Meet NC’s Chris Suggs, the 16-year-old founder of Kinston Teens

‘With violence disproportionately affecting young people, we needed to make a difference’


Across the South, there are leaders revolutionizing what it means to be a Southerner. We spoke to one of these leaders, 16-year-old Chris Suggs, a resident of Kinston, North Carolina. He’s the founder of Kinston Teens, a nonprofit organization aiming to make a positive differences in the lives of community members.

This is what he had to say about working with North Carolinians and living in the American South.

How would you describe yourself? Do you identify as a Southerner? A North Carolinian? Why or why not?

I’ve never given this much thought, to be honest. There’s so much to love about living in the South and living in North Carolina – the food, music, BBQ, climate, etc. – but there’s also things that, as a young, black male, just don’t settle too well with me. It’s a very complicated love affair.

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Describe Kinston, NC, and your experience there.

Kinston, NC, is a small town centrally located in Eastern North Carolina — right between Raleigh and the beach. Although long before my time, Kinston was once known to be a vibrant, bustling town with a robust economy based on textile manufacturing and tobacco. Our downtown, known regionally as the “Magic Mile,” attracted visitors from far and wide to experience Kinston’s many cultural and natural assets, such as our music scene and views of the Neuse River.

Yet, in the past few decades, several factors converged that dealt painful blows to our local economy: the shuttering of the city’s manufacturing and tobacco industries, two devastating hurricanes within a three-year period in the 1990s (Fran and Floyd), higher than average utility rates in comparison to the state and an overall downturn in the local and regional economies. This has led to extreme economic disinvestment, weakened community morale and a large population lost.

Growing up after many of these problems have already occurred, it made me long to know and experience how our community was before the hardships. Is it possible for us to revitalize our downtown? Is it possible for us to create new jobs and reduce our unemployment rates and poverty levels? Is it possible for us to improve our local school system?

I believe my curiosity and passion to see my town vibrant and bustling is what prompted a lot of my community involvement. Many people complain about the issues in our town, and will say that there’s nothing good in our community. I know there’s a lot of good that can come from Kinston, and that we have a lot of potential for growth.

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What is Kinston Teens? What is the story behind its creation?

With a population of just over 20,000, Kinston has been ranked among the highest in the state for violent crimes. Through 2014, shootings became an almost regular occurrence in the city, and a common factor for many of them was the involvement of young people. Data showed the average age of both victims and offenders in these shootings was around 21 years old, so needless to say, this issue affected my city’s young people.

In addition to violence, my community has been ranked one of the most impoverished and economically challenged communities in the state and country. With these issues disproportionately affecting young people, I felt like we needed to be involved in making a difference.

This led me to founding Kinston Teens and focusing on the mission of empowering young people through service, leadership and civic engagement. Many local government agencies, religious organizations and civic groups had started initiatives and efforts to reduce violence and improve our community, but very few of them included young people in their focus, and none of them involved young people in leadership. Kinston Teens is a youth-led and youth-centered nonprofit organization, and we equip young people with tools and skills to make positive differences in their lives and the lives of others.

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What are your thoughts on the current state of the American South? What do you perceive to be the biggest issues? The biggest solutions?

Personally, I believe we’re a little too socially (and in a lot of places, economically and politically, too) stagnant. As the world around us revolves and modernizes, we still deal with extreme racial tension, economic and education disparities, systemic oppression and SO much more. A lot of how our Southern society was prior to advances such as the Civil Rights Movement is still here, and is not being properly addressed. I’m not sure what a solution would be for this, but it’s time for us to begin having the right dialogues to find one.

How can people support Kinston Teens?

We encourage other teens to look at our mission and consider how YOU can inspire your peers to make a difference in your community. Many youth say that the only reason they don’t volunteer is because they’ve never been asked – YOU can be the one who asks.

Kinston Teens is a budding nonprofit and relies on contributions from the public to operate. We feel that an investment in youth is an investment in the world’s future, so we encourage others to support our organization financially! More info about how to make a tax-deductible contribution.

A motto of ours is to “act locally, but think globally.” We plan to make positive changes to our local community, while gaining the skills and knowledge to become productive global citizens. We love to learn about, network and share ideas with other teens from around the world who are making positive impacts in their communities. If there are any young people or youth-serving projects or organizations who would like to chat with us, we encourage them to send an email to [email protected]

We encourage local teens to get involved and join our organization. A membership application can be found online.

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What are your plans for the next few years? What are your ultimate dreams?

Currently, I’m a rising high school senior. I hope to attend the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in fall 2017, where I plan to double major in Political Science and Public Policy. Following college, I hope to return to Kinston and continue working on the growth, development and sustainability of my organization. I also hope to pursue a career in public service, working first in my local government and eventually moving up the ranks. I have a strong inference in making a difference in local communities and the lives of young people, so my ultimate dream is to become President of the United States and focus strongly on supporting youth and community development from the federal government.