Filling the void

In inner city or suburbs, it's values of the heart that end violence

Some say the national outpouring of concern and national attention to this spring's school shooting in Colorado and Georgia reveal racism. That this concern didn't emerge until the victims were white suburban students, while street violence has been claiming the lives of hundreds of black youths each year in many of our major cities. Our concern is not evidence of racial bias but the result of realizing the bankruptcy of conventional wisdom about the causes and cures of youth violence.

In the past, we assumed that self destruction and violence among young people was an inner-city phenomenon resulting from racial discrimination, political impotence, and lack of economic opportunity. Based on these assumptions, we sought remedies to address these issues.

Despite expenditures of $5.3 trillion dollars over the past 30 years on poverty programs, the violence in our inner cities has continued to grow.

Poverty programs and social justice initiatives did not impact the violence that is now spreading to affluent communities. Poverty does not produce crime and violence any more than wealth and power exempts people from it. And solutions that focus on changing external circumstances, or professional therapy, will not eradicate the problem. If we keep applying a solution and the situation does not change - or becomes worse - then we have to ask if we've correctly identified the problem.

The crisis afflicting our young people will not be solved through poverty programs or therapeutic counseling. Many young people are growing up spiritually and morally vacant. Unless something positive and substantial is offered, they'll fill that void with things like turf wars and gang membership.

Today, in inner cities throughout the nation where the epidemic of youth violence has claimed thousands of young people, there are youths whose lives have been reclaimed. Incarceration did not change these young people, nor did therapy or any change in their environment. These youths were not disarmed by having their guns taken away: They achieved a state of disarmament when they lost their desire to use guns. Their transformation was internal, on the level of heart and spirit.

When I testified on youth violence before a congressional committee recently, two of these transformed gang leaders accompanied me. One, Kelvin Cannon, had been the leader of the notorious Black Gangster Disciples in Chicago. Today he is a housing development maintenance supervisor - a role model and employer of at-risk youths in the neighborhood he once terrorized. The other young man, Derrick Ross, was the leader of one of two warring factions of youths in the Benning Terrace public housing development in Washington, D.C. Once designated by the police as one of the most dangerous men in D.C., Derrick now has launched a successful landscaping business and is president of a youth peace organization.

Men and women of faith who responded to a call to reach these young people, by their commitment and example, have inspired hundreds of them to embrace the vision and values that filled the void of meaning and purpose in their lives. These community healers live in the same zip code as those they serve, and know firsthand the problems they face. They are available 24 hours a day for a lifetime.

Suburban and rural kids are often inner-city "wannabes." Negative cultural messages from the inner cities have seeped into the moral vacuum that exists in these youths' lives. Criminologist James Howell has traced waves of youth violence as they appear in different kinds of communities. He cites a rise in youth crime that was first evidenced in large cities in 1989 and then appeared the following year in suburban communities, three years later in small cities, and four years later in rural communities.

Yet just as the inner city has been the purveyor of negative influences, there is hope that it can also be the purveyor of a positive message. There is now clear evidence that inner-city gang members and at-risk youths who are living lives of violence and self-destruction can be changed. Against the odds of crime-infested urban environments, they have responded to faith-centered organizations and individuals who have served as their "moral tutors" and "character coaches." Who have guided their focus away from themselves toward providing service to others.

If a value transformation can occur among those who have suffered social, economic, and racial injustice, why can't it work for young people who do not face the same challenges? Then we must look to the new experts: inner-city people whose lives have been transformed in the crucible of the inner cities.

If we continue down the path of blaming outside influences such as media or video games for youth violence in the suburbs, we will repeat the same mistake that was made in the inner cities, where rhetoric about poverty and racial injustice created an entire class of "victims." Today we can look to the inner cities as exporters of the good that can counter this epidemic wherever it exists.

*Robert L. Woodson Sr. is president of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, in Washington.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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