When a wave of violent crime swept through Kinston in 2014, Chris Suggs was startled to learn that both the perpetrators and the victims of the crimes shared a common characteristic – most were between the ages of 13 and 22.
Suggs, who was 14 at the time, thought his peers could do better. So he started getting his fellow young people together, creating a nonprofit called Kinston Teens that would give him and his peers a chance to improve their community through service projects, as well as have a voice in local affairs.
Now 16, Suggs and his group have won accolades both locally and nationally. In April, Suggs became the youngest person to receive a community leadership award from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. He received the award on a trip to Washington, D.C., where he met then-FBI Director James Comey.
On another trip to Washington in January, he met then first lady Michelle Obama and was appointed to the advisory board of a campaign aimed at getting more young people interested in college. He’s also gotten a national spotlight on CNN, the Huffington Post and other outlets.
Suggs plans to attend UNC-Chapel Hill in the fall, after graduating a year early from high school. He’ll study political science and public policy.
He says he’ll return to Kinston to continue improving his hometown, maybe by running for elected office. Kinston Mayor B.J. Murphy says Suggs has already made a major impact by mobilizing teens toward positive change.
“The teenagers are integral to helping to thwart crime before it ever starts because it’s their peers that are doing the criminal activity,” Murphy says. “What better group to have a seat at the table, to have a voice in the matter?”
Murphy says Suggs is willing to do the work that’s needed to make change.
“He has a vision and he’s just as interested in the action steps carrying it out as he is casting that vision,” says Murphy.
An early activist
The work Suggs is doing is centered on his own neighborhood of East Kinston, an area that has been plagued by poverty, violence and blight.
Tackling such weighty issues while still in high school may be unusual, but Suggs says he grew up deeply involved in public life.
His mother is a teacher and his father works for the town parks and recreation department.
To this day I still have people who give me strange looks when I’m the youngest person in a board room.
Chris Suggs, 16, founder and CEO of Kinston Teens
Suggs says he grew up attending school board and neighborhood meetings.
He organized his first event, a community cleanup and cookout, with his aunt when he was 9 years old.
“I was always that young person that everybody knew as being a volunteer or someone who would go the principal or the school board if something needed to be done,” he says.
The violence in 2014 made headlines across the state and beyond. Shootings were occurring just days apart in some cases, Suggs says. The local school system was also facing tough criticism.
Suggs says he knew the problems were real, but he also felt the image they created was one-sided.
“That was not the community life that I knew,” he says. “I thought there was great potential for young people to make a positive impact.”
He started kicking around the idea of a program to promote volunteering among young people, but decided to go bigger by starting a more comprehensive nonprofit that would include both community projects and leadership opportunities.
To launch the group, he held a news conference at a local library, inviting police, the city council, other community leaders and lots of young people.
He detailed his plans, which were centered on the areas of service, leadership and civic engagement. Rather than lead the effort on his own, the group would create a youth leadership council that would seek out and organize projects.
“I wanted to create something that would stay grounded and continue to have an impact after I’m gone,” he says.
The response was immediate and impressive. The next month the group held its first project, collecting hats and gloves for a homeless shelter.
Soon after, they held a teen town hall where youth were invited to talk about the issues that they felt were hindering their success, from high school classrooms that lacked a permanent teacher to a dearth of recreational opportunities.
In response to the summit, the group gathered support to open its Youth Leadership and Resource Center at the Kinston Enterprise Center. The space allows the group to hold programs for youth on topics such as employment and community resources and to connect them with mentors.
About 30 student volunteers are involved in the group, Suggs says, and ties with local police and city leaders are strong.
He’s finishing his high school classes online so that he can devote more time to the organization, though he’s not paid. He also does public speaking and consulting work with others interested in forming similar groups and helped co-found the national Black Youth Network, which aims to connect and empower young leaders.
Kinston Teens raises its own funds through barbecue fundraisers and other events and has gotten some small grants.
Murphy, the mayor, says he partnered with Kinston Teens to win a $50,000 grant from the U.S. Conference of Mayors that will allow them to clean up vacant lots across town. He says he’s identified a thousand such lots that are owned by the city and could be handed over to individuals or businesses to become gardens, art centers or other projects.
Another ongoing project allows groups to adopt a street for clean-up and landscaping improvements.
Suggs says his active role in the city has, and still does, raise eyebrows.
“A lot of people were surprised,” Suggs says. “To this day I still have people who give me strange looks when I’m the youngest person in a board room.”
His peers, though, almost universally support his efforts, he says.
“We’re really changing the face of Kinston,” Suggs says. “We’re making headlines for getting young people involved in great things.”
Chris J. Suggs
Born: June 2000, Kinston
Career: Founder and CEO, Kinston Teens
Education: Senior at Kinston High School; will attend UNC-Chapel Hill in the fall
Family: Parents Kristal and Reco; brother Curtis; sisters Chereeka and Kiana
Notable: Suggs is not shy about his hopes for the future. He says he could see himself one day as the president of the United States.