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William Raspberry

Achieving Peace in D.C.

By William Raspberry
Monday, October 4, 2004; Page A23

Four years ago Tyrone Parker looked at the green lawns, exuberant children and chatting moms on the grounds of the once-violent Benning Terrace public housing complex and offered his assessment.

Said Parker, whose Alliance of Concerned Men helped transform Benning Terrace by transforming the gangs whose endless "beefs" had kept the violence running at the rate of a murder a month: "A month of peace is a fluke; a year of peace is a solution."

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So what do you call it when peace proves "catching" -- like some transmittable disease in reverse? Well, if you're like some of this city's baseball-obsessed leaders, you don't call it anything. You don't even return the calls of the man who offers to help launch a virtual epidemic of peace.

That would be Robert L. Woodson, president of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, who helped to bring the alliance and the warring "crews" to the peace table.

Maybe they just don't believe that what Woodson talks about is possible.

"To tell you the truth, I had my doubts with some of the guys when we first started," Woodson admits. "I mean I wanted them to change, but I looked at a couple of them and said, 'Not them.' Well it turns out these hard cases have been our most effective leaders."

When stray bullets claimed the life of Helen Foster-El, a 55-year-old grandmother who was trying to shield several children from gang gunfire, Curtis Watkins, a former thug who now runs the East Capitol Center for Change, remembered what had happened at Benning Terrace. He identified a number of youngsters involved in gang violence in the area and brought them to Woodson's office, where they not only struck a truce but got former gang members to turn their efforts toward violence prevention.

Much the same thing happened in Dallas, where Omar Jahwar had the sort of street respect that Watkins had in Washington. Jahwar's group -- Vision Regeneration -- is credited with transforming Dallas's Madison High from one of the most dangerous -- and least academically effective -- high schools to one of the city's safest. Attendance is up significantly, and in one recent year the improvement in test scores was the greatest of all Dallas high schools.

What is the magic?

"We discovered a number of things," says Woodson. "For instance, we had thought former gangbangers wouldn't work at the sort of jobs they could qualify for. Well, we found that if you approach them with their interests at heart, rather than just your own interest in stopping violence, these young men become available for adult guidance. Indeed, we found that ending the violence -- at least temporarily -- is the easy part. The question is, what do they do next? It turns out that many of them want to learn job skills, but nearly all of them have an interest in 'giving back' by helping youngsters in their neighborhoods to stay out of trouble.

"They form football teams, get involved with all sorts of things. The little guys are amazed to see the older boys they've known as tough dudes doing something constructive in the neighborhood."

And peace happens. It happened in Washington and Dallas, and it's starting to happen in Indianapolis and Milwaukee. Then maybe Hartford, Conn., or Atlanta.

But Woodson, whose organization has served chiefly as funder and catalyst for the transforming efforts of grass-roots leaders, including former gangbangers, said that he thought it was time to close the circle with a major effort back home in Washington.

So far, though, he's gotten mostly nice words and approving nods but no real help from local officials. He did manage to interest a couple of principals -- at H.D. Woodson High and Fletcher-Johnson school. But he's having to come up with the money to pay the 15 youth workers involved.

"The funny thing is, I've gotten money from Atlanta and Baltimore, but nothing but broken appointments from D.C. officials," he says.

As Tyrone Parker might put it, for one city official to ignore a promising program might be a fluke. But when the neglect becomes general, it starts to look like an attitude.

willrasp@washpost.com


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