It’s Time to Unmute The Uncomfortable

By Stacia Erdos Littleton

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – At age 14, eighth-grader Kevin Richardson suddenly found himself without the trumpet he loved to play, thrust in the media spotlight, and tagged as one of The Central Park Five. He and four other teens were wrongfully accused and convicted of the assault and rape of a 28-year-old female jogger in Central Park. Kevin spent seven years in prison, three years on parole, and was forced to register for life as a sex offender before the real rapist confessed. The five teens, now men, were finally exonerated.

Kevin has shared his experience on the national stage including in interviews with Oprah Winfrey and NBC’s Lester Holt. Now on Feb. 4, he will bring his powerful story and advocacy for reform to the Mahoning Valley as part of “Unmute the Uncomfortable – a Symposium on Racial Justice, Mental Health Awareness, and Suicide Prevention.”

To prepare for the symposium, I set aside a recent Saturday and watched Kevin’s story, which is depicted in the Netflix miniseries “When They See Us.” At the end of the day, I felt outrage, disbelief, injustice, (a mother’s) heartbreak, and sadness. I was awed by the strength exhibited by these children (yes, children) who refused to confess to the crime even if it meant they would grow into men behind bars. I now see why Levar Burton called the miniseries “essential viewing for EVERY American. As essential to your understanding of America as was ‘Roots.’ ”

Kevin has said April 19, 1989, began as a normal day for the 14-year-old who loved to play the trumpet and hoped one day to go to Syracuse University. But that night would change the course of his life.

After the horrendous attack on the jogger in the park, the New York Police Department rounded up and arrested 10 suspects, including Richardson, Antron McCray, Raymond Santana, Yusef Salaam, and Korey Wise (who only went to the police station to keep his friend Yusef company.)

The miniseries depicts how with no parent or guardian present – they were interrogated (and worse) for hours upon hours before finally being coerced to point the finger at each other even though only two of them knew each other.

There was a rush to convict – by the press, the public, and the district attorney  – despite there being no DNA and no evidence connecting the teens to the crime. All were found guilty. Four were sent to juvenile correctional facilities. Wise, at 16, the eldest, served a brutal 13 years in federal prisons before the real assailant finally confessed and Wise was released.

On Feb. 4, professionals and the public will gather at the Eastwood Event Centre in Niles to learn more about how to bridge the gap among the medical, mental health and legal systems of care. Other speakers include Judge Carla Baldwin who will speak on trauma-informed care in the courtroom; Coleman’s clinical director, Carmella Hill, on supporting clients of color; and James DeLucia of the Mahoning County Juvenile Justice Center on developmental trauma. Attorney Pierce Reed of the Ohio Innocence Project will join Laurese Glover who will share his experience of spending 20 years in prison before the innocence project helped to overturn his murder conviction.

The day will focus heavily on the impact of racial trauma. Richardson and Glover spent key developmental years behind bars. While in prison, Wise spent much of his time in solitary confinement – the only way to protect him from the nearly fatal beatings he endured. 

A 2019 article published by the University of Michigan School of Public Health asked the reader to imagine spending 22 hours per day in a 6-by-9-foot cell, lacking windows and communication to the outside world, for days on end. “Isolation of this magnitude can cause irreparable damage to the brain, particularly the prefrontal cortex responsible for impulse control that develops into a person’s twenties,” the article stated. “Those held in solitary confinement can develop depression, panic attacks, hallucinations, anxiety, paranoia, and anger.”

“Unmute the Uncomfortable” is being presented by Coleman Health Services – a nonprofit behavioral health organization.  When I started at Coleman nine months ago and learned about this project, I was immediately drawn to the potential impact of this discussion.

So were other entities including the Trumbull County Board of Mental Health and Recovery, Mercy Health and the Mercy Health Foundation of the Mahoning Valley, the Cafaro Foundation, The Business Journal and others who offered their support and sponsorships.

While the public is invited to attend, organizer Katie Cretella has worked hard to have this event accredited so social workers, counselors, EMTs, nurses, and attorneys can receive continuing education credits. 

We’ve also invited Malik Mostella, community liaison for the Youngstown Poland Department,
and Carol Bennett, assistant provost for diversity at Youngstown State
University, to serve as moderators in the panel discussion that will conclude the day. First responders and students will be provided tickets at no cost.

I know this will be an impactful day, an important day and likely an uncomfortable one. But my hope is that these uncomfortable discussions lead to a better understanding, real changes, personal growth, and a better, evolving Mahoning Valley.