ASK Geoffrey Canada if he owns a gun. "No," he says. "Do I sometimes feel I need one? Yes. Do I think a gun is an answer to anything? Absolutely not."
Mr. Canada is president and CEO of Rheedlen Centers for Children and Families in Harlem. Some 37 schools in New York have adopted Rheedlen's concept of providing inner-city families with safe shelters and constructive activities 17 hours a day, 365 days a year. Why?
"We are in a state of war in the inner cities," he says. "I call it America's secret war against itself," he says, "and the war's chief victims are children."
Because Canada grew up on the streets of the Bronx, he experienced the progression from yesterday's tough brawls with fists to today's violent, deadly shootings. His book, "fist stick knife gun," never flinches from what he concludes is now "one of the most dangerous periods in our history since the Civil War."
But even as he labels today's inner city children the "handgun generation," Canada directs counter measures designed to save them.
With a $5.5 million budget (from private donations and government grants) he and his staff have developed programs to reduce violence, and train young people in mediation and conflict resolution. Success has led to recognition from President Clinton, a $250,000 Heinz Award for individual effort, and replication of Rheedlen programs in Connecticut, Illinois, and California.
The following are excerpts from an interview:
Why doesn't most of America believe a war is going on?
To some degree race plays a part - what people have seen of violence is black youths shooting one another - and thinking it is simply an inner city problem.... America is not really willing to have an open debate and discussion about race, and that is one of the issues....
Also, I think this country happens to have a violent streak right down the middle of it that is really terrifying. We teach violence, routinely and regularly. Soap and toothpaste are sold [using] violent shows. We see it in the death-penalty debates.... Parts of the economy are being fueled by this sad crisis, and one part of society has paid lobbyists fighting for guns who downplay the impact that guns have. They use the rationale of increased homicide, especially among children, ... for owning guns. You need to protect yourself, they say.
How much do illegal drugs feed the war?
It is a 24-hour business because of the way young people have moved into it, and it has fueled the handgun purchasing in this country. Gun manufacturers know these are not honest citizens buying these guns....
But it is more than drugs; it is also the lack of employment opportunities in inner cities [that] leads young people to gravitate toward this very dangerous and high-risk enterprise.... And when you live in central Harlem, as I do, you see all kinds of people coming into our community to buy drugs, and it is not just an inner city issue....
In your book you said that as you were growing up, you could never relax on the streets, that anything might happen to you at anytime.
When I talk with young people today, they say, "Let me tell you yesterday what happened at school," and so much of this is out of our eyesight and hearing. It is the constant barrage that young people [experience] in talking about, hearing, and seeing violent acts.
There is not a young person I know who is over 14 who doesn't know someone who has been killed. That was not the case when I was growing up. Violence then was scary, but there were ways to survive it.
Describe the 'Peacemaker' program.
We connect college students with high school, junior high, and elementary students as mentors. And the college students are from the same communities; they have shared the same social and environmental hazards as the children, and they made it out. Suddenly it's no longer a mystery; a young person sees he can get out, and get out safely. The college students give the young people skills in terms of conflict mediation. Combine that with schools having safety programs - written programs for each child - and these are seen as concrete things beginning to change the community.