Mark Bergel is head of A Wider Circle, a nonprofit dedicated to helping children and adults rise out of poverty.
For those truly paying attention to violence in our country — the violence occurring daily in the streets and communities where our most vulnerable citizens live — this summer has brought what past summers have: an increase in violent crime that makes many of our neighborhoods dangerous. These neighborhoods are the most neglected in our nation. We continue to allow individuals and families to be born and raised in extremely challenging conditions, surrounded by a scarcity of opportunities and support.
Memorial Day weekend this year was the true kickoff. It was when the now annual surge in murders occurred yet again, affecting almost solely the portion of our country living in the equivalent of our apartheid system.
In our nation’s capital that weekend, about a dozen people were shot and four people were killed. And from Memorial Day to the Fourth of July, homicides and violent crimes were up in the District. More mothers this year than last got news of their children being wounded or killed. Most live in poverty and have their whole lives.
The violence — the same type of violence we lament and against which we march and protest (and rightly so) when it affects schools in various parts of our country — happens every single day in low-income neighborhoods across our region and our nation. In fact, to bring this beyond the summer months, some schools in low-income communities in our nation’s capital go on lockdown as often as they go on vacation.
That is life in poverty, and get ready, because this summer’s acts of violence will continue at a rate that would surely inspire national alerts and intensive action if the victims lived in Bethesda or Chevy Chase, for example. We need to feel that same concern and compassion for people in all of our communities.
The core of the issue here is the same as it has been for generations, and all you have to do is ask the people involved what that is and they will tell you: poverty. If you want a more instructive answer, it is neglect of parts of our cities. It is the need for healthier commerce, more recreational opportunities, more job training and youth mentoring — starting early and continuing with force so that opportunities, services and programs are what define areas now defined by poverty and neglect.
Violence in the District during the summertime and otherwise is not the sole responsibility of the mayor or elected officials or even the police. Poverty and the violence that accompanies it is your problem, whoever and wherever you are. It is all of ours. The start of solving this problem is to know that, and to see every child as your son or daughter and every adult as your mother or father.
Many people will say these are bad people living in bad neighborhoods, and I say, emphatically, that this is as wrong as can be. It is a revolting (and simplistic) thought. These are individuals and families faced with severely unfair conditions from the time they are conceived to the time they die. And it is our job to make sure that in between they have the support, opportunities, schools and environments that people in other parts of these cities and other parts of our country have.
The people in these communities are, in many cases, as heroic as any you will ever meet. As I see the violence each day and talk with people for whom this is their daily experience of life, I wonder if we care too little, love too little and do too little — and if we can change that.
The resources, financial and otherwise, are there. In fact, it takes much less money to prevent health and safety issues than it does to treat them. Let us finally address violence at its root cause, to bring the compassion and clarity of thought necessary to make sure that those living in neglected neighborhoods have the programs, opportunities and services needed for a life beyond poverty.
Let’s stop doing cosmetic surgery when what we really need is open-heart surgery.