Youth violence is not a new issue in King County, and prevention-focused, multi-agency public policies are not new strategies to tackle it. The earliest of such efforts I could find in this city date back to 1989, and funding for it has now, after over two decades of repackaging and rearrangement, collapsed into the Seattle Youth Violence Prevention Initiative. Still, though, the problem persists. After performing and speaking with a group of young women at Powerful Voices, whose program was funded in part by SYVPI, I began delving back into research on the politics and paper trails of youth violence prevention work, and building with a number of dedicated youth and cultural service workers from different organizations and agencies across the city. One of these people was my B-Girl Media and 206 Zulu comrade Sista Hailstorm, who was asked to speak on August 19th, 2011, at a Gang Prevention Conference organized by the City of Seattle, King County Human Services, and SU’s KC Prevention and Outreach Work Group. Finding many commonalities in the moral, cultural, political, economic, and bureaucratic challenges people with integrity face doing this work, we decided to use this event as a platform to air these issues, as well as connect with others seeking alternatives to these systems. Here’s a summary of what happened, some attendee feedback, and some expertise critique:
The first speaker was Dr. Johnny Lake, a charismatic academic and cultural awareness trainer from Oregon by way of Tennessee. He emphasized through personal narrative and anecdotal references the importance of cultivating positive, proud cultural identity and self-esteem. This was followed by the only representatives working on the ground in Seattle: the community panel of Youth 180’s Gabriel Ladd, Keenan Allen, and Sista Hailstorm.(Photo from left to right: Dr. Johnny Lake, Keenan Allen, Gabriel Ladd, Sista Hailstorm.) The Youth 180 folks spoke about their mentorship model and the importance of community-based leadership development, while Sista Hailstorm went hard on multi-generational deep systemic violence waged against marginalized communities, and importance of addressing this in a discussion on youth violence. There was much more, and the community panel was a highlight of the conference, so I urge people to check out at least this part of the audio, which should be up on SU’s Social Work website soon. The final keynote, Dr. James Garbarino, is an author and academic who testifies on behalf of inmates on death row. The data he presented included statistical, scientific, and other evidence-based support for meaningful prevention work.
So what did attendees get out of it? I asked Hassan Hassan, an independent entrepreneur who has taken on youth service in the Somali and African youth community as a dedicated volunteer. “The conference had good intentions,” he said, “but I feel they missed the target when it came to interacting with us as local community grassroots representatives, to listen to our needs and perspectives.” Dione Johnson, co-director of the Multi-Media Center, a youth-led media literacy and production resource network echoed this sentiment saying, “The conference could have done a better job of inviting community organizations on the ground doing the work, but I liked how the panelists that were there did draw on positive models. We need more purpose-driven programming in contrast to violence-focused programming, because we need to call into being what we want.” She also pointed out the lack of youth participants, stressing that, “If we keep leaving young people out of the conversation, we are going to keep having the problem.” Liz Ali, who started Mother’s Outreach Movement, a woman-centered community support network, in 2008 after her son PJ was killed said, “I liked how relationships and culture were emphasized by presenters, and I appreciated Keenan on the panel giving his perspective as a youth touched by violence that has turned that around. I would have liked to see more youth participants.” (*See video footnote at the bottom of this article for youth perspectives!)
For an out-of-town, expertise perspective, I hit up Aquil Basheer of Maximum Force in LA, a former Black Panther with 35 years of violence prevention work under his belt. Too often, he said, such conferences are filled with empty rhetoric: “We rap-olutionaries, as opposed to revolutionaries, we like to hear ourselves talk. We got to stop talking so much and start bringing real measurables and deliverables to the table.” To accomplish these ends, Basheer emphasized the importance of community involvement in the planning stages of such events saying, “Before you do any conference, you need to get a specific needs list from the people on bottom up perspective so you can come with a blueprint to move forward. When we’re at the conference, we have to make sure we’re leaving with a time-oriented plan, a 5, 10, 15 point bullet-hit list of instructions and specific action items so we leave out the room with solutions and answers.”
With the plethora of youth initiatives currently on the table, including Seattle Youth Violence Prevention Initiative, the Seattle University Youth Initiative, the King County Sheriff Office Gang Intervention Initiative, and the King County Juvenile Justice Initiative, it would seem there are ample resources to accomplish this task. But if communities are not authentically aware of or engaged in the process, the results will not be consistent, sustainable, or transformative in the lives of our youth.
As a final ironic point in this conversation about violence and violence prevention, it should be noted that the hosting institution, Seattle University, has a president who was reportedly complicit by omission in the perpetuation of abuse to a whole Native community in Alaska. The story is here, and I could not do this report-back without pointing this out, as systemic violence and abuse and its impact should not be neglected, and settlement in the court of law does and should not equate dismissal in the court of public opinion. This is why as youth service workers seek to reform and adapt the existing service structure, we should, as a community, seek to create self-reliant solutions outside of the system that created these cycles.
In closing, I’d like to acknowledge Tanya Kim, from the City of Seattle for working to bring us to this table, and I hope that in the future, our new coalition of community-rooted youth and cultural services workers can help bridge the conference/community/youth divide.
Since much of the feedback from attendees included wanting more youth perspective, my Project Mayhem/Think Tank brother Mic Flont, emcee from the group Waves of the Mind, offered to gather some brief interviews from his students in Katalyst, a Hip Hop & Social Justice youth education program housed in WAPI. He asked youth of different ages, genders, areas, and backgrounds three questions, and we uploaded it to Youtube. Here is the footage:
For more information about any mentioned people or organizations, or to find out how to get involved, email firstname.lastname@example.org.