Published: April 24, 2024 By

How can Colorado address its escalating youth violence crisis?

Ask Colorado youth.

A photo of the Game Changers group

CSPV Director Beverly Kingston, far left, YVPC Project Director Dave Bechhoefer, far right, and the Game Changers.

That’s the idea behind a thriving CU Boulder-supported initiative which has brought together nearly three-dozen Denver-area youth, ages 14 to 25, to help get at the root of the violence they’re witnessing in their schools and communities and take concrete steps to combat it.

“A lot of times people say they have answers, but then nothing really happens,” said 19-year-old Kaliah Yizar, a recent graduate of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Early College in East Denver and member of the Game Changers. “It’s important that the solutions come directly from those who are experiencing violence, because not only are they experts, they’re the ones who have to witness it.”

The group, which will host a series of events for this week’s Youth Violence Prevention Week, was formed in 2023 by the Youth Violence Prevention Center-Denver (YVPC-Denver), an outgrowth of CU’s Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence. YVPC-Denver is one of only five such centers nationwide, expressly funded by the Centers for Disease Control to confront what the agency calls a “serious public health problem.” 

For years, CU scholars have been studying community-based youth violence solutions and supporting coalitions with Denver neighborhoods, including Montbello and Park Hill, to put prevention strategies in place.

With their latest five-year $6 million CDC grant, it’s time get more youth involved.

“We’re taking the science about what works, getting it into the hands of the youth and then having them put their spin on it so it resonates with their peers,” said Dave Bechhoefer, project director for YVPC. “They are fantastic. They have an endless appetite to do more.”

Game Changer Keshon Nunn

Changing your community doesn’t happen overnight. The Game Changers have taught me patience.”
–Keshon Nunn


Getting at the root cause

Each day, according to the CDC, 13 youth die from homicide and more than 1,300 are treated in emergency departments.

In Denver, murders perpetrated by juveniles have risen 210% since 2010, while aggravated assault is up 17% and robbery is up 12%.

These numbers, youth violence experts say, are only the tip of the iceberg.

Bechhoefer stresses that youth have not somehow become inherently more violent. 

“But they now have easier access to guns so everything is amplified, and COVID and all the mental health issues around that didn’t help,” he said. “A lot of our educational systems and juvenile justice systems have also failed them.” 

Social media has played a role, too, with online feuds sometimes bleeding into real life.

“Back in the day, you didn’t have as much access to stuff happening across the world or in another state,” says Game Changer Keshon Nunn, a senior at Emily Griffith Opportunity School who has lost childhood friends to youth violence.

Some kids get in trouble when they lose hope.

“When you’re 14 years old and you don’t see yourself graduating high school, you don’t have a lot of hope for your future, so you think ‘What is the first thing I can do that can make me feel something,’” says Yizar. “They might find that connection in gangs or drugs.”

Putting words into action

The Game Changers meet weekly, devising ways to re-ignite that hope.

They’ve hosted block parties and poetry slams where they’ve taken the mic to open up about what they’ve seen and share their vision of a better future. Some have created a podcast around the Black history often missing from K-12 school curriculum.

Others have developed public service announcements around youth homelessness and hunger or crafted social media campaigns. This summer, the group plans to unveil a new app that will help connect kids in trouble with peers and supportive adults who can help.

Youth Violence Prevention Week

Voices Unheard: Documentary and panel discussion on mental health in the Black community
Thursday, April 25, 6:30–8 p.m. | Sie Filmcenter, Denver | RSVP

Uniting voices, shaping futures conference
Saturday, April 27, 11 a.m.–3:30 p.m. | Lowry Converence Center, Denver | RSVP

Youth violence podcast taping
Sunday, April 28, 10–11:30 a.m | Join via Zoom 

On Thursday, they’ll host a screening of a documentary film they helped make, about the suicide of a Denver youth many of them knew. Afterward, they’ll host a panel discussion around mental health in the Black community. On Saturday, they’ll host a conference.

Ultimately, many Game Changers say, the key to addressing youth violence is to listen to youth while also holding adults and institutions accountable for breaking the cycle. That includes keeping guns locked away, supporting mental health throughout the life cycle and providing positive role models for kids when it matters most.

Yizar, now a first-year-student at Howard University in Washington, D.C., pursuing her dream of becoming a civil rights lawyer, hopes to be one of those role models.

“My goal is to come back to my community some day and offer my services and continue to work with the Game Changers however I can,” she says. “I can’t wait to see what they do next.”