I was wholly disgusted when I read the “Comprehensive Gang Assessment” prepared for the city and county of Durham by Deborah Lamm Weisel and James C. Howell. They were paid $60,000 to tell us what we already knew and gave little guidance on what it would take to reduce gang activity in Durham.
I’m dismayed due to the way Durham has historically dealt with gangs and in how we continue to function as if we have no clue as to what it would take to solve the problem. For the past ten years I have been yelling like John the Baptist in the wilderness begging people to wipe the sleep from their eyes and take a look at what is happening before it is too late.
Instead of creating well conceived strategies to shift the tide, we pay a few academics to study the problem, spend a few years evaluating the study, pull together a committee to design solutions, call a meeting of power brokers to raise some money and, after a few years, hire a staff to implement the recommendations. By the time we get to the stage of execution the study used to fuel the discussion is long outdated.
I have seen this process used over and over again in Durham. From the years of planning that went into the now defunct Youth Coordinating Board, which promised to be Durham’s fix all solution to youth service delivery, to the long gone community resource center housed in the former Holloway Street Elementary School, Durham is good at planning for the short haul while being weak on envisioning beyond the next wave of leadership in government.
I’m fed up with meeting to talk about ways to fix things. I’m also disgusted with all of the programs created to mend our youth gang problem. The truth is most lack substance, creativity and access to those we need to reach. In other words, those involved in gangs aren’t participating, for the most part, in these programs. Most of what we do is all hype.
I’ve noticed a disconnection between most program models and the youth served and their parents. Many models are operating with assumptions related to the economic conditions of the families being served. As hard as it may be to believe this, not all gang members come from poor families. An obstruction to productive outcomes is, to a large measure, the result of building structures that force youth and their families to fit into a specific definition.
We’ve been seduced into believing all gang bangers come from homes where dad is not present, where there is a cycle of incarceration within the family combined with substance abuse and meager academic preparation. By pitting all within these neat pockets many are lost along the way.
That’s why I called Jim Brown last week. The Hall of Fame football legend has dedicated his life to empowering individuals to change of their lives and achieve their full potential. Since 1988, Amer-I-Can has made a major impact in communities across the nation.
“We infiltrate gangs by finding the talented in the gangs and offer them a jobs,” Brown told me last year during a conversation. “You get the best in the gangs to work with you.” One feature of the program, and therefore a powerful weapon in accomplishing this task, is that 95% of the Amer-I-Can staff is composed of former gang members and/or ex-convicts. Brown effectively contributed to the Los Angeles Bloods' and Crips' gang truce and helped keep peace among rival gang sets during the Los Angeles Uprising.
That’s what’s missing in most of the programs created to address Durham’s youth problem. The experts at the table lack the understanding and access to those most impacted by the issue at hand. Brown has the star appeal that will draw youth in, and, once in, he has a curriculum designed to help people make the changes.
The objective of the program is to cause one to examine their past conditioned behavior patterns and to systematically apply proven methods to overcome behavior that negatively influenced their lives. It’s a comprehensive approach that does what most programs overlook-it begins by enhancing a person’s self-conception.
Youth get involved in gangs because they’re convinced it’s the best option available given their limits. Academic enhancement fails when the student can’t make the connection between performance and outcomes. Once they buy into the notion that they are less likely to succeed academically they make decisions to nurture their tarnished self-esteem.
Giving a student options to bolster poor academic performance is needed, but none of it works if that student fails to believe it will make a difference. Amer-I-Can begins on the inside. It’s a spiritual process that helps youth and their parents take ownership of the unlocked power within them. That’s what’s missing in Durham. We need more than program models. We need to rekindle the flames of imagination within our youth.
“Reverend, we have been making a difference for 20 years,” Brown said. “All we need are the resources.”
If Durham can find $60,000 to pay for a study, certainly we can find the resources to bring Amer-I-Can to our city. Amer-I-Can gets at the root of the problem. If you’re interested in learning more let me know.