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Case Study: Young People Curbing Gun Violence in New York City

CREDIT: Photo by Sandy Ching on Unsplash

NEW YORK CASE STUDY

Generation Progress is launching a series of case studies to explore how young people have been involved in local efforts that have successfully moved forward the dual priorities of gun violence prevention and criminal justice reform. Young people are the generation most impacted by gun violence. According to America’s Youth Under Fire, a 2018 joint report by Generation Progress and the Center for American Progress, gunfire has surpassed car accidents as a leading killer of young people in the United States. Young people understand that if we are to end the gun violence epidemic, we must place it in context with the criminal justice system and policing.

Generation Progress traveled to New York, New York to report on one of the most successful youth-driven cure violence programs in the nation, Youth Organizing to Save our Streets (YOSOS). The program replicates the Cure Violence model, a model that works on violence prevention at the neighborhood level across the United States. YOSOS works with 14 to 29 year-olds in year-long programs to implement community-based gun violence prevention methods and trainings. Through gun violence prevention campaigns, shooting response rallies, youth councils, and leadership trainings, YOSOS students are activated as leaders in their community and as advocates for their generation.

INTRODUCTION

YOSOS was built by grassroots organizers and transformed from a small community program in the boroughs to a major program receiving resources and oversight from the New York City Mayor’s Office. New York City has established an impressive network of partnerships across community organizations in all five boroughs, in coordination with the recently established NYC Office to Prevent Gun Violence (OPGV). These community organizations like New Yorkers Against Gun Violence, the Gathering for Justice, and Youth Over Guns are working to empower young people to be leaders in their own communities. This collaboration has developed into a culture of change where youth have a seat at the table and utilize a successful gun violence prevention movement that centers the most impacted by gun violence.

YOUTH ORGANIZING TO SAVE OUR STREETS

As we entered the Crown Heights neighborhood, we immediately noticed that posters declaring “53 days since last shooting” were displayed in every corner store and restaurant. Save Our Streets was founded in 2009 when a mother approached the Crown Heights Community Mediation Center, now Neighbors in Action, searching for a gun violence prevention organization working in the neighborhood where her son was shot and killed in. Save Our Streets (SOS), operating in the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Crown Heights and Bedford-Stuyvesant, is unique to the various other cure violence programs across the United States for their addition of a youth organizing arm, Youth Organizing to Save Our Streets (YOSOS). The model treats gun violence as a public health issue and is two-fold; training and inserting violence interrupters who are conducting on the ground mediation, as well as provide wrap-around services that treat the socio-economic issues that lead people to resort to gun violence.

While there, we met with Heather Day, the SOS director of youth programs, and several of the dedicated YOSOS alumni; Migel, Karencia, Eugena, Shavonne, and Gariyana. YOSOS was founded in 2011 by a Save Our Streets staff member who was formerly incarcerated. This youth development program engages, trains, and activates, young people between the ages of 14 and 24 in the anti-violence movement. The young people mentioned that one of the initial draws to join the various programs were the opportunities to get community service credit and monetary stipends after graduation. They say that after the first week in the program, they all forgot about the stipends because they enjoyed the skills, community, and curriculum, they were surrounded by. In the seven years YOSOS has been working in the Central Brooklyn neighborhoods of Crown Heights and Bed-Stuy they have served more than a thousand young people. Two of the most popular programs, the Leadership Development Program and Justice Community Plus, operate during the school year. Through an eight month, twice a week program, youth ages 14 to 18 are trained in conflict de-escalation, social justice, activism, and professional development. Karencia, one of the alumni said, “I didn’t realize there were steps that occur before it escalates to gun violence. Now I know the proper de-escalation steps so it doesn’t have to get to that point.” The Justice Community Plus institute was just launched last year and have already assisted 60 young people through a year-long program which connects medium to high-risk youth ages 16 to 29 to paid opportunities for personal growth and educational achievement.

After graduating from either programs these young people become integrated into the greater gun violence prevention movement as community advocates. Through the YOSOS network, many of the young people work with other social justice organizations to put on events such as art against violence gallery shows and live performances with the Theatre of the Oppressed NYC. One YOSOS graduate, Gariyana, now works as a facilitator for the theater, helping audience members take on character roles and help other facilitators brainstorm policy recommendations to aid the issues plaguing their communities. During the summer, young people continue to train in organizing tactics and youth leadership development with SOS and other organizations in the community.

