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End gang violence: Changing a violent community? Start with a barber chair

Trimming levels of gang and street violence is tough, but in Virginia a group of brothers started holding gun trade-ins and Unity Walks in rough neighborhoods to give the community a new look. How do you get people to show up? Hair cuts. 

By Lisa SuhayGuest Blogger / March 15, 2013

Kimberly Adams, back right, walks with another woman behind her 4-year-old daughter, Adnni, middle, during Best Kept Secret's Unity Walk. Ms. Adams is the daughter of an ex-gang member.

Courtesy of Tony Holobyte

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Right now in the crime-ridden, gang-infested section of Newport News, Va. someone who perpetuates that violence is getting a free haircut. Terry Riddick is giving the haircut, but his goal is to cut down on gun and street violence by building relationships to draw offenders to the Unity March where they will hand in their guns, get counseling, and rejoin their community.

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Lisa Suhay, who has four sons at home in Norfolk, Va., is a children’s book author and founder of the Norfolk (Va.) Initiative for Chess Excellence (NICE) , a nonprofit organization serving at-risk youth via mentoring and teaching the game of chess for critical thinking and life strategies.

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For the past eight years, Mr. Riddick and his brothers, Wilson and Randy, all barbers, have held Unity Walks in cities where the amount of violence make it necessary. The walks are held in memory of Riddick's cousin, Eric E. Ralph. According to Riddick, his cousin chose a life of violence and crime and died at age 28 when he pulled a gun on someone at a 7-11 who he didn’t realize was armed. “He was one of those people who didn’t listen,” Riddick told the Monitor. “He spent his time prior to that in and out of jail and gang violence.”

“We set up a campsite with counselors, FBI, mentors, and we walk from a point about four miles away through the neighborhoods and to the site,” Riddick said. “People come out and they join us. Gang members come out and hand in their guns. We collected 25 guns over the last couple walks. If they want a free haircut at the end, they have to get a stamp or wrist band from each and every table to show they got the help.”

Lorenzo Sheppard, Newport News' assistant chief of police, said, “We have worked with Terry Riddick before. We all know about the free haircuts he gives and the mentoring he is able to do as well while those haircuts are happening. He does a lot of good in the community and we will be there for whatever they need with this event.”

Why would hardened gang members come out and hand over their guns, don a “Stop the violence” T-shirt, and walk to a campsite full of help? 

Riddick laughed when I asked him and said, “Oh yeah! They really do. But it’s not that easy. We are building trust. They do because we are there for them in time of need. We give them the haircut they have no money for, give Christmas presents, or show up at a door with a turkey.”  

Since starting in 2005 the group that calls itself Best Kept Secret has performed more than 4,000 free haircuts and given away approximately 2,000 holiday gifts per year, all purchased via donations from a struggling community.

Terrell Wiggins, 25, a former felon who spent his entire childhood since age 10 incarcerated for violence, is now a motivational speaker who supports the walk and the method.

“I hit a teacher in the head with a desk when I was 10,” Mr. Wiggins said. “It was what I knew as a means of getting notoriety. You see you can teach a child in school or rec center and they understand what’s right and wrong but the place they go back to at home in the neighborhood hasn’t changed. The parents aren’t changed. To deal with youth [is] you have to change the people at home in the neighborhood who are influencing them. I been that. I know this to be true.”

What shocked me was when I asked Riddick if he could put me in touch with someone who had been directly influenced as a result of this Unity Walk process to change their life, he said, “You already met one.”

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