Motivational Monday: Brooklyn Teens Work to ‘Save Their Streets’ From Gun Violence
After the Valentine’s Day shooting at a Parkland, Florida high school left 17 people dead, many teen survivors became activists for nationwide legislative changes on gun control. Students are passionately calling on local and national leaders to make schools safer for everyone by restricting access to guns. But while mass shootings at suburban schools like Marjory Stoneman Douglas High have gotten a lot of media attention, many teens live in communities where gun violence is part of daily life. The tragedies they experience are often missing from the headlines, and so is the work they’re doing to prevent them.
Recently I visited Youth Organizing to Save Our Streets (YO S.O.S.), a leadership program that trains young activists to educate their peers and organize against violence. I wanted to learn about what these activists are doing to make their communities safer. They live in Crown Heights, East Flatbush, and Brownsville, three Brooklyn neighborhoods with high rates of gun violence. In fact, when I arrived, I learned that a shooting had taken place nearby just two days before.
Like me, some of the YO S.O.S. members joined the March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C., to support the call for stricter gun control laws. They’re glad the media is covering gun violence more after Parkland, and applaud the student organizers for speaking up against the NRA. But while the #NeverAgain movement aims to pass national and state legislation, YO S.O.S. has a local focus: engaging youth in preventing shootings at the neighborhood level.
This starts with understanding how a conflict can heat up and how it might be safely de-escalated. Teens learn about how growing up surrounded by violence can impact the choices you make, and how trauma affects the way you process different situations. The YO S.O.S. members then go out into the community and give presentations to share this knowledge with other teens.
“It’s about changing norms and shifting the way we look at community violence, or community and violence,” said the program’s director, Heather Day.
Gun Violence Is Personal
Often, members have a personal connection to gun violence, although they weren’t directly victims.
In May, a fatal shooting occurred two blocks from 19-year-old Destiny Singleton’s house in Brownsville. A few days later, Destiny’s sister was headed across the street to go to the store when shots rang out again. Her sister fortunately wasn’t hurt, but Destiny wasn’t home at the time, and her sister panicked when she didn’t know where Destiny was.
Destiny thinks this incident may have been retaliation for the earlier shooting. “People in my community were involved,” she said. “So it definitely affects everybody.”
Like Destiny, I have also been indirectly affected by gun violence. I am from Guaiba, a small city in southern Brazil where gangs frequently shoot on the streets. My stepfather was held at gunpoint for hours during a neighborhood robbery. I was terrified for him at the time, and it still hurts me now to see him so changed from the experience. He still lives in Brazil and is fearful and cautious when he is out. He is always trying to suppress the fear that this kind of thing could happen again.
The Shooter Is a Person Too
One thing that sets the YO S.O.S. activists’ approach apart from the Parkland teens’ protests is that when a shooting happens in the community, they acknowledge that the perpetrator’s family and friends need healing just as much as the victim’s.
“We are not making excuses for the violence; we know people have to be held accountable, but that person who’s quote-unquote a shooter is still somebody’s son, somebody’s father, somebody’s best friend,” Heather said. “These are members of our neighborhood too.”
Various life experiences can cause a person to be involved in violence, including social factors and oppressive forces like poverty and racism. To be honest, I never paid attention to the suspect in a shooting or his family, because I previously thought a person who could commit such a crime is a monster who deserves to be ruined. But now I think differently. I learned that someone who inflicts violence has likely been a victim in their life, too.
YO S.O.S. is only one of the programs run through the Crown Heights Mediation Center, an organization that works to prevent and respond to shootings. In addition to YO S.O.S., the adult-led Save Our Streets program tries to change people’s behavior and break the cycle of violence. Trained staff members go out on the streets to “interrupt” violence, defusing conflicts. Others proactively reach out to people in the community who are considered at risk of being involved in a shooting, or meet with victims and their families at the hospital.
These efforts have had an impact. According to Heather, in 2010, the year Save Our Streets started, there were 24 shootings in the program’s target area, which covers a 40-block radius in Crown Heights. In 2017, there were three.
Trying to stop a potentially violent conflict on the street can be risky, and YO S.O.S. doesn’t ask teens to do so. But the youth organizers do learn some of the techniques the adult staff members use to de-escalate heated situations. The emphasis is on finding strategies the teens feel will work for them, and deciding when it’s safe to use them.
Layla Bell, a 17-year-old, explained how she used the techniques she learned from YO S.O.S. to intervene when her friend was talking about fighting another girl. “I said, ‘I know she makes you upset…but I’m going to make sure you do not go attack the girl, because it’s not worth it,’ ” she recalled. “When you want to de-escalate a problem, you have to approach the person in a respectful way, you don’t take sides.”
I learned a lot from meeting these youth organizers. They are working to address gun violence in a different way than at the protest I attended, but we are all working together to make an impact and prove that young people play a role in making our communities and our country safer.