Toward the end of the Live Talk discussion program that opened EDC’s recent violence prevention summit, the audience of 200 people grew silent as Sha-King Graham, 17, spoke about the police officer who had killed his sister. “When she died, there were just a few lines in the paper. When a cop gets killed, it’s front-page news,” said Graham, a member of Youth Force of New York. Later in the discussion, Graham’s fellow panelist, rapper Chill E.B., returned to the subject of police and police conduct. “We don’t need more police. We need to get them to do their job. To serve and protect,” Chill added, to the applause of the crowd.
For police officers in the audience, such as Lieutenant Gary French of the Boston Police Department, it was an inauspicious beginning to the summit. “What am I going to say to this liberal crowd?” French wondered aloud after the discussion.
But to Gwendolyn Dilworth, the driving force behind the gathering, French’s rhetorical question spoke to the point of the summit: What do people like Graham, Chill, and French have to say to one another? How can we get people from different vantage points and with differing views to work in concert to prevent violence?
Dilworth is director of EDC’s National Network of Violence Prevention Practitioners (NNVPP). This national coalition brings together a diverse group of people, organizations, and disciplines to develop an integrated approach to reducing youth violence in our communities. That diversity was readily apparent at the recent NNVPP summit. Attendees included youth organizers, representatives of community-based organizations, researchers and academicians, government agencies and foundations, police and probation officers, journalists, entertainers, and artists.
As it turned out, participants found plenty of common ground—as well as areas of disagreement and tension. Perhaps the key unifying theme throughout the three-day conference was the recognition that the eclectic mix of groups and organizathons represented have to find new ways to work together—both on a national level and within specific communities.
On that score, Gary French fit right in. As commander of the Boston Police Department Youth Strike Force, French is clearly a tough cop, and he makes no bones about the aggressive tactics his force uses to head off gang activity and violence. But when describing the secrets to Boston’s success in reducing gang-related violence, he sounded more like a grassroots community organizer. “When I first started with the force, our only goal was to respond to a call in less than six minutes, whether it was someone in trouble or lighting someone’s pilot light. Now the whole emphasis is on building partnerships and reducing crime.” French spoke about the mutual respect his force has built with youth “streetworkers” who help patrol the neighborhoods. And he talked about the importance of sharing grants and sharing credit with all his partners—including other branches of the city government, other enforcement agencies, civil rights organizations, youth groups, and social services.
Youth volunteers are among French’s most important partners—and he makes sure that they serve as equal partners alongside city officials, ministers, and researchers. That’s the same approach Dilworth brings to the management of NNVPP, including the planning of the summit. For example, youth played a prominent role in the summit’s planning forum. “The young people who participated in the planning forum made it very clear they wanted a voice,” said Dilworth. “They didn’t want adults to speak for them. What they did want was for the adults to provide them with tools and capabilities so that they could speak, and speak more effectively. ‘Help us get equipment, help us use technology,’ they told us. ‘Give us your knowledge and capabilities, and we will put what we have on the table as well, and that will help us develop our voice. But don’t try to be that voice for us.’”
Dilworth listened hard to that advice, and the young people’s contributions to the summit program set the conference apart from a typical gathering of professionals, researchers, and policymakers. Members of Youth Force of New York, based in the South Bronx, kicked off the summit by teaching participants to write hip-hop introductions for themselves. Later, Youth Force members and other youth participants served on panels alongside national experts representing such organizations as the American Academy of Pediatricians, the National Crime Prevention Council, and the U.S. Justice Department.
This unusual intermingling of ages, cultures, and perspectives played out throughout the summit. In session after session, participants learned of a wide range of innovative approaches and unconventional alliances that are showing promising results in reducing conflicts, prejudice, or violence. For example:
- Rotynia Adams-Payne, founder and director of Mothers Against Murder and Assault, described her program, which brings young, violent offenders together with the mothers of murder victims. “How could these mothers go on after burying their babies? But when we talked with them, they were saying, ‘I’ve got to do something. I can’t just live here with my pain.’ So we recruited about 40 of these survivors to work together as a group. We decided that these mothers were the message—that they were the way to reach some of the young men who were labeled hard core. We thought that a mother’s love might be able to get through to them. For these young men, we found that it is very powerful to feel that these women cared about them—women who had no reason to care.”
- As a panelist on Live Talk, Jaime Ramirez, 17, of the Los Angeles Conservation Corps, spoke about the connection between environmental awareness and violence prevention. Ramirez, who is about to graduate from high school, spends a week in school and a week working for the Corps. “The best solutions are when people care. I talk to ghetto kids in Long Beach, where I live, and I try to get them focused on something positive. The Conservation Corps has done that for me. Before the Corps, I just got into trouble. They made me environmentally aware. I never used to appreciate a tree. I never paid any attention. But now, people have shown me how to appreciate it. I say, ‘Wow, that’s a beautiful tree.’”
- Three high school students—Paul MacDonald, LaSonya Stewart, and Steven Schwartz—presented an anti-prejudice curriculum they developed as part of a program sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League. In the first year of the program, the ADL brought a group of Ethiopian Jews to Los Angeles to meet with diverse groups of students. MacDonald recalled the first meeting: “I was sitting in a history class when a group of Ethiopian Jews came for a visit. We were all fascinated because none of us knew there were black Jews. For me and other blacks, it was really interesting to hear people who looked like us talk about being Jewish. We all learned something different from them. For example, the Hispanic students could relate to the immigrant experience of the Ethiopian Jews, who had emigrated to Israel. There were many kinds of opportunities for us to relate to the group. They shared information about their lives, their religion, their tastes in music and clothes. We just shared so many common bonds.” MacDonald and Stewart—both of whom are African American—traveled with student groups to Israel to meet with Ethiopian Jews. After returning, they joined with other students—such as Schwartz, who is Jewish—to create a peer education program based on their experiences. The students produced a video featuring vignettes on interracial dating, racist humor, and racist graffiti, which aim to stimulate discussion, facilitated by peer educators like MacDonald, Stewart, and Schwartz.
Originally published on May 1, 1999