by Tim Mudd
"Mother on crack. Dad was my role model, a bad one. Followed him. Just got tired. Too many friends getting killed," said one panelist when asked why he first got involved in a gang and then turned his life around to become a "violence interrupter" in Chicago. He serves as one of the trained anti-violence workers who prevents conflicts from escalating and interrupts the cycle of violent retaliation as part of the innovative, public health-based CeaseFire Chicago initiative - an effort that has garnered increased prominence from the documentary film, "The Interrupters."
The facilitator turned to another of the opening session's panelists: "Why did you become involved in anti-violence work?"
"I didn't want to see anyone else murdered, as my brother was," said the representative of the Student Peace Alliance who also helped create the youth-based Campaign for Nonviolent Schools. "I started doing peer mediation at Overbrook High School in Philadelphia when I was 15," she said.
These and other panelists shared their personal experiences growing up in violence-plagued neighborhoods and working to foster positive change in their communities. They also offered thoughts on how cities can reduce homicides of black men and boys during last week's Cities United Youth Summit led by Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter at NLC's Congressional City Conference in Washington, D.C. Several prominent mayors joined a group of nearly 200 other municipal leaders and youth from cities across the country at the Summit to discuss concrete strategies that communities can use to stop the epidemic levels of violence that disproportionately affect young black males.
Mayor Nutter joined New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu to launch Cities United in October 2011 as a collaborative effort among mayors, foundations, national nonprofits, federal agencies and youth, seeking to place African-American males who are victims and perpetrators of violence at the center of municipal agendas and develop recommendations for a national violence reduction strategy.
In recent months, NLC's Institute for Youth, Education and Families has been working with Casey Family Programs, Open Society Foundations, Grantmakers for Children, Youth and Families, the Association of Black Foundation Executives, the U.S. Conference of Mayors and other partners to help mayors advance this national dialogue.
As noted throughout the convening, a large body of research shows that young black males are significantly more likely than other segments of the population to be on both sides of violent crime and homicide. This epidemic of violence not only results in tragic losses of life, but tears at the fabric of communities throughout the country.
"We must be willing to have an honest conversation about the things that are holding us back as a nation and ask ourselves, ‘what are we prepared to do about them?' together," said Mayor Nutter, who serves as vice president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. "We must be willing to do something about a local and national epidemic not sufficiently talked about, much less tackled. There will be those who feel unqualified to speak, and those who will seek to distort the discussion in service of much different motives. But we will speak out, we will address, we will tackle black-on-black violence in our communities and we will do it together. As Dr. King wrote, we are bound together ‘in an inescapable network of mutuality.' We will say what needs to be said but hasn't been. We will do what needs to be done but hasn't happened."
Having a Frank Conversation
The two-day summit served as a jumping-off point for national and local efforts to explore new, integrated strategies that will address the conditions that contribute to the large number of violent deaths among black males.
At panel discussions, roundtables and networking events, city leaders and youth shared insights and ideas.
Jackson, Miss., Mayor Harvey Johnson, Tuskegee, Ala., Mayor Omar Neal and Selma, Ala., Mayor George Evans were among the city leaders in attendance who shared their communities' challenges with violence, while youth delegates offered their perspective on gangs, bullying and school dropout rates.
As they identified major priorities for moving Cities United forward, attendees agreed that future efforts must focus on reforming education policies that create barriers to high school graduation and postsecondary attainment, increasing awareness about the conditions perpetuating violence in African-American communities, ensuring black youth have access to strong mentoring relationships and integrating authentic youth voice and leadership in initiatives focused on reducing violent deaths among black males.
Uniting Against Violence
Acknowledging that the summit is just the start of a broader conversation, Cities United partners are planning the central elements of a nationwide campaign to galvanize mayors and other city leaders as key champions for action to curb violence-related deaths. This campaign will include additional meetings bring mayors and youth together with foundation and federal partners.
Next steps for Cities United will focus on identifying and engaging additional mayors, building strategic partnerships to support municipal efforts that align with the Cities United agenda and creating more forums where youth can be engaged in meaningful ways to support mayors' efforts to reduce violence.
"What gives you hope?" the facilitator asked as he wrapped up the opening panel discussion.
"This conference," said the Student Peace Alliance leader. "The fact that you're all here - the mayor of Philadelphia, others... amazing."
"Kids look up to me," said a Philadelphia CeaseFire representative. "They hang around me. I'm their role model, the father they never had. I see them wanting to change. I won't let them down."
Details: To learn more about Cities United, contact Leon Andrews at (202) 626-3039 or firstname.lastname@example.org.