor, Steve Slaughter, and Taiyania Thompson – five murdered teens hailing from different parts of the city. Carefully crafted over a period of three years, the portraits are a powerful testament to the memory of the departed.

Photo 2022 © Leah Judson | FUJIFILM GFX100S and GF45mmF2.8 R WR

“Mourning Zaire and Paris included this outlet – art and advocacy, and the intersection between the two,” Lauryn recounts. “I’m not an artist, but I had very strong visions of what I wanted it to look like, where I wanted to be, and how I imagined its effects.

“All five needed to be really tall and realistic, in a neighborhood where they’d be recognized. There were times where I thought I couldn’t do it… the process took a lot out of me. I felt like my focus was being pulled in many different directions, being in high school and dealing with those pressures. But in the end, I think this project saved me. I managed to generate something meaningful out of a situation that really shouldn’t have happened. It helped me get through the grieving process.”

Devoid of any unnecessary complications, names and faces are foregrounded beneath stark map diagrams of Washington’s wards. Each figure illustrates the victim’s district, a poignant reminder of the ongoing emergency and its immediacy.

“You’re forced to confront it,” Lauryn observes. “That’s exactly what needs to happen – people must recognize and respond.”

Photo 2022 © Leah Judson | FUJIFILM GFX100S and GF45mmF2.8 R WR

Photo 2022 © Leah Judson | FUJIFILM GFX100S and GF45mmF2.8 R WR

Photo 2022 © Leah Judson | FUJIFILM GFX100S and GF45mmF2.8 R WR

By drawing attention to the veracity of these topics, Lauryn hopes that more purposeful solutions will be implemented, like her organization’s Safe Passage schemes. Plans include designated refuge spots, predetermined bus routes, and LiveSafe – a mobile application designed to securely monitor the welfare of DC youth.

“Personal stories humanize these issues, but it all begins with those faces,” she insists. “Everything I do is solution based. This isn’t just about conversation. It’s about action.”

In the heart of the capital, the bloodshed persists. Underfunded and forgotten, communities like Anacostia are still devastated by countless gun-related killings. Destini Walker is 17 and grew up in the Ward 8 area. She knows the consequences all too well.

“Five years ago, I lost my older brother,” she says. “Everything I do now is for him.”

Photo 2022 © Leah Judson | FUJIFILM GFX100S and GF45mmF2.8 R WR

A popular character, Derronn Walker was an avid basketballer with a sharp sense of humor. Like so many youngsters before him, he was caught in the crossfire of a crisis he had no part in. Following his death, Destini became more actively involved with Pathways, participating in its diverse initiatives. Impressions of her brother are a constant. They instill passion and purpose in everything she pursues.

“I miss him deeply. He’s always in my thoughts, and I know he’d want me to do this,” she reflects.

Pathways kicked off in Destini’s ninth-grade year. Reluctant at first, she slowly began to find her feet, participating in debates that stimulated an assessment of the issues at hand.

“I’ve felt a lot of love here. The majority of the time, I feel safe… even when things get a bit crazy. I was nervous at first, but I settled into it. I feel like they’ve put me on the right trail. Since Derronn passed, I wanted to be involved with something that tackled the fundamental questions surrounding gun violence. It just took a few years for me to find a way in – I knew that I had to build my confidence first.

“When I was in eleventh grade, we undertook a lot of projects in my Introduction to Law class. My teacher noticed my enthusiasm, so she encouraged me to join. I started attending, and just loved the open discussions. It was so passionate, and now that energy translates into positive outcomes for the wider community. For us, everybody counts. Everyone has value.”

Photo 2022 © Leah Judson | FUJIFILM GFX100S and GF45mmF2.8 R WR

Photo 2022 © Leah Judson | FUJIFILM GFX100S and GF45mmF2.8 R WR

Photo 2022 © Leah Judson | FUJIFILM GFX100S and GF45mmF2.8 R WR

No calamity is without cause, and in situations like these, underlying factors are profuse and complex. For Destini, brutality burrows its roots across a wide range of socioeconomic factors, spreading its rot through the broken branches of government, community, and the home.

“These things don’t happen in a vacuum. There are lots of contributing influences, and I’m intent on being an advocate for those matters too,” Destini observes. “It starts with jobs, and the availability of opportunities. Ward 8 is the poorest part of D.C. There isn’t a lot of money around. For those who live here, it’s difficult to find steady work. I think that’s why a lot turn to crime, out of desperation.”

The risk of becoming numb to this crisis is an ever-present fear, and it isn’t something Destini expects to solve overnight. Giving in to despair is a constant internal battle, but strength ultimately outweighs her sorrow.

“It’s exhausting. Someone’s getting killed every single day, and the victims are frequently younger and younger. It’s so draining because it feels so relentless.”

Photo 2022 © Leah Judson | FUJIFILM GFX100S and GF45mmF2.8 R WR

Arming herself with an insight far beyond her years, Destini’s compassion forms the basis of her outlook. To make an effectual impact, its function is critical.

“Empathy is so useful. It reminds you that you aren’t alone in your experiences, and what you’re feeling. When you can put yourself in someone else’s shoes, and really consider their perspective – everyone involved benefits. That’s how awareness is gained, and positivity is a natural byproduct of that whole process. I think a lot of D.C.’s youth are missing that sense of support from our leaders. Once we have a seat at the table, we can start discussing how to resolve the problems we face.

“For now, I think the first step begins with listening. It really is that simple.”

Since its conception, four cohorts of leaders have continued Pathways’ fight, and it doesn’t show any signs of stagnation. “The domino effect is clear,” Lauryn smiles. “And it’s only getting bigger.”

 

You can learn more about Pathways to Power here

 

To learn more about Before We Could Drink and how it got started, click here

Photo 2022 © Leah Judson | FUJIFILM GFX100S and GF45mmF2.8 R WR