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Let’s Rally the Community, Not the National Guard

I found it ironic that the same morning I attended the annual meeting of the Blue Ribbon Commission for the Prevention of Youth Violence, I read a column called “Heart of the Matter” in the StarNews that referenced a quote from their Reader Advisory Board that claimed: “If what’s happening downtown were going on in Landfall, the National Guard would be called in.” Although I hope this assertion was hyperbole for dramatic effect, it struck me nonetheless as an example of our society’s knee-jerk reaction to crime, extolling the sentiment that an ever-increasing armed presence is the answer. Although law enforcement is a key part of the crime-fighting equation, it won’t solve the problem. It’s only part of the solution.

Much of the violence occurring in Wilmington—especially drive-by shootings and murder—is directly tied to gang activity and a vicious circle of retaliation with others stepping in to continue the violence when fellow gang members are unable to due to incarceration or death. An eye-for-an-eye is the unspoken rule of the streets, and solving murder cases and jailing the offenders happens routinely. In fact, as I am writing this column, I received a media alert stating a suspect in a drive-by shooting yesterday was arrested. The 17-year-old had apparently been the intended victim of another drive-by a few hours earlier and was acting in retaliation.

As quickly as these perpetrators are taken off the streets—in this case in only one day—there’s another bred from the same sense of despair and hopelessness to take their place. The StarNews column elucidated this as well, saying that with “no money and a sense of hopelessness…the battle seems lost at the outset.” One of the largest contributors to the hopelessness felt by these troubled youth is being unable to perform at an adequate level academically, especially in regards to their more affluent peers that typically come from more stable settings both at home and in the neighborhood where they live. In December I accepted an invitation to attend a conference being co-hosted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation (USCCF) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in Washington, DC. The program—The Path Forward: Improving Opportunities for African-American Students—discussed closing achievement gaps for African-American students while attracting the support of business leaders, civil rights leaders, and policymakers.

Although there has been improvement in our education system, data show that African-American students continue to experience lower academic achievement scores, greater high school dropout rates, and lower postsecondary enrollment and persistence rates than their white peers, and in some cases, their Hispanic peers. Whereas some gaps have narrowed, the effects have not been significant enough to result in the needed improvement in outcomes for African-American students.

The 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress showed that only 18% of African-American fourth graders were found to be proficient in reading and only 19% scored proficient in math. This poor performance gets worse over time. By eighth grade, only 16% of African-American students rated proficient in reading and only 13% in math. But there is hope. In the 1990s, only 8% of African-American fourth graders scored proficient in reading and 1% in math. Improvement has been made.

Working simply within the school system to influence academic performance isn’t enough. A concentration on other factors that impede school performance are required, which is where the work of organizations like the Blue Ribbon Commission (BRC) is so vital. The children behind the crime statistics need the same opportunities and basic necessities afforded others. Working with partner organizations, the BRC is creatively and effectively providing those requirements: health, safety and academic success.

The BRC focuses on a targeted geographic area known as the Youth Enrichment Zone (YEZ), roughly 140 blocks: the area between Nixon and Market Streets from 4th to 14th Streets. The BRC’s goal is to identify, coordinate and make community resources available to families to help connect them to needed services. Creating a safer, more caring environment for children can influence school performance. Initiatives established by the BRC aim to increase opportunities for wellness among youth in the YEZ, eliminate food insecurity, and address safety and academic performance by providing positive alternatives for youth through educational after-school, evening and summer programs.

It would be naïve to think that the answer to all-crime is improving educational achievement and thus the possibility of a stable career path that offers hope. Many other external factors can influence young people, from the allure of quick money selling illegal drugs to finding a sense of belonging in a gang that one may not find in a broken home. But, in many cases, lack of educational proficiency is a root cause for turning to crime. Picture yourself being a fourteen-year-old who can’t make the grade, has no job prospects, and has an older sibling pushing the attraction of making real money through theft or peddling drugs. Are you certain you would make the choice to stay in school?

The StarNews column I referenced earlier said, “bringing hope to youth before they choose a gun in its place must be led by the people who love this place enough to run for office. Those whom voters have put in charge are in a unique position to rally businesses, churches, volunteer groups and residents in one united cause.” I don’t disagree with this sentiment, but there are many ways that our elected officials and law enforcement are already tackling the problem, which has lead to historically low crime rates in recent years. In fact, Mayor Saffo and District Attorney Ben David were responsible for the creation of the Blue Ribbon Commission on the Prevention of Youth Violence that I’ve spoken so highly of here.

By the same token, the media are also in a unique position to rally support to help the area they love…and that supports their business. Possibly by helping solicit donations for organizations like the BRC and publicizing their successes? Over the past two years, the business community, through the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce and our Cape Fear Future initiative, has contributed and fundraised $77,500 for the BRC and helped make the business community aware of their mission. Our area media can bring more attention to the need to expand the successful programs in place so that their good work continues. After all, the pen is mightier than the sword…and perhaps even the National Guard.