Uniting the Streets: Violence Prevention on the Streets of Boston
Maya Gaul is a Patricia Watson Intern at Peacework Magazine.
Jermaine Headlam, a Streetworker youth violence prevention practitioner, begins his day in the Bromley-Heath Projects in Jamaica Plain, a Boston neighborhood, winding in and out of the red brick apartment buildings, stopping to chat with mothers and their children, slapping hands with the young kids. The throngs of children zipping through the buildings on scooters create a jovial atmosphere within a neighborhood that has more friendliness and culture than its violence ridden reputation would lead one to expect. The perceived dangerousness of the neighborhood, fanned by corporate media stories of youth violence, doesn't live up to the hype.
Today, Jermaine hands out several applications for summer and school year jobs, explaining to one mother how her teenage son can fill out the application, and "if needed," list the Streetworker as a reference.
This is how Jermaine and many other Streetworkers operate, as an indispensable resource that is there for the community when needed, his presence recognized and felt by those he has touched, whether through job applications or a community outing to a sporting event. The Streetworker Program, guided by the Boston Centers for Youth and Families, is part of an organizing effort to prevent youth violence in the city of Boston.
The Boston Miracle
Begun in the 1990s, the Streetworker Program is a team of youth workers that roam Boston neighborhoods, fostering positive relations and reducing crime. The Streetworkers began as a program using ex-gang members as liaisons between neighborhood gangs and the city to create peace and discourage young men and women from life on the streets. Each Streetworker was a conscientious objector to violence, bonding with gang members and youth over their past involvement in crime, but dissuading youth from a life, or further life, of violence.
The Streetworker program received credit for its role in creating the "Boston Miracle", a collaborative effort between the city, grassroots organizers, religious leaders, and the police that reduced the number of homicides from the roughly 150 in 1990 to 31 in 1999. After 1999, the Streetworkers unionized, rallying for and winning a set workday from 12 to 8. However, the city of Boston mandated that Streetworkers needed to be "qualified" to work with youth and have no criminal past, fundamentally altering its violence prevention model. As the initiatives which created the "Boston Miracle" faded or were not used as often, the homicide rate in Boston grew.
Jermaine Headlam also faces skepticism from some older men and women, creating a fine and intricate line the Streetworkers have to walk in order to keep his credibility in the neighborhood. "People listen when they feel like they aren't being preached to," Headlam shares with me, "it's difficult to tell people to stop gang banging and carrying guns in their waists without having them discredit what you say."
To keep this credibility, two things are very important to the Streetworker Program: remaining true to your word and keeping the trust of the community. The Streetworker has to be clear about how and when they are a mandatory reporter, so that no one can honestly claim to be betrayed when a Streetworker calls in authorities (about child abuse, for example). Otherwise, confidentiality is scrupulously adhered to in this program, as I was asked to leave the room during the Streetworkers' daily check-in meeting.
The Streetworkers current model provides essential guidance to many youths. Jermaine and other Streetworkers willingness to inform young people about beneficial programs, and then following up to help them navigate the application process, is an invaluable asset to the community. The Streetworker program may at times function as a physical and mental intervention program for gang members and/or their destructive activities, but Jermaine's relationship with the younger children acts as a preventive barrier, promoting sports, job programs, and constructive decision making as an alternative to violence.
In recent years, as Boston communities and officials became alarmed with the sudden rise in gang-related homicides, other programs, such as StreetSafe, funded by The Boston Foundation, have adopted the older Streetworker model. Both programs use a model, however different, that provides young people with a violence prevention mentor within their community.
Confronting a Culture of Violence
Youth violence is definitely present in Boston, but researchers at the Harvard's Kennedy School of Government estimate that 50% of violent youth crimes are committed by only 1% of 16 to 24 year-olds, according to StreetSafe. Youth violence is a problem that we face in our community, and a problem that needs addressing, but it's also exaggerated (in comparison with the scale of violence committed by powerful institutions) in order to stigmatize particular communities and keep us oppressed.
How do we address both the direct violence on the streets and the structural violence endemic to our society? Dr. Ulric Johnson, the founder of Teens Against Gang Violence, believes that "It's going to take more that the Streetworkers. It takes the changing of our cultural tendencies towards violence." Johnson says we need to first acknowledge that our country was founded on violence and oppression (from genocide against native Americans to slavery), but tend to ignore the echoes of our own legacy. Corporate and white collar crimes prey on our communities (stealing hundreds of billions of dollars in the latest financial collapse, for example). The government sets a bad example by routinely using military violence to pursue its own ends.
Dr. Johnson wants to turn the hundreds of billions used for military spending into meeting the needs of people through community organizations. This would quell the violence the US government inflicts internationally, help transform our culture, and assist our communities.
Jermaine and the Streetworkers could use more resources to expand and replicate their violence prevention model. But for now, his focus is on making a difference on this street, on this neighborhood. He focuses on ways to heal the community's divisions.
When I ask Jermaine how he handles the rivalries
between different crews (different neighborhoods, different gangs)
and how he can work with both "sides," he tells me that,
"I just let them know I'm here to help everyone, no matter
what they rep, to make sure everyone is doing what they should
be doing." This indiscriminate pledge of helping those in
need is the greatest strength of a Streetworker. They are connecting
everyone together through service. They are uniting the streets.