Friday, March 25, 2011

Reflecting on Youth Violence Prevention Week

As Youth Violence Prevention Week draws to an end, I am reminded of a site visit I recently conducted with one of our staff in the Office of Youth Violence Prevention, Lori Toscano.
Lori is the community liaison officer, and like me she is from New York. She has a long and impressive history working with youth including a stint as a probation officer. She’s a ball of energy who regularly monitors the two Safe Streets sites we fund to make sure they are meeting their benchmarks.

About a month ago, we visited both sites, one in McElderry Park and the other in Cherry Hill, where we are implementing the Cease Fire model developed in Chicago. It’s an evidence-based approach at reducing violence in neighborhoods by engaging individuals in activities such as conflict resolution and mediation.
As we drove I would pepper Lori with questions about the importance of the work and why we should continue. Without hesitation, she replied “I’ve been in this work a long time and I stay because no one else does it like we do and it makes me feel good when we show that we are getting results. We are demonstrating that we are reducing the amount of violence in these communities.” 

In speaking with the outreach workers, what struck me the most was the eloquence with which they spoke about how they came to this demanding work. Many of them have histories of “wreaking havoc” in their communities and see this as a way of making amends. Others see themselves more through the lens of a medical model and refer to the work they do as a “vaccination (against violence) that goes into a community and works with people to help them see that there are other ways to deal with issues.” What was common to both groups was their assertion that “everybody wants a way out” of a life of violence. What they provide is an invaluable and life-saving service to their communities oftentimes on a 24-7 basis.

I remember the story an outreach worker shared in McElderry Park of what his father said to him when he visited him in jail: “It’s time for you to put a stop to this. I was in your seat and your grandfather was in your seat. I failed you. You don’t have to fail your kids.”

These are powerful stories of individuals taking responsibility for their actions and contributing to the betterment of their communities, one person at a time. And that’s the message of Youth Violence Prevention Week – that we all can play a role in reducing and PREVENTING violence in our communities.

Youth Violence Prevention Week ends tomorrow, but our prevention work and that of our partners will continue until homicide ceases to be the leading cause of death for young people age 15-24 in Baltimore City.

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