When I arrived here seven years ago as Neighborhood Safety Director, Richmond was under (gun)fire, literally. Since that time, city leaders, philanthropic partners and young people are making tremendous strides toward creating a dramatically new expectation and social norm.
Today, commitments and efforts to end gun violence in Richmond have yielded promising results. We are moving in the right direction. However, further actions are necessary if we are to reach our ultimate goal of closing the chapter on gun violence and more importantly sustaining this essential conclusion.
President Obama in his State of the Union Address offered encouragement when he promised a new initiative to help youth stay in school and out of the criminal justice system. This month, he unveiled details of ‘My Brother’s Keeper,’ his new program of strategies for helping young men of color facing tough odds to stay on track and reach their potential.
Folks involved in this initiative will certainly be smart and excited about rolling out this important work. They should also be cognizant of the reality that we provide in Richmond, and committed to changing how we typically approach this work in order to a make positive impact on those around the country who are not being reached by traditional youth development programs.
Currently there are hundreds of young people in Richmond who need to be provided with effective youth development opportunities and purposeful engagement with healthy adults on a consistent basis. The young people I speak of are not currently being reached because we are not being deliberate and intentional about reaching them, and we need to be. If we don’t quickly awaken to this reality and commit to vigorously addressing it head-on, sustained reductions in violence will be short-lived in Richmond.
One of the most important actions that we as a community can take immediately is to begin to ensure that every youth and young adult in our city has access to positive relationships, healthy engagement and opportunities that generate hope. Our community must be willing to invest in, create and advance a youth development agenda that delivers a powerful impact for all Richmond youth.
The kids that I find myself most anxious about are those that we see as we facilitate our important work in some of the most impoverished neighborhoods in our city. These young people aren’t currently committing gun violence but because they live in neighborhoods where such violence has been prevalent. They may be disconnected from the current range of services, even though the services or opportunities may be offered right down the street from their homes. These kids are negotiating significant exposures to trauma, strong feelings of abandonment and influences of rage and anger that could produce future acts of violence.
As a community we must create the conditions and wherewithal to become more assertive and focused in such a way that we reach and positively impact this particular youth population. In doing so, we greatly improve our opportunity to sustain a narrative for our city that doesn’t include epidemic rates of firearm assaults.
A healthy community must acknowledge that young men don’t arrive at solving their conflicts by way of a firearm overnight. Environments that have massive rates of homicides (consisting mostly of boys and men of color, both as victims and suspected offenders) don’t happen by accident. Only unhealthy communities allow such levels of destruction and carnage. The many young men that the Office of Neighborhood Safety (ONS) currently focuses its attention and resources on are a product of the same kind of neglect and isolation that we see in many Richmond youth today that haven’t committed gun violence.
In working with the ONS population over the past seven years, I have come to believe that, for most of these young men, their violent acts are loud cries for constructive attention, love and support. They, too, were either not sought out or found for such investments of positive relationship and healthy opportunity. As a result of acknowledging this reality, the ONS utilizes an outreach strategy that aggressively, deliberately and intentionally seeks these young men out, finding and engaging them with a purpose.
We go after these young men with reckless abandonment as though they really matter. Why? Because they do. Through our efforts, we have demonstrated that we have an eager and passionate desire to be in relationship with them. Why? Because we should. If we are to be a healthy community, a “Healthy Richmond,” we must create an environment where our most vulnerable and isolated youth are found and provided the attention and care that they need and deserve. We must get out of our comfort zones and go and get them!
As a healthy city, we must be careful not to repeat history, and instead work fervently to capitalize on and leverage our current momentum. If we do this effectively, we will dramatically change the odds for our most vulnerable young people and the communities where they live.
In so doing, let Richmond not simply be seen and experienced as a safe city, but one that truly demonstrates a high expectation, sincere care and deep love for all of its youth.
DeVone Boggan serves as Neighborhood Safety Director and Director of the City of Richmond Office of Neighborhood Safety (ONS), a non-law enforcement city agency that works to reduce firearm assaults and associated deaths. http://www.ci.richmond.ca.us/index.aspx?nid=271
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