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Teens offer pleas for street peace at Voices Against Violence contest

| Friday, June 12, 2009, 12:00 p.m.

Terrell Gray used math — his favorite subject in school — to talk about his struggles with violence.

Math and the numbers in equations make sense to him, but violence in the streets does not, Gray, 15, said after reading his poem Thursday to a crowd in Market Square, Downtown.

As part of the first Voices Against Violence contest to promote peace, Gray earned second place for his poem. The contest, which drew about 120 people, featured students from Pittsburgh Public Schools.

Gray, a student at McNaugher Education Center in the North Side, spoke about making it in life without a father, who was in and out of jail, and a mother, who left when he was 8 years old. Other family members, including the aunt who took him in, cheered his award-winning performance.

"I was surprised (to win)," Gray said. "I was shaking up there."

Pittsburgh Young Leaders Academy helped sponsor the event. The academy has been encouraging ninth-graders from area high schools to determine challenges facing their community, said Holly McGraw, its director.

Ninth-graders from Oliver, Langley, Peabody, Brashear, and Carrick high schools spent six months developing ideas to combat issues such as violence. Focusing on violence through a performance was the idea of Brashear students, McGraw said.

Deron McCray, 17, a student at Brashear, took the first-place prize for a rap about ending violence in Pittsburgh. He said his experience growing up was "kill or be killed. You gotta do what you have to do to survive."

The song was a dedication to a friend who was shot, said McCray, who goes by the name Young Official.

Students spoke of parents who were absent from their lives, about friends and family members who were killed and about feeling unwanted.

Vladimir St. Surin, director of Student Life at Community College of Allegheny County, spoke about losing his 19-year-old brother two years ago to violence in New York City. St. Surin and his brother played football at Robert Morris University. His brother tried to help a friend who was being harassed after a party, St. Surin said.

"Find what you want to do, and do it now," he said. "Because you don't know when you'll be gone."

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