Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Time to handoff to Jim Brown

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 By the time we get to the stage of execution the study used to fuel the discussion is long outdated.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.


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  2. A lot of people have been been trying desperately to get our local government to start talking, stop paying money for studies and actually do something about providing alternate avenues for kids attracted to gangs. But, face it, so long as the problem is perceived as mostly a problem for the black community and, whether accurately or not, one for the poor black community, then 90% of this town isn't going to give a crap about actually solving the problem.

    I have come to believe that the only universal motivating force among human beings is based on economics. In this case, Jim Brown is advocating an ideal beginning for an actual solution: find the best and brightest among the gang members, put them to work elsewhere, train them to do the same thing they've been doing with the same rewards, but out them in a legal, non-violent environment. In other words, put them to work on Wall Street and in the boardroom of companies. Because, trust me, there is absolutely no difference in what it takes to survive and move up in a gang, and make money doing it, than in what it takes to thrive in the capital markets, or in the structure of a company.

    It may take some creativity in training, regular avenues of education aren't going to cut it when it comes to kids who have pretty much missed the foundation of a traditional education, but trust me: open up an avenue of success like that to some of these gang leaders and they will succeed. They'll make more money than they ever did as gang members, and they'll gain the same power and self-respect, and, well,they'll be driving the same cars and others will follow behind them. These kids aren't stupid. They know their best options when they see them. So give them a better option.

  3. Anonymous, your comment is right on. Gang warfare is, ironically, pretty good training for survival in capital markets.

    Another avenue that would be interesting to explore is to see if we could seed some true entrepreneurship in this volatile environment. Why must we always focus on "getting" jobs? What would happen if we paved a path for folks to *create* jobs, and build wealth as an owner instead of just an employee?

    Even on Wall Street or in boardrooms, you're still working for someone else. I've never seen an environment that creates the focus and discipline as well as trying to serve customers directly, and create value such that people *willingly* give you money for the product or service you provide.

    Our desperately needs more OWNERS, and not just more employees. The trouble is it's a lot easier to slip into a "job" than it is to start a business. And I don't mean the actual *work* -- I mean the regulatory and paperwork burdens that being a business owner entails.

    Permits, filings, penalties... lots of negative things await the entrepreneur and risk taker. But if we could turn back the tide of taxing our creativity and productivity, and help orient these folks towards learning how to "hug customers" instead of guarding their turf, we might see some interesting results.

    A great book:


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