Having failed retirement totally, I found myself in a car in Oakland, California with Billy Dupes and Jay Jimenez, two ex-cons who had turned their lives around, committing themselves to work day and night to keep youth from taking the same destructive paths they had once taken. “Streetworkers” the City of Oakland calls them. In some cities they would be “Peacekeepers.”
I hadn’t planned to be in their car. Having served as President and CEO of the National Crime Prevention Council, which was preceded by a stint as Vice President of the Child Welfare League of America before which I served as U.S. Commissioner of the Administration for Children, Youth and Families, I had “retired” to write my book.
In addition to writing, I soon found myself doing a great deal of public speaking and conference facilitation. While working as a part-time consultant for the National League of Cities Institute for Youth, Education and Families, it was decided to design a multi-city gang prevention strategy. This eventually became the 13-California City Gang Prevention Network for which we sought and received funding. Suddenly I found myself in California about once a month coordinating the Network, which aimed to: reduce gang violence and victimization, get in front of the gang issue before fear and prison-only became our prime response, help build communities that don’t produce gangs, forge a vibrant, state-wide learning network, and identify policies that would support local practice.
Each of the participating cities pledged to produce a city-wide plan that blended prevention, intervention and enforcement. An impressive array of program and policy resulted from the cities’ hard work: pre and after school program, family support, alternative schools, mentoring, gang sweeps, neighborhood beautification, new tax levies, job training, school to work transition, and much more…but…was this enough?
Back in the car. I challenged Billy and Jay: “It’s 11:30 at night. You see a group of young guys on the corner, probably gang members. You get out of the car. What are your first words? What do you say?” Without hesitating, Jay replied, “Hey loved one.” “What?” I said, astounded, ‘Loved one?’”. “Or maybe,” Jay continued, “Hey nephew.” I was stunned. But it soon dawned on me: a fellow gang member is a “Homeboy or Homie.” Home–the language of family. “Loved one…nephew” strikes a similar chord in these youth, a chord rarely played by others. How we need the programs forged by the cities, I thought, but were we, with all our programs, speaking a language that would bring these kids in. I had spent a lifetime designing and running programs, needed programs, but Billy and Jay challenged me to re-think how we actually begin. Do we start with the label, the wound, “Hey dyslexic, hey abused one, hey delinquent?” Or do we begin with, “Hey loved one. Let’s look at the wound.”
We are good at affirming the malady. Are we equally good at affirming the person?