It was a violent year for Indianapolis teens in 2013 and city and community leaders are vowing to find ways to make life safer for them.
Throughout 2014, WFYI will highlight young people through an effort called TruColors, a social media campaign telling stories of youth who are making a difference in their communities by being leaders.
WFYI’s Sam Klemet kicks off the series with a look at LaVante' Birdsong.
Just after eight in the morning, Lavante’ Birdsong, 16, sits quietly as he starts his day in biology class at Fall Creek Academy.
While some of the other students talk amongst themselves, some even struggle to stay awake, he takes notes as science teacher Darius Sawyers goes through the day’s lesson.
Sawyers sees Birdsong not only as a good student, but a leader for his peers.
"It's his presentation. In terms of his demeanor or the attack that he has when he presents his message," said Sawyers. "Even though he might be right in his thoughts, he presents it in a manner that is very humble. So the combination of having a strong presence and his humble demeanor go well together."
Lavante Birdsong is soft spoken, but not shy.
His presence is felt in everything he does and he does a lot. He is a musician, an athlete, and participates in debate, but he relishes in being someone other students can look up to as an example.
"I think being a leader is important because I came from schools that weren't all that great and they didn't have people there to show other kids the way to go," said Birdsong. "A lot of kids are influenced by bad things especially in IPS. Coming from an IPS school, I think it is very important, so I took on the role pretty early and just rolled with it."
A prime example comes later in the day at basketball practice. Birdsong and his teammates are not executing the way coach Nigel Bryant wants and are being punished by having to run.
Lavante is always one of the first to finish and while fighting to catch his breath, briefly describes why. "To try and stay ahead of the back," he said.
In a city that saw its murder rate rise to a seven year high in 2013, Coach Bryant says it’s inspiring to have young men like Birdsong, who take pride in staying ahead of the pack.
"What stands out about him is his mindset. He thinks differently. He's a hard worker. He's always positive, always focused no matter what is going on," said Bryant. "He is wise for his age and I think he knows his purpose, he knows what he wants to do with himself. He knows his goals and he is going to reach them regardless of what anyone says."
And as teammate, Dravon Griffin, 18, describes, Birdsong’s leadership extends beyond the court and even though he is just a sophomore, is resonating with all students.
"The other day in class I was tired and he was like 'get your head up. You can do this work. We've got practice later, you can't get in trouble anymore.' He was just being a leader," Griffin said. "A guy like that, that's like a go to guy for me to help me out when I'm down, he can pick me back up."
Birdsong admits he could easily go a different, more destructive path – the influences are all around. But, he embraces the identity of being a leader which keeps him focused.
"I can say one thing here, (but) I still have to do it at school," said Lavante'. "If I say I'm a good leader then I need to show it at church and at school."
Lavante aims to help others, but has high personal expectations, as well.
"I keep my mottos in my head," he said. "One is 'chase the dream, another challenge.' I'm looking and pressing towards going to get my masters in music and minor in education and anything else that comes in the way I have to block it out and push it over."
Because, ultimately Lavante’ wants to attend Julliard in New York and in doing so unveiling a new path and new expectations for his peers.