Sunday, February 27, 2011

Youth violence event is a reminder why we must dream and work together

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The staggering numbers stayed with me long after leaving the “Call-to-Action!” youth violence forum at Vashon High School yesterday:

  Almost 1,080 churches in the St. Louis area alone.

The St. Louis Public School district spent $25 million to address youth violence.

$1,100 spent per child, per year at Mathews-Dickey’s Boys' & Girls' Club compared to $50,000 spent per year, per person in the region's jails.

• 144 homicides in the city last year. An average of 3,000 homicides within the past 20 years with another 23,000 wounded in gun-related incidents in the same time frame.

"Call to Action" forum at Vashon High School

The forum, hosted by Washington Tabernacle M.B. Church, was convened to answer a question: “What role can the churches and faith community play in bringing about solutions to the problem of youth violence?” Panelists included 5th Ward Alderwoman April Ford-Griffin, St. Louis Chief of Police Daniel Isom, SLPS Superintendent Kelvin Adams, the Rev. Dietra Wise, Chaplin of the Juvenile Detention Center, St. John’s United Church of Christ’ Pastor Starsky Wilson, Father Rick Potts of St. Alphonsus “the Rock” Catholic Church and Cedric Clarkson, the executive director of the faith-based “Call To Oneness” organization.

Overwhelmingly, panelists insisted that ministers and their congregations must “come out of the church,” intervene, interact and personally get involved with young people. Chaplin Wise told the tale of youth locked in juvenile detention some with no parental or adult visitors. She urged churches to organize mentor groups that would help keep children out of “the system.” On the same note, Alderwoman Griffin asked the church community to “adopt” families and kids trapped in dysfunctional environments. The organization, Big Brothers & Big Sisters, Griffin said, has a long list of North St. Louis kids desperate for adults who will just commit to talking spending time with them.

Other panelists reinforced their arguments with breath-taking figures. Superintendent Adams said he has no choice but allocate $25 million from his budget for security guards, social workers, counselors, nurses and “extra staff” just to deal with the issue of youth violence.

Although his department arrested 28,000 people in 2010 for "minor and serious crimes," Chief Isom said that 40 percent of black males between the ages of 21 and 25 will be re-arrested within the next two years. The figures, Isom stressed, are based on Justice Department estimates.

The event's MC, Flint Fowler, president of Mathews-Dickey’s Boys' & Girls' Club, underscored society’s misplaced priorities by comparing the cost of a child served by his agency in one year ($1,100) with the annual incarceration rate of $50,000 per prisoner, per year.

Community collaborations, focused resources, aid and support to families trapped in the paradigms of poverty and holding everyone -- including parents -- accountable were offered as remedies to stem youth violence.

For me, the forum underscored the urgency to coalesce and address our regional problems differently. Absent from the stage were the mayor, the county executive, heads of the city’s elite corporations, agencies that have received federal dollars to bring “green” and other major initiatives and developments to the urban core. This is not to say that these people aren’t playing roles in addressing societal ills plaguing our region. But it is an indication that collaborations between powerful individuals and agencies and the grassroots groups and ordinary people in depressed areas are still nonexistent.

I left the forum informed but malnourished. With more than 1,000 churches in our midst, I expected the announcement of a major jobs program for troubled youth or a church-led mentoring movement. Surely, we can gather the flock, pool our resources and tap into city, state, private and nonprofit resources to keep a few hundred kids off the street and positively engaged this summer.

This is not a put down of the “Call to Action” forum. Quite the contrary. In order to have collaborative action we must first articulate the need and outline a course to inclusive and effective collaborations.

Still, we must also avoid “talking too much,” as Superintendent Adams noted. The money we spend on incarceration, addressing youth violence is staggering. The young lives and human potential we lose each year is immoral. We know the problem, we can find the resources and there’s a potential army of soldiers sitting in churches every Sunday. What’s missing is a strategic approach that aligns inner-city development and public/private resources with faith-based activism and community-wide engagement.

When we dream and work collaboratively, we send a message that there’s a shift in our collective priorities. We set a course toward reclaiming wayward youth, revitalizing disadvantaged neighborhoods and re-imagining our region.

Washington Tabernacle M.B. Church has invited other churches and individuals to answer the “Call to Action.” For more information call the church at (314) 533-8763 or send an email to:

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