There is a not-so-quiet revolution going on in some of the worst areas of America. Directors of local anti-violence programs, along with expert panelists, met at the White House last week to describe what’s happening in places like Dallas, Atlanta, Milwaukee, Baltimore and Prince George’s County, Maryland.
While there was general agreement that “there is not a problem in America that is not being solved by a faith-based group,” everyone also agreed with Robert Woodson, Founder and President of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, who said, “We can’t talk about reform without civil order being restored first.”
The first step in restoring civil order, of course, is to create safe families, communities, schools and neighborhoods by eliminating violence. Under Woodson’s direction, some of the worst areas in the U.S. have implemented the national Violence Free Zone Initiative (VFZ) with documented success. While some groups claim rather nebulous successes, the VFZ groups have data to back up their claims. The hard data, of course, translates into changed lives and brighter prospects for young people whose previous options were limited by a climate of violence, distrust and destructive behavior.
The six VFZ sites have recorded significant reductions in disruptive or violent incidents, truancy and suspensions, and increases in school attendance. These changes have positively affected 20 schools — including the two worst high schools in Prince George’s County, Maryland: Bladensburg and Largo. According to the speakers, the changes were a direct result of the work of “moral mentors and character coaches.” Those change agents, it was agreed, must come from within the various local communities. As Woodson described it, “there is no access to adults and others from the outside; you have to be from the same zip code to be trusted.”
Ironically, most kids tell someone else when they are going to engage in criminal activity. When the VFZ people are on the scene, they can tune into that “buzz” and know what’s going on in time to possibly stop the destructive behavior. Here is how the speakers reach the kids in their programs:
- Gwendolyn Sands, Visions Unlimited Atlanta, talked about the importance of transforming a child in order to transform a family and community.
- Curtis Watkins, East Capitol Center for Change in Washington, D.C., and Prince George’s County, Maryland, emphasized the importance of shifting negative behaviors into positive actions. He also talked about the necessity for “bottom up” movement; that solutions can’t be imposed from the top “authorities.
- Ramon Candelaria, Latino Community Center in Milwaukee, reminded the audience that when VFZ connects kids to their families and schools, it interrupts the chain of events leading to jail time. His goal is to counter the “culture of failure” because if we don’t, there will be a high price to pay for families, schools and communities.
- Omar Jahwar, Vision Regeneration, Dallas, described the inevitable link between problems and the urban environment, with the bottom line being the importance of getting through to the urban kids that “what you’re doing, ain’t working!” He challenged the audience with the call to “invest all of you to save some of them.
- Billy Stanfield, New Vision Youth Services, stressed the importance of “seeing life through their reality.
- Dr. John Deasy, CEO of Prince George’s County Public Schools, is the head of the nation’s 17th largest public school system. His motto is: “If you ask kids, they’ll tell you.” He believes in going straight to kids to get answers to questions and to find out what’s going on. His other motto is that there are no “disposable youths,” so we have to find ways to give kids both “belonging” and “responsibility.
Long after other “innovations” have come and gone, programs like VFZ will continue to have a positive effect on kids in violent areas by producing good results through transformed lives.