Youth Violence, Civil Society and the Power of Relationships

Don’t Shoot!

So screams the title of criminologist David Kennedy’s excursus through his years of working with communities, gangs and law enforcement in a persistent quest to end inner city violence. Throughout Kennedy’s detailed rehearsal of efforts in Boston, High Point, Minneapolis, Cincinnati, Baltimore and other venues, he points not merely to a strategy for reducing violence, but also the context of the violence itself. Here, the discussion turns to an ethos of misunderstanding and mistrust.

Kennedy claims that the three core stakeholders in inner cities—residents, gangs and police/law enforcement—misunderstand each other. Each group wants something better for the community but sees the other groups in adversarial terms. Yes, even those youth and young adults who “bring the noise.” At the core of his work in violence reduction strategy, then, is a need to establish relationships of trust and accountability between the stakeholders.

Juvenile courts, detention centers and prisons continue to fill with the casualties of our failure as a society to invest in relationships and social capital. Pennsylvania recently conducted a study of juvenile recidivism to determine key factors that lead to the rearrest and reconviction of its youth. The study found a significant correlation between single parent homes and recidivism. The correlation was documented in both urban and rural areas! A single parent home most often comes from a failed relationship, or an improper understanding of the connection between sex and commitment, which is still a relationship issue.

We have known since Lewis Yablonsky studied street gangs in the 1960s that gangs function as surrogate families, with all of the attendant trust and loyalty issues that form social bonds and capital. Again, relationships take center stage.

In writing on prison programming, John DiIulio told us 20 years ago that the key element to the success of a program and its impact on inmate behavior during incarceration and successful transition back into society is the people implementing the program, as opposed to the content of the program itself. In my 2000 report “Faith Based Institutions and High Risk Youth” I called this “the right staff” over ” the right stuff.”

Virtually every grassroots violence reduction strategy manifests relationship building at its core. The National Alliance of Faith and Justice operates “Pen or Pencil,” as in penitentiary or education which contains great content- but even better people building relationships with so-called youth at risk. The Children Defense Fund may be a lobbying group committed to eliminating the “cradle-to-prison pipeline,” but attend any of its gatherings and witness the large number of youth in attendance, engaged with staff and volunteers from around the country.

The Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, a coalition on African American congregations committed to social justice, regularly convenes youth and young adults in their work to dismantle mass incarceration. Amachi Mentoring has over 10 years of experience matching tens of thousands of people of faith with children of the incarcerated in mentoring relationships which have a proven track record in promoting pro-social behaviors.

Chicago’s Operation Ceasefire employs a team of violence “interrupters” who know the neighborhoods and its conflicts, empowering them to intervene with strategies of conflict resolution that do not include violence. When I first met current director of the Department of Justice’s Center for Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, Eugene Schneeberg, he was working with Straight Ahead ministries in Boston, building relationships with young men in juvenile detention.

At a recent conference entitled “Mentoring with Faith, Healing our Communities” sponsored by the Philadelphia Leadership Foundation and supported by the Campaign for Black Male Achievement, keynote speaker Rev. DeForest “Buster” Soaries related the story of a young man he knew while pastoring in Harlem. Soaries rehearsed the youth’s struggles with the law, even humorously, though pointedly, relating Soaries’ challenge to take his skills as a car thief and make a legitimate living as a locksmith. But the punch line of Soaries’ presentation came when he told of the revelation that came to him during his encounters with the struggling Harlemite: “I was programmed into believing that the answer to Tony’s problem was getting him into a program. But Tony did not need a program, he needed a relationship!”

The irony of successful programming that reduces youth violence is that it all revolves around relationship building. The tragedy lies in the fact that relationships must now be programmed and structured, as opposed to evolving as a part of the natural fabric and social capital of our society. One minister in a crime ridden city took training to become a mentor to young men returning from incarceration. At the end of the training, he was screened and matched with a youthful offender. At the first meeting between the two, the pastor grimaced in recognition of his new mentee: The county had matched him with his own nephew! “I had to go to the county to get trained to do something I could have done at the dinner table,” he lamented. So should we all lament about our loss of the dinner table, the church, the corner store, Main Street and other venues historically rich in social capital, now abandoned to the busy-ness of a nation too busy to care.

—Harold Dean Trulear is the Director of the Healing Communities Prison Ministry and Reentry Project of the Philadelphia Leadership Foundation, Associate Professor of Applied Theology at Howard University School of Divinity, Washington, D.C. and a Fellow of the Center for Public Justice.