Improving District lives through education, outreach and opportunity

In the wake of the failed bipartisan effort to pass new gun control legislation in the Senate, many are wondering what can be done to reduce gun violence in America today,  besides taking the legislative route.

There are many reasons behind gun violence. In some cases, mental illness can be a factor. But more often than not, growing up in a troubled, poverty and crime-ridden environment is largely responsible.

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Mark Glaze, the director of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, estimates that between 11,000 and 12,000 people die from gun violence in the United States each year. According to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, children and adults 24 years and younger make up 38 percent of all firearm-related deaths and nonfatal injuries. That high percentage has various groups around the country working overtime to change this trajectory.

Many civic organizations work with disadvantaged youth in the District of Columbia on a variety of different levels in order to provide them with means for a more promising future. 

“We want to give students the life skills they need to adapt to the challenges in the neighborhoods they are living in,” said Joe Persichini, the executive director of the Washington, D.C., Police Foundation and a former head of the FBI’s Washington field office.

While the main mission of the foundation is to “promote public safety by providing financial and in-kind resources to the chief of police and the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD),” Persichini said that much of the foundation’s work begins in the classroom. Starting in fifth grade, officers visit D.C. schools weekly in order to reinforce positive life decisions, such as staying in school, not engaging in violence and avoiding drug use.

Persichini says that it is important to use “the loving touch of the law to mentor kids at an early age and make young people aware of the bad consequences that ensue from bad choices.” Although the task is not always easy, Persichini says,  “We go to the most challenging neighborhoods because there is more opportunity for people there to make the wrong decisions … Teachers and principals are constantly asking us to expand into their schools and communities because we have been able to earn the trust of the people we serve.”

The foundation is always looking for ways to improve its programs. 

“Our funders require feedback to make sure the investments they put in are worthwhile,” Persichini said. “We do surveys of students during and at the end of the school year and also partner with the Urban Institute and Urban Alliance to do empirical research.”

Another Washington-based organization with the goal of putting the District’s at-risk youth on a better path is the Urban Alliance. 

“We work with students from all across the district in every public school and some charter schools,” the Urban Alliance’s Chief Operating Officer Sean Segal said.

According to Segal, the Alliance looks for students with great attitudes and middle-of-the-road grades who are looking for different opportunities in life. Students who are accepted by the organization are placed in internship programs where they work a total of more than 700 hours. Acceptance into the program is competitive: The group receives twice the number of applicants as it has available placements for, he said.

“Once they start with the program, many of our students begin to ask questions of their mentors on how they succeeded in life, and the answers they usually get is that they went to school, got internships, etc.,” Segal said. “We have seen students work at consulting firms and in the government, among other places, and joining the Urban Alliance gives these students access to networks they would not otherwise have gotten.”

Another big draw for students applying to the program is the financial rewards that come with participating in it. “Every company that takes one of our students give us a tax deductible donation covering training costs and half of that goes into students pockets as wages … students can earn as much as $6,000 while in the program.”

By all accounts, the Urban Alliance is successful in what it does. One hundred percent of the students the organization accepts graduate from high school, 90 percent are accepted to college and 75 percent end up enrolling. 

Based on the success of its programs, the Urban Alliance has expanded into Baltimore, Chicago, and it will soon venture into northern Virginia. 

Despite that, Segal notes that more students can have those opportunities “if we have more job openings, and more corporations step up and take students.” 

While civic organizations, such as the Washington Police Foundation and the Urban Alliance, have taken the lead in providing new opportunities to the District’s youth, there is also a considerable effort in Congress with the help of Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.).

Holmes Norton started the D.C. Commission on Black Men and Boys in 2001 to study and facilitate a discussion on issues affecting the District’s African-American residents, such as high drop-out rates, HIV and AIDS, employment training, family breakdown, and gun violence.

The commission brought together people throughout Washington to tell their stories on how they were trying to get their lives back on track. This includes a person who dropped out of junior high school, an athlete who is now trying to earn a doctorate degree from Columbia University and a man who was attempting to earn a law degree while being incarcerated.

Holmes Norton has recently taken her cause to a new level. On March 19, she announced the formation of the Black Men and Boys Congressional Caucus with Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.).

“We have been recognized by the House and are in the process of having our first hearing … many organizations are now recognizing that black boys need special attention,” Holmes Norton said.

Though these organizations and initiatives may not completely change the life trajectories of every at-risk young person in the nation’s capital, they are off to a promising start. 

“These are nationwide problems,” Holmes Norton said. “We put an emphasis on what the government and local communities can be doing to help fix them.”