We’ve seen the iconic photos of communities ravaged by violence. The news is full of them. News feeds and headlines show foreign conflict zones and refugee children rendered homeless or stuck surviving in derelict buildings. Often missing from these stories are children in American cities. They too can be homeless or living at the mercy of slumlords, tuning out the sounds of gunshots each night, and unable to play outside for fear of crossfire. American children’s stories may not find space in mainstream news coverage, but American children in violent neighborhoods suffer from the same trauma as children abroad, and even as soldiers at war. Their symptoms tell the disturbing truth about the alarming rates of violence they experience in their neighborhoods.
The Far Rockaway community where we launched the Rock Safe Streets Cure Violence program in 2015 was one of these neighborhoods. Last week a man was fatally stabbed and found dead in the stairwell of his public housing complex where any of the thousands of residents of the apartments, including children, could have seen the violence. Another man was shot 2 weeks ago.
City Council Member Donovan Richards, who serves the area and grew up in the Rockaways, testified that not too long ago, gun shots would ring out every night. One of the largest public housing complexes in the neighborhood, the Edgemere complex, was so notorious that it earned the nickname Edge-Fear. Growing up in this area meant being born into fear and living in its shadow. It’s no wonder young people began closing themselves off and arming themselves – literally and figuratively – against the vulnerability that has cost so many their lives in our Far Rockaway service area.
“Even a few years ago, you would never see children playing outside or sitting on the benches in the common areas, or going to the beach, even though we’re right next to it,” confirmed Amy Wilkerson, Director of Youth Services, overseeing Rock Safe Streets at Sheltering Arms.
For children in the Rock Safe Streets service area, just playing outside is an act of brave defiance – a tacit claim to their right to be carefree kids. That’s why it was so significant to see hundreds of kids and families out at our 4th Annual Rock Safe Streets Peace Fest last weekend. Kids enjoyed many of the elements of a classic block party – local catering, bouncy houses, a DJ, cotton candy, raffles, Zumba, art, dancing, performances, and a game truck – all things usually reserved for children in safer communities.
At Rock Safe Streets, we’ve set out to make the joy and sense of community at Peace Fest the new norm. We are working toward a future Far Rockaway where every child has the chance to survive and succeed, free from the mental and physical tax of constant exposure to violence. We think children deserve to ride their bikes outside or play with their friends on the basketball court without dodging bullets. We believe children should outlive their parents. We know they will put down guns or even refuse to join gangs if they have the right alternatives to be safe, get an education, and earn a living.
This future is already underway thanks to the hard work of our street team staff, known as Violence Interrupters. The cheerful scene at Peace Fest was possible because these conflict mediators are able to infiltrate gangs (without the guns, vests, and badges of the police) and deescalate conflict to prevent violence, while simultaneously mentoring high-risk youth and giving them opportunities for economic advancement so they can leave their old lives behind. Youth receive job development, mental health counseling, educational support, and referrals to housing, food, and other resources.
The Rock Safe Streets team unites the majority of peaceful community members in solidarity against violence. Together, they have been providing the needed social pressure to cause the few perpetrators of violence in the community to put down their guns. The program also connects community members to mental health support and other resources that stop the spread of violence from one traumatized person to the next. This collection of research-proven methods that drives Rock Safe Streets is working.
“Since this program started in 2015, we have seen a 90% reduction in the number of shootings in this area,” said City Council Member Richards, addressing the crowd at Peace Fest. “We’re going to have a great time here today, but we need each and every person here, even after today, to hold each other accountable. If you see someone at risk of violence, send them to Rock Safe Streets,” he added.
It’s not the typical speech you’d hear at a block party, but it’s a sign of a healing community, and a symbol of progress made possible by residents coming together to work toward a common vision of peace.
With increased funding, we hope to expand our service area to a second site, growing the staff and our geographic footprint, as well as the possible addition of a hospital intervention program to counsel victims of violence in the immediate aftermath of shootings and prevent retribution.
With a great track record and aggressive goals, Rock Safe Streets can take the number of shootings down to zero, and change the image and experience of growing up in our community forever.