- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 26, 2000

A week or two ago, a unique football game took place in Southeast D.C. Under newly installed bright lights, two teams of youths faced each other in earnest competition, supported by a couple of hundred parents and friends. Team supporters sold hot dogs, and a dozen youngsters crowded around an ice cream truck. Cheerleaders did their stuff and there was good-natured yelling and coaching from the sidelines.

So what was special about all this?

This game took place in Benning Terrace, a once-devastated public housing development in an area notoriously known as "Simple City." Four years ago, this was a killing field, empty of people, overgrown with weeds and littered with wire, tires and other debris. Shots rang out across the field on a daily basis between the "Avenue" and the "Circle" youth factions. Here, a 14-year-old once pulled a gun on the leader of the Circle faction. "You'd better shoot straight," the older youth said, "because if you miss, I'll blow your brains out." That was life in Simple City.

In those days, the streets were virtually deserted, because of fear of gunfire. Only a handful of pedestrians would be out and they were predatory young men in heavy jackets, guarding their turf. Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder, then the U.S. attorney for the District, wanted to go there during the days of violence, and his police guards flatly refused.

Finally, in January 1997, a 12-year-old boy named Darryl Hall was assassinated and the neighborhood was frozen in fear of retaliatory violence. As a result of heroic grass-roots efforts, the youths from the Avenue and Circle were brought together in peace, and there was a sustained effort to restore the community. Shortly after the truce, the leader of the Avenue walked, unarmed, across that same field to test the peace. Hundreds of eyes watched him as he passed without incident and was greeted with applause at the Circle, former enemies giving him the peace sign.

The recent football game was unique because it was a first for the children and adults there. There were no police officers in sight. There was no violence, no gunshots, and the young men and women who had been at war with each other are now coaches, supporters, counselors and mentors to the younger children.

The rebuilding of the football field is a metaphor for what is happening to Benning Terrace. The lights are now on and Benning Terrace is a transformed community. Flowers and trees have been planted by the formerly warring youths with the support of the D.C. Housing Authority, which gave them training and jobs. Children play in the streets without fear of being caught in cross-fire. The neighborhood has been declared a Violence-Free Zone, with programs to support the youth, families and the community.

Benning Terrace is an outstanding example of how America's devastated neighborhoods can be reclaimed, one project or one field at a time. Success didn't come as a consequence of a march. It was achieved because of the tireless work of a lot of people who made a long-term commitment to the reclamation of this community. Young people who used to be part of the problem are now becoming community leaders. Charlie Penny, from the Circle, now is head coach in the Violence-Free Zone athletic program he and other young men from the neighborhood operate for the benefit of the younger youths. Once predators, they now are leaders not only in peace but in promoting the restoration of families and the reclaiming of the streets.

The Benning Terrace Youth Opportunity program is guided under the watchful eye of community leaders like Curtis Watkins and members of the Benning Terrace residents council. They are strong supporters who have joined with the young people in reclaiming the community.

But this game and the program itself are not just about throwing footballs and basketballs. It was the idea of the youths who were once engaged in destructive activities themselves to start a sports program to motivate the younger children to achieve success. One of the coaches from East Capitol, Edward Harris, had the idea of creating "behavior cards." Each week the kids who want to play on the teams have to get these cards signed by their parents and their teachers verifying they have behaved. They are required to do homework, and tutoring is provided.

The results are heartening. The kids respond with respect to the positive leadership of the older youths, whom they once saw leading in a negative way. The older youths are holding themselves to high standards. And change in the youths leads to changes in parents as well. Parents for the first time have something positive to applaud in their children. The program already has resulted in changes not only in the parents' attitudes toward their children, but toward themselves. Seeing their youngsters succeed gives them a reason to value themselves as worthwhile human beings. It attacks the culture of despair.

Efforts to restore civil order and rebuild the nation must be local, not national. Those individuals who leave their own communities and spend money to come to one-time events in Washington, however well motivated, would do better to organize in their own cities and invest in the kind of community effort that took place at Benning Terrace.

If each person put that commitment into action in their own communities, there would be no need for a Million Family March. What is needed is more than just money, but the time and talents of committed individuals. There are grass-roots organizations all over the country that have the desire and ability to rebuild their own neighborhoods, but they need support. The National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise will help anyone interested in finding credible groups in their locale. More information can be obtained through our website, ncne.com.

Every hour that we delay in embracing what works to curb youth violence and restore communities results not only in lives lost, but in retreat into despair. Time is of the essence. We do not need more jails. When the killing was going on in Benning Terrace, a state of emergency was declared. Now it's time to declare a "life-affirming" emergency and support the real solutions to the critical issue of youth violence. What worked in Benning Terrace can work throughout the nation.

Robert L. Woodson Sr. is president of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise.

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