Monday, November 17, 2014

Not easy in the Big Easy: Curbing youth violence in New Orleans and beyond

New Orleans Mayor Mitchell Landrieu doesn’t want much from his administration during his second term. He says he has a single goal: To get black boys to stop shooting each other.

He doesn’t want you to water that message down. He doesn’t want you to broaden it. He wants to make his city safe for the demographic that’s most likely to be the victims, and the perpetrators, of violence. He’s talked with them and asked them why so many believe they won’t reach their 22nd birthday — and why they say they don’t care if that prediction becomes reality.

“Essentially what these kids tell you when you really speak to them — they can’t really articulate it this way — but they tell you, ‘I have been forsaken,’” Landrieu told a packed room at a Monday morning session on “Changing the Context: Youth Violence Prevention Through Community Change.” “You know this already.”

Landrieu’s presentation was ostensibly about NOLA for Life, the mayor’s comprehensive murder reduction program. But his conversation with public health leaders really focused on the epidemic of black youth violence in America — and the lack of urgency the public and national government seem to have in ending a culture of violence.

“When 628,000 citizens are killed in America since 1980…(that’s) more American citizens that were killed in all of the wars in the 20th century,” Landrieu said. He noted that half of those victims were black men. “Here’s my question to America: Why doesn’t that move us to do something? We went to war over 3,000 people killed on Sept. 11, 2001. How many people have to be killed to move us?”

Through NOLA for Life, New Orleans has taken a multi-pronged approach to violence reduction. Law enforcement plays a big part, as 100 gang members have been indicted in a multi-jurisdictional effort to curb violence in neighborhoods. But it goes beyond that, said session presenter Howard Spivak, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Injury Center’s Division of Violence Prevention. In the last 30 years, violence prevention has moved from a punitive framework to a preventive one. And that means offering social services and reaching young men before they fall into violence.

In New Orleans, a big portion of that is employment opportunities. The city has a 52 percent unemployment rate among black men, but NOLA for Life’s Pathways to Prosperity has trained 1,000 young men for jobs, has gotten 300 hired through the program, and partners with Tulane University and Louisiana State University to encourage the area’s biggest employers to reach out to this huge potential workforce.

Another large component is community engagement. Landrieu said he has seen midnight basketball games, coupled with big-name speakers, garner interest and encourage investment in neighborhoods and communities. And other panelists agreed. Charles Branas, professor of epidemiology at the University of Pennsylvania, says that in his own Philadelphia neighborhood, he has seen how vacant lots turned to green spaces reduce gun violence in the area.

“Once you clean these spaces, people take an interest in them. They tend to become invested,” he said.

Beatriz Solís, director of health communities for the California Endowment, said it’s not surprising that by engaging with disenfranchised communities, they become safer and more involved in maintaining that safety.

“You need that people power in there, residents and young people,” she told session attendees. “You need people to be engaged and informed so they’re really transforming and keeping systems accountable.”

In New Orleans, Landrieu says there’s still a lot of work to do. But it’s already paying off, he says: the current city murder rate is the lowest it’s been since 1970.

— L.W.

Above, New Orleans Mayor Mitchell Landrieu talks to a packed Annual Meeting session. Photo by Lindsey Wahowiak

No comments: