By Valerie Batts (Visions, Inc.), Clementina Chery (Louis D. Brown Peace Institute), Jamie Bissonette Lewey (American Friends Service Committee Healing Justice Program)
Joan Vennochi's June 20, 2013 article, "Boston's gang wars," attempts to raise some of the critical issues embedded in the unending street violence in our city. She reminds us that this cycle of violence is not new and is reminiscent of the Boston gang wars of the 1960's and 70's. Then she invites us to go a step further and explore why we are mesmerized by the Bulger trial yet have trouble focusing on the 17 homicides and 108 plus reported shootings in the city this year.
The questions Vennochi poses are crucial to solving the problem of a violence so deeply rooted in our communities as to be dubbed a "chronic health problem." At the same time, we know that the people who live in Boston and surrounding communities can come together, despite racial, class and cultural differences to address violence. An example: the coming together of all of our neighborhoods to offer love and support to the victims of the Marathon bombings and their families. How can we transfer this spirit to everyday violence prevention and peace education?
For over 20 years - two generations, in fact - groups like the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute and the families and communities that have endured the most recent wave of street wars have sought answers to these questions: How do we prevent urban violence? Can we get over numbness and indifference and address the need for healing and reconciliation?
Many of our children have grown up enveloped by violence. Over 90% of the boys and girls in Dorchester and Roxbury report witnessing violence with their own eyes. They are a generation of trauma survivors - the kind of trauma associated with burying a father, mother, sister, brother or other loved one lost to violence. The time to invest in healing these children is right now. And all of us must engage in the crucial conversation about the value of life - all life, including, most poignantly, the children and families who live in challenged urban communities. This conversation must be a central and enduring one for our policymakers, from the president, to the governor, to those competing next year to lead our city; from top law enforcement officials to our faith leaders; all of us.
Experience teaches us that urban violence is only preventable if we address the underlying conditions that support it: racial and ethnic disparities, poverty, and marginalization. These conditions are not tethered to the streets where these conflicts are played out, but are woven through our day-to-day lives. And while addressing these issues is not without financial cost, not addressing them is even more costly - in prisons, emergency rooms, physical rehabilitation centers, further dependency of minor children on state services, and increased public safety costs.
Better policing would be helpful: community-based policing and projects involving affected youth and the police who patrol their neighborhoods have taken other cities in very positive directions. But what is most necessary are primary prevention efforts that build on the assets of youth, families, and communities through peace education and restorative justice principles. As Northeastern University criminology professor James Fox has said: "Programs aimed at young children have a lasting effect on their well-being and are a cost-effective way to lower involvement in crime. Early prevention has been shown to increase children's resilience, reinforce positive behaviors, and promote social benefits."
For two decades, the Peace Institute, along with the Harvard School of Public Health, Lesson One Company, and the Boston public schools have worked to do just that through the implementation of Peace Zone, an elementary school program designed to increase students' ability to make positive decisions, avoid risk-taking behavior, and heal from trauma and loss - to great effect. There is ample evidence to feel confident that if this small-scale effort were given broad community support and sufficient funding to replicate it throughout the city, we would see a great reduction in violence ten years from now.
Governor Patrick reminded us recently that addressing urban violence is "not any one political leader's responsibility. In fact, it's not even up to political leaders entirely, or mainly. There's a whole business about rebuilding community and rebuilding family that belongs to all of us." Clearly, this is true. But leaving it there, without helping to identify facilitators or making funding available to advance coordination of anti-violence work and the building of peace assures the maintenance of the status quo.
We must begin to look at each other as co-collaborators, to support each other in our work for our children's future, and to invest together and advocate for the implementation of programs that teach children the value of peace, and the recognition of loss and the need for healing. At least as much as we need an anti-gang task force, we need a peace council, premised on the Peace Institute's seven core principles: Love, Unity, Faith, Hope, Courage, Justice, and Forgiveness.
Here are the Strategies for Peace we recommend:
1. The Pledge for Peace: An additional 1% of city and state departmental budgets invested in peace education, including teaching about loss and grief;
2. A peace column published in all media outlets to report on conscious efforts to build peace as well as a deepening medial strategy in reporting on violence;
3. A long term investment by corporate leaders and banks in peace education and awareness while building the capacity of employees to involve themselves with these programs;
We invite Boston to come together again, to join us in acknowledging pain, listening to all who are affected by violence, and collaborating with all who want to make a positive difference and mobilize for peace in our communities. Our children's very lives depend on it.