One of the ways in which young people work on the ground to prevent gun violence is through the shooting response system. When a shooting takes place, shooting response is activated. Youth stand with SOS and other gun violence prevention-oriented community organizations at or near the place of the shooting and hold small rallies, emphasizing that gun violence should not be normal and should be addressed every time. YOSOS works directly with community members but always with an emphasis of supporting young people. The program has dedicated and connected staff members who work with youth every day in the office. Heather pressed the importance of a physical space on the block that is easily accessible to the youth living in that community. Through Facebook group chats and text messages, the staff share paid internships, job opportunities, and post upcoming YOSOS events. While stipends drew many organizers in, their personal connection to gun violence is what motivated them to stay engaged in the movement and take on leadership roles to educate the next generation. Shavonne said, “hurt people hurt people. That’s what I learned in here… sometimes they need more than a pat on the back or a hug, they need a place like this. This is the place they can get it.”

THE ECOSYSTEM

YOSOS is one of many anti-violence organizations working in an elaborate ecosystem filled with grassroots operations and municipal operated programs throughout New York City. The recently created NYC Mayor’s Office to Prevent Gun Violence (OPGV) operates within the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice and has been providing resources and oversight to over 22 community organization working in the five boroughs. Some of these organizations, like Gangstas Making Astronomical Community Changes (GMACC), employ formerly incarcerated, high-risk youth, and other people who have been part of the cycle of gun violence. Through the OPGV Safe in the City grant, New Yorkers of any age can apply for small funds of up to $1,000 to implement or promote anti-violence values through community programming. Young people join the OPGV Peer Leadership Committee, also known as Peace Ambassadors, for many different reasons. Tiffany and Kiara are two young people who are part of the Committee. Tiffany joined because she wanted to be on the ground working on the most important issues of her generation, while Kiara felt the drive to be a leader in the movement after losing her brother to gun violence. During the school year, 20 young people between the ages of 16 to 24 meet monthly to plan their action during the summer and then travel to all five boroughs to host anti-violence events, like the art workshop Soles for Peace, and offer film screenings.

Through their involvement from top to bottom, young people are naturally encouraging a culture of change. Not only do these young activists fortify ties between local communities, they also bring their unique perspective to gun violence prevention efforts, which in turn reinvigorates the movement and its activists. One way youth are being activated are through educational programs during school hours by New Yorkers Against Gun Violence (NYAGV), another gun violence prevention-focused organization. Kris Arroyo, one of our Fight4AFuture members, was first activated by attending NYAGV classes and speaking to New York legislators after losing her friend to gun violence. She now works as an Assistant Program Director for NYAGV by weaving anti-violence and gun violence prevention education in eight middle and high school curriculums. NYAGV works with the New York Department of Education to weave the curriculum into various topics, including history and ethics, and grant students school credits for their participation. At the end of the year, NYAGV travels with the students to the New York capital of Albany to speak to state legislators and advocate for gun violence prevention policies in the state. Ramon Contreras, a Generation Progress’ FNLC members, became a youth activist in high school and Kris Arroyo from NYAGV mentored him through his advocacy. He founded Youth Over Guns (YOG), an organization which highlights and uplifts the great work that gun violence prevention programs are implementing in the boroughs of New York City. YOG was present at the anti-gun march across the Brooklyn Bridge on June 2nd, 2018, where thousands of people rallied to witness their work of uplifting black and brown people who been affected by gun violence.

While many gun violence prevention organizations were started by young people, some were founded by older activists, but with a clear vision of empowering youth.The Gathering for Justice was founded in 2005 by a group of elders led by Harry Belafonte who, after witnessing a news report of a 5-year-old black girl being handcuffed and arrested in her Florida classroom for “being unruly,” was motivated to take action. The group started as a gathering of elders, including a group Harry’s friends and fellow activists from the civil rights movement. To make the organization inclusive and centered on young people, Harry asked each elder to bring a mentee who they hoped to take over their work. The Gathering for Justice’s initial idea of including young people sparked a culture of change that is seen even today, with Justice League NYC, the direct action arm of the organization including members as young as 16 to bring together experts and advocates from around the city to show up and speak out against gun violence and police brutality.

CONCLUSION AND RECOMMENDATIONS

Generation Progress encourages youth to continue to seize the reins of power, whether it is by standing up to the gun lobby, walking out to protest gun violence, or speaking loudly on how  gun violence has impacted their lives.

Cure violence programs around the country should include a youth organizing arm, like Youth Organizing to Save Our Streets. City governments should also formally create a specialized gun violence prevention unit that includes a youth council comprised of those from communities impacted by gun violence, like New York City’s Mayor’s Office to Prevent Gun Violence. Local organizations should also prioritize including young people, especially those activated by community programs, as leaders of their community and encourage them to continue advocating for their generation and the generations to come. Young people are disproportionately affected by gun violence so they should not only be included in the conversation but be leaders in the movement to protect their lives.

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