‘Safe Spaces’ for At-Risk Youth Foster Violence Prevention, Conference Told

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Photo by Susanne Nilsson via Flickr

For Gladys Muhammad, the pain of tragic violence is close to home.

Her 16-year-old great-nephew, who had played football for his high school, was gunned down in his South Bend, In., neighborhood after returning home from his part-time job at a pizza restaurant.

It was one more reason why a community center that Muhammad helped create was so significant. The center was designed to provide a comfort zone for at-risk individuals to discuss their fears and anxieties about the violence that was part of life in her corner of the city.

“It’s a space (built) for people to come and feel welcome, to feel respected,” Muhammad, now associate director of the South Bend Heritage Foundation, told a conference on violence intervention at John Jay College.

Responded to concerns about the presence of law enforcement at the newly created Charles Martin Youth Center, Muhammad said one of the primary achievements was to strike an “even balance” that provided members of street gangs a comfort zone to discuss threats without worrying about harassment.

Muhammad spoke at a panel discussing techniques of Group Violence Intervention (GVI) help prevent violence, at the Fifth Biennial conference of the National Network for Safe Communities (NNSC).

Advocates from other cities similarly emphasized the need for creating spaces that give individuals worried about violence the opportunity to connect with advocates as well as create safe zones for interaction with police in at-risk neighborhoods—a key element of GVI.

GVI is “designed to reduce homicide and gun violence, minimize harm to communities by replacing enforcement with deterrence, and foster stronger relationships between law enforcement and the people they serve,” according to the NNSC’s website.

The concept was introduced in Boston in the 1990s and helped reduce violence, found a September 2001 report from the National Institute of Justice. It was later implemented in cities of other states.

The call-in center is defined as a critical communication tool in GVI: a meeting place for law enforcement, community members, and social service providers to engage directly with members of street groups (who are usually on probation or parole).

GVI’s emphasis on sustaining and building confidence with at-risk individuals was crucial to its success, speakers said.

Garland Scott


Garland Scott. Photo courtesy Black Preachers Network

Garland Scott, support and outreach manager at the Sheriff’s Office in Jacksonville, Fl., emphasized the importance of relationships with relevant and reliable organizations and individuals that could help members of the street groups.

Scott, who said he was at-risk and violent in his youth, told the panel and audience members that he wanted immediate and practical solutions when he joined the GVI.

“I had to get what I needed right away,” he recalled.

He began by reaching out to community leaders, organizations, and even government agencies.

“I went to the Department of Motor Vehicles. I went to child support agencies. I went to local trade schools. I went to colleges,” he said, searching for people he could rely on, whether a job manager or a representative at a welding school, who were willing to give street group members interviews for spots.

”I just didn’t go to ask for help,” he said. “I asked for a targeted person that we would have quick access to at a moment of minutes.”

Sheryl Jones, director of the Detroit GVI, described driver’s education programs introduced at schools in her area to address a widespread problem of individuals who drive illegally.

The driver’s ed program helps at-risk individuals move closer to receiving driver’s licenses, which allows them to drive legally to “where jobs are,” whether in or outside of Detroit, she said.

The panel members discussed the need for personal care, regarding those they work with or themselves.

In violent cities such as Detroit, the panelists reminded the audience that residents may carry trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder, which can linger or eat away at them, and require treatment.

Panelists also spoke of how effort and commitment are integral to their work. Although they take time to gather sources (agencies, jobs), they also expect initiative on the part of members from the street groups.

“I never tell my participants that I’m going to help them do anything,” said Scott. “I’m going to assist you.”

Showing up or reaching out could make the difference.

Isaac Hunt, Jr., Group Violence Intervention Supervisor at Goodwill Industries of Michiana, Inc. added that he makes clear to individuals that he’s not going to do their work for them.

“We got local businesses sitting here, that can give you a job,” he said he tells them.

“(But) We’re not gonna walk you to them. You have to walk to people to find out.”

Editor’s Note: South Bend was in the national spotlight this week for a police shooting that brought Mayor Pete Buttigieg, a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, off the campaign trail for two days of meetings in his home city.

Brian Demo is a TCR News Intern.

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