Spreading a Message of Peace in Troubled Barry Farm

By Sylvia Moreno
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 27, 2008

About 150 strong, the group of Christians and Muslims, ex-offenders and lawyers, college students and dropouts, public officials and other folks marched yesterday into one of the District's most troubled housing developments with one message to impart: We're committed to help, but we won't tolerate any more violence.

The door-to-door canvass of the Barry Farm buildings in Southeast Washington on a gray, chilly afternoon was prompted by last week's arrest of a District teenager on charges stemming from a Jan. 11 drive-by shooting that wounded five young people. Deidrick Johnson, who lives with relatives in the Barry Farm development, was charged as an adult with assault with intent to kill in the shooting, as well as with possession with intent to distribute cocaine.

Police also have described Johnson as a "person of interest" in a drive-by shooting Tuesday near Ballou Senior High School, in which four 16-year-old students described as bystanders were injured. Both incidents appear to be connected to fighting between youths from Barry Farm and a rival neighborhood nearby, police said.

In response, D.C. Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) and Peaceoholics, which promotes nonviolence, asked that 300 black men step up and join them in a canvass of Barry Farm, where some young black men are unemployed, out of school and connected, police believe, to violent crimes. The goal, Barry said, is to get volunteers to be long-term mentors for the young men.

"There was a young man sitting on the curb crying. He had nothing to eat and nowhere to go," said Ronald Hamilton, a 19-year-old Bowie State University sophomore, one of the volunteers. "We'll be back. We can make a difference as men."

The organizers fell short of their goal of 300 volunteers, and many young men, normally fixtures in the alleys and on the street corners of the old housing complex, dispersed at the sight of outsiders marching in, but Barry was buoyed nonetheless.

"This is a great beginning," Barry said "It shows that black men can really come out when we care. We're going to save these young guys, not just today but in the long run. This is not just a one-day deal. This is not a sprint; this is a marathon."

Ron Moten, co-founder of Peaceoholics, commended the volunteers, who included more than a dozen women, for breaking out of a "do nothing" mode.

"We like to talk a lot about what's not being done, about what's the problem," Moten said. "But today some soldiers are stepping up."

The group split into teams, stocked with information to disburse on job training, substance abuse, mental health services and other city social services, and came across some heart-wrenching stories.

Brian Bailey, the director and co-founder of Positive Nature, a children's advocacy and treatment program in Southeast, said he was struck by the predominance of female-headed households he visited and was particularly saddened by one case.

"This woman had had all her children killed, and she's so sad because she has no one to talk to," he said. The woman's four sons, he said, had been killed in violent crimes in 1998, 2000, 2003 and 2004.

Sheryl and Michael Williams, who have lived at Barry Farm since 2001, said their needs are simple: better lighting on the street outside their apartment, which has been broken into several times, and better police protection.

"I can't let my children outside to play because it's not safe, and one of us has to be at home all the time because of the break-ins," said Sheryl Williams, 39, who is studying at the University of the District of Columbia to be a nurse. "It shouldn't be this bad, and people don't want to say anything because they are scared of these guys. But somebody's got to say something."

Barry said that the names and contact information of residents who expressed specific needs -- including a 53-year-old woman who wants to finish school, several women who need child-care services and others who need food and jobs -- were taken and will be turned over to appropriate city agencies, as well as to such groups as the Far Southeast Family Strengthening Collaborative, for follow-up.

"We can't make promises and not follow up," Barry said.

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