Turning the Tide Against Youth Violence

By John Gregory | 1/25/16 9:00 AM

Metro Louisville experienced about 85 homicides in 2015. That represents a sharp increase over recent years and is more murders than the River City has had in decades.

“I think part of the conversation we as a community have got to have is to be realistic about who we’re losing to homicide, who’s being shot, who’s doing the shooting, and really start putting together strategies [to address it],” says Anthony Smith, the former director of Safe and Healthy Neighborhoods for Metro Louisville.

Smith is now CEO of Cities United, a national network of communities focused on eliminating violence related to African American males. He appeared on KET’s Connections to discuss the effort.

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Smith says economics is a key factor contributing to the high number of homicides. Although the nation has generally rebounded from the recent recession, Smith says blacks still experience disproportionately high rates of unemployment.

For example, Smith says the jobless rate for all of Metro Louisville averages around 4.5 percent. But for predominately African American neighborhoods in West Louisville, Smith says the rate ranges from 16 to 32 percent. And for young black males, the unemployment rate may be even higher.

“Violence is up in Louisville, just like it is in Baltimore and New York and all over the country, because people are still feeling disconnected and left out,” Smith says.

Couple high unemployment with easy access to drugs and guns, and Smith says you have a multi-layered problem that’s difficult to solve but absolutely crucial to address. He says 13 young black men are killed by gun violence every day in America.

“If we really cared about their lives, we would figure out something as a nation… to do something different,” Smith concludes.

“Young people are putting themselves in harms way because they don’t see another option – it’s not like anybody wants to die or they want to kill somebody,” Smith says. “Violence… has become part of who they are, part of their culture, and we have to help them see other things.”

A ‘Right Turn‘ Toward Mentoring in Louisville
In his work with Cities United, Smith helps mayors around the country design strategies for decreasing deaths among African American males in their communities. The group has the ambitious goal of reducing homicides in America by 50 percent by the year 2025.

One effort that Smith supports is called Right Turn, which provides at-risk youth with mentors and career and educational counseling to help keep them in school and out of trouble, and to show them the options they have for their lives. Smith says the intervention program is designed to help kids take responsibility for their actions without criminalizing them.

“It’s really putting a holistic approach around them to say that we know that you made mistakes but we’re going to help you get over that, and that a mistake does not determine how the rest of your life can look,” Smith says.

Right Turn hopes to help 500 young people in Louisville, and is backed by Mayor Greg Fischer’s office, which is giving city employees time off to serve as mentors. Smith says the program benefits from having a diverse pool of mentors, and that anyone can participate as long as they are committed to consistently spending a couple of hours each week with a child.

“What our kids are really looking for is people to care about them,” says Smith. “When you walk in and you see people from different backgrounds actually mentoring these kids and these kids having a relationship with [them], that builds their network out and builds their worldview out.”

Alternatives to School Suspension
Smith says education also plays a huge role in violence prevention. Instead of suspending problem students, he says schools need to find ways to help keep those children in the classroom. Smith contends that making school codes of conduct more restorative and less punitive isn’t being soft of problem kids. Instead, he says it focuses on providing them a different set of consequences for bad behavior.

Smith says Oakland, Ca., and Portland, Ore., are examples of city school systems that have innovative codes of conduct, and they are ones he hopes Jefferson County Public Schools will use as models. While simply expelling a student may be an easy form of punishment, Smith says it can also be a first step towards that child having a criminal record and serving prison time later in life.

“Keeping kids in school all the way through graduation and giving them the best education possible allows kids to have hope in the future,” Smith says

KET’s education coverage is part of American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.