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We must all be activists to stop youth violence

By Saeed Shabazz -Staff Writer- | Last updated: Oct 5, 2009 - 10:14:24 PM

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Related story: Community mourns death of Derrion Albert (FCN, 10-05-2009)

Remarks written to Derrion Albert inside his obituary. Photo: Timothy 6X
( - There is national outrage over the death of Derrion Albert, a Chicago high school honor student fatally beaten by peers in September. His shocking death caught on amateur video has become a symbol of unchecked community and youth violence.

Cyber highways and radio airwaves are filled with questions and discussions about why Mr. Albert was beaten by fellow youth with a huge piece of wood and stomped after apparently walking into a melee outside a community center. At Final Call press time, four teens ages 16 to 19 had been arrested and other suspected participants in the fatal attack were sought by police.

But before the 16-year-old victim of teen violence could be laid to rest on Oct. 3, a 14-year-old was found beaten on a street in the Edgewater section of Chicago and a 17-year-old girl was shot in the neck.

How can this end?

“We stop it by becoming activists. I mean all parents, professionals, clergy, teachers,” advised Dr. Alvin Poussaint, director of the Judge Baker Children's Center in Boston, and co-author of a 2001 book with Amy Alexander “Lay My Burden Down.” The book chronicles mental health issues in the Black community and covers teen violence. Dr. Poussaint is also a professor of psychiatry and faculty associate dean for student affairs at Harvard Medical School.

“We are all in this, all of the positive elements of the village that is,” Dr. Poussaint told The Final Call. The way forward is to support holistic efforts to strengthen well being by “demonstrating good parenting” and collectively “loving our children,” said the respected psychiatrist.

“How many of our 19-year-olds have a job?” asked Dr. Poussaint. “There they are, on a corner, nothing to do, angry and frustrated.”

The power of village parenting

Jayyidah Clarke, 39, of Staten Island, N.Y., a single parent of two sons, 17 and 7, appreciates the power of “village” or collaborative parenting. Her son Jevon seemingly was on his way to a juvenile facility because of his temper, which got him suspended from high school at age 15.

“I told him that he had to make a choice; and that he had the support of his grandparents, uncles, aunts, his father and me; and that we all loved him, but he had to toe the line,” Ms. Clarke told The Final Call. “Having the village really is important for teenagers today,” she said.

Asked how he was coping with violence around him, including several shootings of teenagers in his neighborhood the past two years, Jevon responded, “I have learned to avoid trouble; I just mind my business. I go to football or track practice and I come home.”

“He has learned that he must have a purpose when he leaves the house; there can be no hanging out,” his mother added.

President Barack Obama, a Chicago resident, dispatched U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Education Secretary Arne Duncan, a former head of Chicago public schools, to seek solutions to youth violence.

While Derrion's death has struck a nerve, the problem of youth violence isn't a new one. In 1997, Bill Clinton released “The President's Anti-Violence Gang & Youth Violence Strategy.” The Clinton strategy was to pour money into anti-violence and drug interdiction programs, according to advocates and youth service professionals.

The Clinton report also predicted “a doubling of juvenile arrests for violent crimes by year 2010,” if nothing changed.

Falling crime numbers, false sense of victory?

Dr. Carl Bell, a Chicago-based clinical professor of psychiatry and public health and founder of the Institute for the Prevention of Violence, said anti-violence programs were working as evidenced by a drop in FBI crime statistics.

The numbers may have produced a false sense that the problem had been resolved, said Dr. Bell, who is also CEO of the Community Mental Health Council. Today youth homicide rates are double what they were three years ago, he noted. Dr. Bell sees a loss of political will to put funds where they are most needed, which he argues are in violence prevention efforts, as part of the problem.

“The FBI has been reporting that crime is down across the nation over the past few years; and I believe that the public feels that the prevention programs have been so successful they don't need to have this issue on their radar screen. Therefore they aren't pushing for public policy that demands more money,” Dr. Bell told The Final Call.

A three-year study by Northwestern University, which was commissioned by the Justice Dept., showed gun violence dropped 17 to 24 percent in six of the seven neighborhoods served by the anti-violence and gang intervention organization Ceasefire Illinois. The study was released last year.

Ceasefire utilizes former gang members and those who have been incarcerated to mediate disputes and help youth find alternatives to violent and negative behavior. It also approaches violence as if treating a disease—spotting the symptoms, treating the causes and stopping the disease from spreading—instead of simply dealing with violence as only a law enforcement or criminal justice concern. The cash-strapped Illinois legislature attempted to cut at least 85 percent of its funding to Ceasefire in FY 2010. The previous year, facing state budget shortfalls, then Gov. Rod Blagojevich also slashed Ceasefire funding.

The current governor has said Ceasefire will receive $5.6 million in funding, which is down from $6.2 million.

