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 , Guest Blogger

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    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.
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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.

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.”

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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.”

At first I thought he meant Wiggins, but he was referring to a local gospel radio show I had been invited to appear on two months ago to speak about the inner-city chess program I run here. He was also talking about the person who I would have never, ever imagined was a reformed product of the streets and a violence headline-maker I’d once read about.

Kimberly Adams, a mom with two little girls, was in her Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes, sensible shoes, and bordering on prim, pastor’s daughter mojo when we met. I remember remarking on the purple chiffon skirt and how beautifully turned-out her kids looked. Meanwhile, my boys looked like ragamuffin fugitives from a Tide commercial.

“She ran the streets as a woman, hung with the wrong crowd before she found the Walk,” Riddick said.

So I called Ms. Adams and asked her to tell me her story, and it turned out to be one of a child growing up with little parenting. What there was, wasn’t positive.

“I was honest and loving and what I got back was not; so I got hard on the inside,” Adams, 27, biological mom of one girl, 7, and step-mom to another, age 6. “I was what you’d call gang-affiliated, but not a gang member. I shut myself off. If you did me wrong or I thought you were against me, I didn’t care about you or how much I hurt you.”

“Being loving and having a moral compass wasn’t getting me what I felt I deserved from my family and that was love and honesty,” she explained. “I was in trouble with the law. I was a fighter. But at the same time I was a defender in school. I was the one the bullies were afraid of, but then I was more like Iron Man, self-involved and destroying, than Captain America doing the right things.”

Adams had been arrested for a brutal knife attack and escaped incarceration due to lack of evidence, she said. “Instead of being afraid, I was excited, like ‘Wow this is cool,' the arrest didn’t affect me to change my ways."

It was seeing numerous Facebook posts about Riddick by others in her community that eventually led her to seek him out and learn about the Unity Walk.

“So I decided to go see what this Walk was about and, before I knew it, they threw a ‘Stop the Violence’ T-shirt on me, and I was walking with all these people who looked at me like I was a great person. They were not looking at me like I was going to do them harm.”

In that moment, Adams said, “I just suddenly saw myself as a woman. That sounds strange, right? But I was with my daughter, and they had me hold this disabled woman’s hand, and we walked together. I was a woman and a mother and not who everybody saw me as before that moment.”

At that time her biological daughter was age 4 and is now seven with a mommy who works for Norfolk State University’s Community Foundation and is helping Riddick obtain sponsors for this year’s walk.

“That walk was the highlight of my life,” Adams said. “Walking it gave me peace and a sense of pride I’d lost. I want that as a parent for my children.”

Her advice to other moms and dads currently living a life of crime and violence is simple, “It’s not about you anymore. Once you become a parent, it’s about your offspring and making things better for them than what you had.”

As a parent who has written many blogs trying to find some solution to the violence and loss of children’s lives as a result of hate, guns, and bullying, I never would have thought to reach peace with a barber’s chair and a T-shirt. However, that method is clearly building a community while deconstructing the destruction of our communities, so I say: It’s time to give violence the chair.

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