washingtonpost.com
Ganging Up for Good

By Robert L. Woodson Sr.
Sunday, August 21, 2005

The recent stabbings of six teenagers at Springbrook High School and a Wheaton shopping plaza in Montgomery County, the murder two years ago of pregnant 17-year-old Brenda Paz by members of the MS-13 gang in Northern Virginia and the increase in violent activity by Latino and Asian gangs throughout the greater metropolitan area: All have been met with the same predictable response from public officials -- a response that has a history of complete failure.

Establish yet anothertask force, they say. Police, members of the judiciary, probation and a bevy of social service agencies will come together to learn from these "experts" on how to read graffiti and other telltale signs of gang activity. The social service organizations will see their budgets grow, and police will increase their numbers around schools and malls. And when another young person is -- inevitably -- killed, an army of grief counselors will pour into the schools, just as they did in March after the killings on an Indian reservation in Minnesota.

There are effective solutions, but they will only be found if those making decisions are willing to look for answers in -- and invest in -- some new and seemingly unlikely places. I've seen it happen in my home town of Philadelphia.

In the late '60s and early '70s, Philadelphia was known as the "youth gang capital of America." Each day the local newspapers would publish the gang deaths alongside the death toll in Vietnam.

Then, a community activist named Falaka Fattah and her husband, David, discovered that the oldest of their six boys had become an active gang member. Fattah responded by inviting 13 of her son's friends and fellow gang members to come and live in their small row house, replacing the family furniture with mattresses on the floors. They established rules together that governed conduct, such as requiring that everyone go to school or to work during the day, and that everyone practice good hygiene. Because fighting threatened the whole family, they agreed to bring all disputes to an "Adella" -- a peace session where all the members would participate in finding a resolution and meting out punishment if necessary.

When word circulated that there was a sanctuary from the street, more and more young people sought refuge at the Fattahs'. The family purchased the house opposite and then another one next door with the wages the young men earned doing odd jobs, washing cars and making deliveries. They named their community the House of Umoja, which means "unity" in Swahili. The number of houses grew to five, then seven.

In order for the now ex-gang members to come and go in peace, permission had to be obtained from the Moon gang leadership that controlled the area. This became the first gang truce, as the Moon members agreed to give those living in the House of Umoja safe passage.

After three years, the Fattahs decided to extend the new peace and began planning a citywide gang summit. Fearing an outbreak of violence, none of the city's black churches would allow their facilities to be used. The Quakers stepped up and permitted the use of their historic building at Fourth and Arch streets, but for the first time in the city's history, the annual Mummers' Day parade was canceled in anticipation of the violence that might result from bringing together warring gang members.

All the dire predictions were wrong. The "No Gang Wars" campaign of 1974 led to a drop in Philadelphia's gang death rate from 48 annually to one or two, and it remained low throughout the decade and beyond.

At this time I was a young staffer at the National Urban League, and I went to learn about Sister Fattah, as Falaka was known. I was familiar with the area, having been raised just two blocks away from where Umoja now stood, and I knew what it was to be terrorized by other neighborhood kids. I also had been working at night as a corrections officer in a juvenile jail while getting my college degree, and I didn't think anyone could change some of the youths I saw there.

I was amazed by what I found: The row houses were repaired and painted; when I walked into the main house, I found young men sitting together and talking through their disputes. One was told by the group that his punishment for some infraction would be to sweep the playground -- a demeaning public task that I thought would surely make him rebel. But he trudged off to do it, his allegiance to the family more important to him than his pride.

What Fattah did was to serve as a catalyst, transforming gang leaders from predators to peacekeepers. The original 13 gang members inspired others to believe that it was possible to have better lives. They were effective because they came from the same broken homes and dysfunctional neighborhoods, but instead of carrying guns, they were now carrying books.

The important lesson was that the cure came from within. Falaka's was not a top-down professional approach. It was successful because she worked with a few young people who became the moral equivalent of antibodies, spreading their healing to others throughout the city.

This experience brought several basic principles home to me. I began to look in other cities for the likes of Sister Fattah and her husband, who had the trust of young people and could call on them to take responsibility. Theirs was a lifelong commitment, not a program. The Fattahs lived in the same neighborhood as the young people they helped. They understood their challenges, and knew how to create good character and values.

It was this experience that led me in 1981 to found the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, to support such neighborhood leaders in their low-income communities. In 1997, I was working with grass-roots organizations in Washington when a 12-year-old boy was killed in violence between warring youth factions in an area called Benning Terrace. Using some of the principles I had learned from the House of Umoja, my organization and a courageous grass-roots group called the Alliance of Concerned Men negotiated a truce between rival groups in Benning Terrace, where some 53 youth deaths had occurred in the previous two years in a five-square-block area. The truce was followed by a program of life skills and counseling, and D.C. Public Housing Receiver David Gilmore offered employment training and jobs. The key to this program has been the involvement of individuals such as those in the alliance -- men who were once part of the problem and now wanted to become positive influences on young people there.

Almost nine years on, there have been no crew-related deaths in Benning Terrace, and we have adapted the model in four other cities: Atlanta, Baltimore, Dallas and Milwaukee. We look for a catalytic neighborhood organization and infuse it with technical assistance. In each city, we've established Violence-Free Zones in some of the most violence-plagued schools, where youth advisers undergo training to become hall monitors, mentors and character coaches.

The results are measurable. Over a two-year period after the program was introduced in Dallas, gang violence at Lincoln High School dropped from 34 incidents to one and at Madison High School from 113 to zero.

And here in Washington, Darrin Slade, principal of Fletcher-Johnson K-8 school, said this about the VFZ program: "Three years ago, my school was plagued with fighting. Ambulance and police calls were frequent occurrences. This year, with VFZ Youth Advisors from East Capitol Center for Change present, there have been no incidents. There also has been a dramatic reduction in suspensions because of the youth counselors. They provide strong female and male role models for the students."

If these programs have been successful, why haven't they been embraced more widely by school systems and communities? The fundamental resistance is from people on both the left and the right who argue that these remedies come from "untutored" people -- individuals who do not hold advanced degrees. More responsive, however, are police officers, judges and parents who have seen violence firsthand and know how young people can be influenced by real neighborhood experts.

Add to that the financial incentive that supports the status quo. Some 80 percent of the money spent on poor people and at-risk youth goes to those who provide services. As the problem increases, the funding increases. In my experience, too many people ask not which problems are solvable, but which ones are fundable.

Until we put the goal of saving lives over these institutional interests, we can only expect more shopping center stabbings and more school violence.

Author's e-mail: rwoodson@ncne.com

Robert Woodson is president and founder of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, which provides support and training to combat problems such as youth violence, substance abuse, teen pregnancy and homelessness.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company