Research by the Centers for Disease Control shows homicide as the second leading cause of death for young people ages 10-24. Homicide was the leading cause of death for Black males in that age range and, in 2007, 668,000 youth 10-24 were treated in emergency rooms for injuries sustained from violence.

States cut anti-violence spending

While millions have been spent on youth programs, advocates say the spending is no match for punitive spending or dollars put out for incarceration and punishment. Rachel Fazzino, director of peace education at Boston's Louis D. Brown Peace Institute warned the state legislature's proposed cuts in grants aimed at youth violence prevention will precipitate a “perfect storm” of youth problems—such as increased crime, more school drop-outs and higher teen pregnancies.

“We are changing course and arguing that the money being spent go only to primary prevention—stopping the problem before it happens,” Ms. Fazzino said.

Activists are still fighting with Massachusetts politicians to have funding restored to the 268 organizations that received zero funds for fiscal 2010 for at-risk teens. Millions of dollars were lost to programs that connect youth with careers, develop youth skills, help get jobs and provide teen mental health services.

“We fear there is going to be a huge shift in public policy away from prevention and we know there is a need for a concentration of funds on prevention,” said Ms. Fazzino.

Activists and public policy watchers in California are working feverishly to get state legislators to value efforts against youth violence. The state released data saying between 1994 and 2003, arrests of juveniles for crimes of violence declined by 30 percent—another example of Dr. Bell's warning that some use numbers to say youth violence has been defeated.

Jennifer Ortega, communications director for Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, said her group is pushing state legislators to support preschool and after-school programs, high school dropout prevention, intervention for juvenile offenders and services for troubled youth.

“The state legislature cut $14 million from programs in 2008 and isn't proposing to restore that money, while proposing more cuts. We have produced a report that says juvenile crime costs the state $1 billion a year,” she said.

Some complain funding isn't always going to groups connected with youth at the street level.

Expert: We need to listen to our children

“Our youth are not empowered in this society, simply because they are Black, and they suffer from low-self esteem,” said Dr. Joseph Strickland of the University of Chicago, who has researched advocacy issues that affect Black males. Dr. Strickland, also known as “Dr. J” is founder of M.A.G.I.C. (Metropolitan Group for Igniting Civilization), a non-profit youth development and advocacy group on Chicago's Southside.

State, city and federal structures that dispense anti-violence money don't have youth committees so decisions on what is best for troubled teens is based on what adults think, he said.

“When young people don't feel a part of a structure, they will not deal with it. I know because I am in the community on a daily basis. We need indigenous programming and programmers need to acknowledge and respect the opinions of the youth,” Dr. Strickland told The Final Call.

“We don't talk to our youth, and they are tired of everyone looking at them like they are crazy!”

Though Dr. J holds a Ph.D. in social work, and MAGIC is developing a national reputation for youth organizing and activity, he and his counselors often go into the community wearing Air Force One sneakers, baseball caps and sweatsuits. “And we speak their language,” he said. “Young people model their behavior after people they respect.”

“It is a shame that a child had to lose his life” for public policy people to get bent out of shape, Dr. Strickland continued.

“I know one of the problems is that they have been giving money to those who can't fix the problem,” he said.

Paradise Gray, a Pittsburgh activist and a founding member of the One Hood Coalition agrees with Dr. Strickland. “There has been a lot of money thrown at youth violence prevention in Pittsburgh, but those programs have been proven ineffective,” he said. “Many of the groups that have been funded don't have the confidence of the people in the community.”

On Oct 3, Pittsburgh activists and parents participated in the second annual Women's March for Peace. “The women in Pittsburgh have decided that they must take the youth violence issue head on and children, elders come out and walk with us. Our appeal to the youth is that someone cares for you,” Mr. Gray said.

According to police data, last year Pittsburgh saw its bloodiest year since 1993 with 73 homicides.

“Our children can't go three blocks without the fear of being killed before they get back home,” Mr. Gray said. Pittsburgh has the highest incarceration rate in the nation for juveniles doing life without parole, he added.

Dr. Bell says problems facing youth today are the same problems faced back in the 1990s when youth violence was on everyone's radar screen. “Children are children,” he said. “Even though the system locks them up as adults; and locking them up isn't solving the crime problem.”

“What do I mean?” he asked rhetorically. “The brain does not fully develop until the age of 26, meaning that our youth need parents, the community to provide them with structures that enforce a positive social structure,” Dr. Bell explained.

“We must be there to establish rules and regulations, and we must be there to protect our children—that means during those vulnerable hours from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m., we must be out in front of the school, and in the community,” Dr. Bell stressed.

Releated news:

Community mourns death of Derrion Albert (FCN, 10-05-2009)

Using civil disobedience to combat street violence (FCN, 08-27-2009)

The Attracting Power of So-Called ‘Gangs' (FCN, 06-11-2009)

Gang intervention program earns expansion funds (FCN, 05-28-2009)

Stopping the Violence (FCN / Minister Louis Farrakhan, 03-29-2009)