Hope and excitement permeated the air when more than 100 stakeholders – from government officials and community leaders to concerned residents – filled the University the University of the Virgin Islands’ ACC Conference Room on Wednesday for what could be the largest antiviolence gathering in the territory to date: the “Practice Peace Initiative” summit.
The Practice Peace Initiative is a project of the Rotary Clubs on St. Thomas and St.John, led by Rotary Sunrise, to reduce violence in the community. Over the course of several months, Rotary invited community leaders who work in areas where the effects of violence could be clearly seen as speakers to the clubs.
Bernard Wheatley, chief executive officer of the Schneider Regional Medical Center, first appeared before Rotarians in October 2013 on the actual cost of violent crime to the hospital.
At Wednesday’s summit, participants gasped audibly as Wheatley laid out the number of cases and dollar costs of violence-induced injuries treated at Schneider. Rape topped the list in number – 725 cases treated over the last four years – while gunshot wounds incurred the largest cost, almost $3 million over the same period.
A solid cadre of four panelists shared their many years spent dealing with violence and resolving conflicts. Erinma Bell, who lost a friend to 12 gunshot wounds and eventually led the charge against community violence, shared successful approaches from her 15-year antiviolence campaign, including community mobilization and talking about the issues.
“Don’t wait for it to come to your doorstep before doing something about it,” Bell said, advocating ownership of the issues, a message that resonated with many of the participants.
Educator Cirra Burke said, “I’ve lost 56 students in the past 13 years to violent crimes.”
Burke, who every summer works with the Junior University program for seventh-grader, continued. “I take ownership for every single time I lose a student. I ask myself, ‘What could I have done differently or what didn’t I do?’”
‘We Need More Young People’
Aziz Abu Sarah, co-executive director of George Mason University’s Center for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution, approached the issue from the eyes of a young person growing up in an atmosphere of violence.
Aziz, who was 7 when uprisings began in Jerusalem, recalled the rush he felt when he first started throwing rocks at passing Israeli vehicles. When a passenger got out and started shooting, Aziz shared, “It was scary but you never think it’s going to hit you.”
He emphasized the importance of involving young people in finding solutions.
“You’re never going to be successful by pushing the youth to do something,” said Aziz. “We have to stop treating them like these kind of ignorant young people. They have a lot of talent, lots of things they can do, and by not giving them the chance to expose it, you’re actually limiting them.”
Latoi Hedrington, a young beneficiary of My Brother’s Workshop, agreed with Aziz and provided insight on violence among young people in her neighborhood.
“A lot of violence here comes from revenge,” Hedrington said. “You might not do something to me, but you might do something to my sister or my mom. It’s not really about just killing anyone; it’s really about revenge.”
According to Hedrington, adults usually stereotype young people based on the mistakes they made and end up not wanting to listen to what the youth have to say.
“I’m a young person. I’m willing to help anyway that I can,” said Hedrington. “I don’t have the world in my hands. I’m not rich, but whatever I need to do, I’ll be there. We need more young people. We are the difference, not the elders.”
‘Less than 1 percent’
Amy Crawford, deputy director of the National Network for Safe Communities at John Jay College’s Center for Crime Prevention and Control, said that much of the violence in a community comes from a small section of the population.
“The common theme is that the small number of people are driving the vast majority of the violence,” said Crawford. “Less than 1 percent drives about 75 percent of your violence in every city.”
Crawford advocates not only community outreach and moral voice, but a different approach to law enforcement, often called the Boston model.
In this approach by David Kennedy, a united law enforcement unit, including the police, federal and local prosecutor, gather known members of neighborhood groups and tell them that the entire group will be held accountable if any member is found responsible for an act of violence.
Law enforcement would then use all possible “levers” on every member, from parole violations to outstanding child support.
Crawford said this “consolidated law enforcement” exerts pressure on the groups and “cause them to police themselves.”
Prison ‘An Exercise in Futility’
When asked what his organization, Fortune Society, does, founder David Rothenberg said, “It helps people reclaim their lives.”
Rothenberg’s Fortune Society space in New York provides a supportive environment for some 62 men and women, including the homeless, alcoholics, drug addicts and gang members. Each week, the residents spend 90 minutes just to talk about how their lives are going.
“The gangs are no different from college fraternities,” said Rothenberg. “There is a need for young people to bond together and find something similar.”
Many of these residents have run-ins with the law, so Rothenberg established the Alternative to Incarceration program where he negotiates with the legal system to allow him to work with individuals who got entangled with the law to save them from having to go to prison.
“It’s an exercise in futility, a system that succeeds on its failures," Rothenberg said about the prison system. "A man said to me once that all the behavior that got him into prison is what he had to continue doing to survive in the prison atmosphere.” The man told him at no point was he ever confronted with the idea of “What can you do when you come out to lessen the possibility of coming back?”
Incarceration, according to Rothenberg, does not deter violence nor reduce recidivism.
Collaboration is Key
After the panelists’ talks, the participants were split into five groups for an intensive brainstorming of solutions. For many of them, lessons on the importance of interagency collaboration stood out.
“When you’ve got big issues like street crime, not one agency, not one community, not one person can solve these issues by themselves,” said Bell. “It needs a host of multiagency strategies and working together.”
“It’s exciting how everyone’s talking about a collaborative community effort,” said My Brother’s Workshop Executive Director Christina Lutton. “We need to join hands because a lot of us are actually trying to do the same thing.”
As for whether all the talk in the Practice Peace summit will bear practical fruit, Bell is confident that it will.
“We have lots of people here around the decision-table – educators, people in health, youth and local people who are just residents from community groups,” explained Bell. “I think when you’ve got different people together like that, you know that there’s going to be a difference made.”
“Everybody has their little part to play, and each and everyone of them will surely take something away in increments into making this overall vision a success,” Bell said.