DETROIT Searches for Peace
Group aims to short-circuit violence that kills city youths
IN 1986, 365 children aged 16 and younger were killed or wounded by guns in Detroit. That was the year one of Clementine Barfield's sons - Derick, 16 - was killed by another teenager.
Her three sons had set out that evening to confront a boy who had earlier pulled a gun on Derick after he had talked to the youth's girlfriend. When the Barfields' car approached the boy and a group of his friends, it was met by a hail of bullets from a 9-mm pistol. All three of Mrs. Barfield's sons were hit. Derick was killed instantly.
That shooting could have become another statistic from America's urban battlegrounds. But Derick's mother was not going to let that happen: "I knew I wanted to do something, but I didn't know exactly what, to validate my son's worth." In early 1987, her ideas crystalized with the founding of Save Our Sons and Daughters (SOSAD), a nonprofit grass-roots agency devoted to countering the culture of violence among Detroit's youths and to comforting families that have lost children.
In the years since then, SOSAD has established a 24-hour telephone hot line, as well as an array of counseling programs. The group has also sponsored marches, vigils, and rallies to dramatize the city's losses from violence.
On Feb. 3, Barfield, her staff, and about 200 supporters gathered at the corner of Joy Road and Evergreen Road in west Detroit. There, in late January, 16-year-old Darnell Byrd had died after being shot by some boys who wanted his jacket.
"There have been over 12,000 homicides in Detroit in the past 20 years," Barfield says. "We can't survive like this. We have to get people to place value on themselves, to get all kids to buy into it and become part of the struggle." The flow of teens into SOSAD's offices on West Grand Boulevard indicates that many of the city's younger generation are buying Barfield's message.
And not just youngsters: More than 500 families are using SOSAD's counseling and support-group services, she says, mostly people who have lost family members. The agency has nine paid staffers, and receives funding from state, federal, and private sources. Critical to SOSAD's effort, says Barfield, are the dozens of volunteers - many of them teens and college students - who answer phones and generate support for rallies.
SOSAD's work has received recognition far beyond Detroit. Deborah Prothrow-Stith, assistant dean of Harvard University's School of Public Health, has written widely on the issue of youthful violence in American cities. In her view, Barfield's agency is "a model for the country in community-based organizing." There's no doubt, Dr. Prothrow-Stith says, that "parents and family members who have experienced this loss have a lot to offer us in terms of strategies to prevent this kind of violence."
Part of SOSAD's strategy is to be available whenever help is needed. Alma Giles, a paid staffer, says she often gets calls from parents concerned that their kids are getting into drugs or other dangerous situations. She refers those calls to staff counselors or outside social workers. Frequently, callers want to know how to deal with their grief. Mrs. Giles handles many of those calls, drawing on her own experience of losing a 13-year-old son, her only child, in 1988. He was shot accidentally by another boy who had found a gun in his mother's bureau.
SOSAD'S counseling efforts extend to a number of local schools, where chapters of the organization have been started. Al Martin, a violence-prevention counselor with SOSAD, says that middle-school children present a particular opportunity: "They're at a point where they can go either way. You can get in and make some changes, and we've seen some wonderful changes."
MARTIN recalls asking an audience at Von Steuben Middle School to tell him of anyone who had brought a gun to school. One teacher was so put off by what he thought was the naivete of Martin's request that he walked out. Martin continued his presentation of alternatives to violence. At the end of the session, a note was placed in his hand identifying one boy who was known to pack a gun. That was a beginning, Martin says.
SOSAD's month-long program in that school focused on some 40 students selected by the staff. The youths were not necessarily academic failures, but had exhibited disruptive behavior. "SOSAD has made a definite impact on our school," says principal Jerry Green. "The kids talked about things they never would have talked about to me." He adds that while SOSAD "didn't solve all our problems," its emphasis on peaceful ways to resolve conflicts gave youngsters an alternative to physical violence. "I haven't ha d any trouble with those kids since," he says.
Martin and Barfield aim to see such results multiply. "We're grooming folks left and right," Martin says. "Students we've trained are going on to train others."
Still, Barfield laments, "Eighty to 85 percent of the kids in elementary school we worked with last year knew someone who had been killed. These kids face life-and-death decisions each day, such as whether to carry a gun."
Her efforts to help such youths - as well as the older generation who bear the pain, and much of the responsibility, for their loss - go beyond neighborhood contacts. She vigorously campaigns for gun control and has taken an unequivocal stand against current proposals to bring casino gambling to Detroit. That would only multiply the city's problems of crime and violence, she says.
Barfield has also been in touch with like-minded people in other cities. Two women from Boston's Roxbury neighborhood who lost children to violence are organizing a chapter. The most active SOSAD branch is in Fresno, Calif., a fast-growing Central Valley city where youth-gang problems have deepened in recent years.