By Amber Gaither and Giovanni Rocco
September 14, 2018
Credit : Photo by Gratisography on Pexels

Generation Progress is launching a series of case studies to explore how young people have successfully moved forward the dual priorities of gun violence prevention and criminal justice reform at the local level. 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. To read the full compilation, “Fighting for Our Future,” click here.


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.

Our team traveled to Baltimore, Maryland to learn how people and non-profits are defining gun violence prevention and criminal justice reform. In Baltimore, youth activists are skirting traditional institutions and creating programs and initiatives run for and by young people that are delivering results for local communities. These young leaders are creating spaces for community members to convene and express themselves through entrepreneurship, and the arts and sciences.


Through our #Fight4AFuture Gun Violence Prevention and Criminal Justice Reform Network members, we learned of various ways that young leaders are implementing programs to provide young people with the tools and resources necessary to be successful in all aspects of their lives. In a place where mistrust in local law enforcement runs deep, the most effective solutions to combat gun violence must circumvent traditional models and prioritize hyper-localized community leadership experiences above all else. With the support of city funding youth programs have flourished, giving young people the chance to be leaders in their own right. Through conversations with community organizer Dejuan Patterson, and youth program leaders Van Brooks, Anisha Thomas, and Brittany Young, we learned of the impact that a hands-on approach led by young people can have on neighborhoods and communities.


In a city familiar with police brutality, community leadership becomes even more important in combating the cycle of neighborhood gun violence. Realizing this, non-profits have placed trust in local leadership, valuing the lived experiences of community members and allowing them to address the problems found in their neighborhoods.

Van Brooks, founder and CEO of Safe Alternative Foundation for Education, teaches young people the importance of getting an education through interactive activities such as woodshop classes, beach cleanups, and other outdoor activities. This program provides local youth with opportunities to volunteer and connects them with job opportunities . Community organizer Dejuan Patterson has taken a similar approach to community investment, partnering up with Baltimore City Hall to implement youth programs focusing on development and entrepreneurship. Squeegee Core was created as a way to shift teenagers from the streets into entrepreneurship by showing young people how to make money doing what they enjoy. The program was started last summer, employing the “squeegee kids” who wash windshields in the streets for tips. Another program with the same entrepreneurship focus is “Teen Biz Challenge,” utilizing friendly competition among young people with a desire to own a business. The challenge is a five-week paid business camp and competition meant to inspire and arm young people with the tools to create their own businesses. After participating in this competition, winners are awarded $5,000 to grow their businesses. The goal of both of these programs is to create economic opportunities that disrupt poverty and prevent gun violence by addressing one of the root cause of gun violence: community disempowerment.

Safe Streets, a program funded by grants and the Mayor’s Criminal Justice initiative, owes its success to a structure that keeps the needs of young people at the center of their work. The program, going on its tenth year, was the first replication of the cure violence model, now found in various cities across the country. Found in four police posts in the city, and on track to open three more, Safe Streets hires “interrupters” with criminal records, a move that both employs people who would otherwise have a hard time being employed, and places them in areas where young people can have access to professionals who are trained on conflict resolution. Anisha Thomas, a Safe Streets staff member summarized it best, saying “if you’re not part of the community, you don’t know what the community is going through.”


The relationship between communities and the agencies that exist to provide services is crucial. In Baltimore, community leaders are taking measures to improve communication between existing government agencies with resources and communities in need.

Brittany Young, founder and CEO of b360 Baltimore, a program dedicated to change the perception of engineers and dirt bikers, has created avenues for students to learn about STEM using dirt bikes. After many meetings with Councilman Pinkett and the police commissioner, Young created a safe space where conversations could be had between riders and officers. Through these discussions, debates, and forums, police and riders were able to come to a conclusion on how both sides could co-exist. After eight months of meetings and deliberations, a Mayor’s task force was created to find solutions on how the city can grow and work together to provide safe and legal spaces for dirt bikers to ride on.

With disruptors and outreach coordinators spread out through Baltimore, Safe Streets is well-suited to understand the needs and challenges of communities most at risk for gun violence. In addition to working on the ground, Safe Streets has responders stationed at two local hospitals tasked with helping shooting survivors get connected with resources and follow-up visits. This model of advocacy places gun violence prevention in context with other infrastructures to help survivors navigate bureaucratic systems that they might know how to navigate or afford.


Despite the hard work of community leaders, these community-based solutions and programs don’t succeed on their own. The city has devoted yearly funding specifically catered to youth programs and development. In 2017, $12 million was set aside to invest in minority-led organizations that, in past years, had been passed over for city funding. Unique to this process was the deep involvement of community leaders in the funding process. Teachers, recent graduates, veterans, and African-Americans, were among the groups of people involved in helping decide which organizations would receive portions of the $12 million fund.


Baltimore’s approach to gun violence prevention focuses on the importance of education, community leadership, and youth development. There is a need to equip young people with the tools and resources to succeed on their own and these youth programs are succeeding in doing just that. When explaining Baltimore’s approach to curbing gun violence, Dejuan Patterson summarized what other cities should replicate, “Baltimore programming uses economic opportunities and policies to disrupt poverty and prevent gun violence.”

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