Last Wednesday evening a small group convened in United Way’s innovation space at our new office at 370 James Street to talk about violence in New Haven neighborhoods. It was one of a series of conversations we’ve had after Esther Massie, Executive Director of LEAP, held a community-wide meeting on youth violence late last year in response to New Haven’s rising homicide rate. Esther and I wanted to explore possible next steps. When we convened these conversations, little did I know how powerful and enlightening they would be.
Though we didn’t come to any conclusions on “next steps,” the message from those at the gathering was loud and clear: “We are responsible for our community and we are going to take back our community.” The question is how do we get there? And for me, what role I can play as president and CEO of United Way to help?
While I don’t yet have an answer to those questions, one thing I will say is that it was an extraordinary two hours of listening to those who live with the reality of gunshots in their neighborhoods. I listened while anti-violence activist Darrell D-Russ Allick described going to an emotionally charged scene after a recent shooting and convincing the brother of the victim to put down his gun. Your mother, he said, doesn’t need to lose two sons. She doesn’t need to pay for two funerals.
I listened while two Street Outreach Workers from New Haven Family Alliance William “Junebug” Outlaw and Omar Ryan, talked about a midnight call to the hospital after a shooting, and having to go tell a group of gathered friends outside that the victim didn’t make it. Outlaw talked of watching them disperse, and knowing he’d have to track them down before the revenge shooting started. He told the story of being called to a house one evening where a teenage boy was seething. His mother, the boy finally revealed, was entertaining men in the back bedroom. It’s this kind of rage, the outreach workers agreed, that is expressed on the street. With guns.
These guys are on the frontline of what’s going on. And they have hope. Lots of people are doing good work, making a difference, they said, only folks don’t hear about them. They only hear about the crime. They emphasized the importance of communication. It’s a small city, they said. If we can just get people talking …
I listened while Tirzah Kemp, who recently joined our team at United Way working on our Boost! program, talked about her experiences. One day, she said, her 8-year-old wanted to go play outside. “Not now,” said her 15-year-old. “The older kids are outside.” She knew what that meant. Within the hour, she heard gunshots. Tirzah talked about going home and locking her door at night. About the lack of trust in the community. She talked about having to comfort her children after a shooting. How upsetting it was to her that no one came to see if they were OK.
I listened as Barbara Tinney, Executive Director of New Haven Family Alliance, echoed Tirzah’s experience. She talked about the importance of community, of how the idea of “neighbor” is missing from “neighborhoods.”
I listened as Kevin Ewing, a pastor and community activist, talked about how many programs were already in place addressing the issue, and that to solve the problem we needed to find some other, new approach. I listened while United Way Board member and Hillhouse High School Principal Kermit Carolina used the image of a pyramid to describe the problem: How most of the violence was caused by a very small percentage at the top, those he referred to as the “it group,” and how the next group, just under the “it group" on the pyramid, are those who wanted to be part of the “it group". Law enforcement, he said, was needed to deal with the “it group". Social intervention, he said, was needed to work with the followers of the next rung. At the foot of the pyramid are the observers, they are close to the action but separate. They aren’t hard to identify, he said. They are the ones reading below grade level in schools, and often already have a probation officer assigned to them.
I was struck by how culturally isolated we are, and how we have so much reinforcement to stay culturally isolated. And so few opportunities to step into someone else’s shoes. The experience for me was unique. So often in public situations people are looking to me to speak and for guidance. Last night, it was comforting for me to listen, and not to tell. Wouldn’t it be a great start if we could create more environments for that to happen?