07/03/2012 04:26 EDT | Updated 09/02/2012 05:12 EDT

Getachew Gets a Bite of a Rhodes Scholar's Noodle

11 Alive

In the midst of the Jane Creba tragedy in 2005, it was a youth leader named Kofi Hope who spoke eloquently about guns, the root causes of the problem and the state of black youth of Toronto. The founder of the Black Youth Coalition Against Violence had been selected by the Toronto Star as one of the "10 People to Watch" for his efforts.

In 2007, he was made a Rhodes Scholar. This year, he returned to Toronto with a newly minted PhD from Oxford. He reflects on the latest tragedy at the Eaton Centre as well as looks at potential solutions to help curb what is becoming an often occurrence in the GTA.

What was your reaction to the latest shootings in down town Toronto?

It was very upsetting. The amazing thing was I was just down the street at a conference for a youth-led organization called Lost Lyrics. Kids from Jane and Finch and Malvern were showcasing how they use the arts and hip-hop to empower themselves. It was crazy, because this was the same place we organized a big conferences in 2006 as part of our work around gun violence, the same year there was another infamous shooting just up the road from the Eaton's Centre. It was like déjà vu and depressing to think this issue is still going on.

The United Church Observer once described you as "wise leader who is on a passionate battle against gun violence." That was during the so-called summer of guns in Toronto of 2005. Share with us your experience.

In 2005, I was president of the Black Student's Association at the University of Toronto. I was shocked both by the tragic violence taking place and the media's response. It seemed the attention was focusing on black youth as the source of problem. My take was that black youth were actually the solution.

I saw that the root causes of gun violence discrimination, poverty and marginalization were being ignored in favor of simply more police and jails. I sat down with leaders of other black youth groups and helped create the Black Youth Coalition Against Violence. We began organizing an awareness campaign called BLING (Bring Love in Not Guns). We started mobilizing our peers and were becoming a voice by black youth, advocating with policy makers and the media, eventually even making a presentation for then-prime minister Paul Martin.

What are some potential solutions?

The shootings are not the issue; they are symptoms of larger issues of poverty, exclusion and stereotypes and racism. All the media's focus is on this one horrible criminal act, but the real story of what's going on in Toronto is consistently ignored. We are fast becoming a city of haves and have nots, a city where inequality is growing. Many of our communities on the peripheries of the city are becoming areas filled with the working poor, new immigrants and visible minorities who have almost no connection to the downtown world of shiny condos and middle class professionals.

What has changed since 2005?

In fact with the recession, rising cost of living, youth unemployment, things have gotten worse. This is symbolic of the major failings of our political system. If it's in transit, poverty or the environment, we try to use quick short term solutions to problems that will take decades to solve. And we always want to blame someone else. But these young people are products of Canadian society; they didn't come here from Mars. Toronto is a wonderful place -- but we're far from perfect.

But instead of talking about that and how we solve this polarization of our city we've been spending our time searching for "gravy" that isn't there and talking about dumb plans like revitalizing the waterfront with a giant ferris wheel. Where's the plan to revitalize Jane and Finch, or Rexdale, or Malvern?

You have just come back to Canada with a PhD after spending seven years as Rhodes Scholar in the United Kingdom. That is a wonderful achievement!

Yes I am very blessed to have had the opportunities I did, to travel the world and study at one of the world's premiere universities. But to those who much is given, much is asked in return. As I told people when I left for Oxford, this was just another opportunity to take the work I was doing to a higher level: fighting to build a more socially just world.

The only way all of these blessings I've had in my life make sense is if I use opportunities, power and privilege to help change the world to benefit those on the margins of society. That's why I've come right back to where I was when I left.