Virtually in the shadows of the seat of our nation’s government and the crowds gathered for the National Cherry Blossom festival, the residents of the Benning Terrace public housing development are mourning a triple tragedy.
Two of their young people have been murdered, 13 youths have been indicted—virtually sealing their lives’ trajectory—and, perhaps most tragically, there may have been a way to prevent this devastation.
A televised news report on the indictments included a statement from Bob Woodson, founder and president of the DC-based Center for Neighborhood Enterprise (CNE), who decried a pullout of support for a neighborhood-based gang intervention initiative that had once made a dramatic impact in quelling youth violence in the community.
For nearly 30 years, Woodson has been identifying, documenting, and laboring to garner support for successful community-based gang interventions. In his search for effective youth outreach, he has gone into communities across the nation, asking young people about whom they turned to in times of trouble. Invariably, they identified a neighborhood figure. To break the cycle of gang violence and delinquency, Woodson has sought out leaders who come from the same “cultural zip code” to forge relationships with these at-risk youths. These individuals are available to young people 24/7, and their outreach incorporates principles of reciprocity, personal responsibility, and opportunity.
On the basis of these mentors’ efforts, Woodson launched CNE’S Violence Free Zone (VFZ) Initiative, which facilitates collaborative anti-violence programs in schools and communities. VFZ succeeds by engaging law enforcement and school administration representatives and, most importantly, local community-based youth outreach leaders and peer mentors. Today, VFZ programs are in 30 schools nationwide and have established track records of reducing violence, truancy, and crime in the surrounding communities.
The recent tragedy in Benning Terrace is especially heartbreaking for Woodson because, in 1997, the housing project was the site of the first VFZ initiative. The effort was supported by the then-housing receiver for the property, David Gilmore, who complemented the outreach of local residents (the Concerned Men of Benning Terrace) by providing practical job training and employment opportunities.
The Benning Terrace VFZ was hailed for establishing peace among two warring gangs, and as Woodson has testified, for 12 years there were no gang deaths at a site where violence once claimed 59 lives in a two-year period. Most importantly, not only did neighborhood outreach halt youth violence, but it actually transformed the vision and values of the young people: Former gang leaders redirected their credibility and skills to make positive changes in their neighborhood.
Now in their adulthood, a number of the former gang members had reached back to a second generation in the community, volunteering as football coaches for teams that became the pride of the neighborhood. But all that came to an end last year when the football facility was vandalized. When the volunteers could not pay for the required property insurance after the incident, the housing authority closed the facility, deeming it to be an unnecessary financial risk. As evidenced by the recent youth murders, the absence of support for the mentors struck a blow to one of the key vehicles for their leadership as positive role models.
As Woodson has pointed out, government-led strategies that are designed by credentialed “experts” and focused on “cops and curfews” have had little success in quelling youth violence and crime. In contrast, personal and consistent neighborhood outreach engendered long-term changes in the youths’ roles in their communities and their prospects for the future. The recent events at Benning Terrace serve as a tragic reminder that the solutions to many of our nation’s most troubling problems may lie among those who have firsthand experience of the challenge, a stake in the solution, and a heartfelt commitment to the community—neighborhood healers who should be given our recognition and support.
In speaking about the roots of gang violence, Woodson has noted that the attraction of gangs stems from youths’ need for protection and a sense of belonging and that the mentorship of adults in the VFZ provided an alternative, positive way to meet those needs. Moreover, he traces the absence of that sense of belonging and security to a steady decline in the presence of two-parent families:
Prior to the 1960s, the family was the most stabilizing influence in the communities. The black community is often used as the “moral barometer” of the health of the nation. In 1962, 85 percent of all black families had a man and a woman raising the children, and we did not have the runaway violence that we have today. … Today, 70 percent of black children are born into a family with a single parent. And one can see a correlation between that and youth crime.
Research bears witness to the truth of Woodson’s insight. Youths who do not live in intact family are more likely to engage in crime and delinquent activity. In addition, they are more likely to engage in risky behavior and suffer emotional and psychological distress.
The participants in CNE’s VFZs have provided critical, emergency support for at-risk youths that has produced a striking change in their lives and futures. A comprehensive, long-range strategy to reach future generations should focus on this kind of outreach along with initiatives to restore and strengthen the stabilizing institutions of marriage and the family.