- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 3, 2000

Once again, D.C. is riveted by headlines about senseless violence committed by youths, this time at the National Zoo on a day of family celebration. And once again, the responses of public officials are to drag out a series of remedies that have not worked in the past and have little chance of preventing these and perhaps even more serious incidents in the future.

Gun control, heightened security, grief counselors, school-based anger-management classes all are ideas that are by definition after the fact. They assume that our children or at least some of them are a pack of marauding animals and our only hope is to control them but not to change them. These proposals are downstream remedies for an upstream problem. Because they don't go to the heart of the problem, they will not work.

D.C. has the strictest gun control laws in the nation. This has not prevented it from making headlines as ranking among the top in gun-related homicides.

But even if we were successful in taking guns out of the hands of D.C. youth, what will we do about knives? Bombs? What will success look like? Would we feel better if the young man lying in critical condition in the hospital had been knifed rather than shot? If a bomb had been tossed into the crowd at the National Zoo instead of bullets?

The problem is not a lack of security or grief counselors. Our youth are suffering from a moral and spiritual void that leaves them without belief in themselves and those around them, and without hope in the future.

There are solutions, if we would support them. Three years ago in January 1997, Washington was similarly shocked by the killing of a 12-year old boy in Benning Terrace, where warring youth factions made it one of D.C.'s most violent neighborhoods. A courageous grass-roots organization, the Alliance of Concerned Men, went into the war zone and convinced the youths to put down their arms, negotiate a peace and start new lives.

A partnership of grass-roots organizations, the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, the D.C. Housing Authority, and neighborhood churches put together a support system of job training, life skills training, employment, and a host of other services that led to a total transformation of the youths and their neighborhood. There have been no crew-related deaths there in more than three years, in an area where almost 60 youths had died in the previous few years.

One year ago, the headlines again reported violence and the killing of an innocent grandmother, Helen Foster-El, who was trying to shield neighborhood children from gunfire on the street. Again, it took a faith-based, grass-roots organization, East Capitol Center for Change, led by a former public housing resident named Curtis Watkins, to convince those involved in violence and drug activity to change their lives and their community.

The same kind of support system involving the D.C. Housing Authority, the National Center, and local church built on the trust and confidence established by Mr. Watkins, and changed the neighborhood. According to police statistics, major crimes have been reduced there by more than 25 percent since the program began last July.

Young people, especially those society is most concerned about, are little influenced by approaches that focus on external conditions. Many are in such despair they do not expect to live to adulthood. They have seen too many of their friends die. They have no fear of jail. What they are influenced by, however, is the example of older youths and adults from their own neighborhoods whom they trust and admire. When those who were considered leaders on the street change their own lives and want to show the younger youths the benefits of charting a positive course, miracles happen.

One of these community leaders has some important insights. Describing the situation when he was a drug dealer, he says: "When the kids went to school, I was there. When they came home, I was there. When they wanted to go to the circus, or needed someone to comfort them in time of trouble, I was there. And [talking about conventional service providers] you were not there."

Many of these transformed predators, under the leadership of Mr. Watkins and others, are using their considerable influence with the children to help redirect their lives to more positive pursuits. But these effective efforts are mostly ignored by the body politic in D.C. They struggle to find resources to aid them in their work.

The $25,000 offered by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People as a reward for the National Zoo gunman could have been better spent by Rita Jackson, director of the Northeast Center for the Performing Arts. For the past 20 years, she has aided more than 500 troubled youngsters to go to college and otherwise improve themselves.

It is the Rita Jacksons and the Curtis Watkins that provide the full-time commitment that changes the hearts of young people so they are unaffected by the negative cultural influences they see and hear. These grass-roots leaders act as "moral tutors" or "character coaches." At East Capitol Center for Change, these youths did not stop their violence because they were disarmed. They achieved, instead, a "state of disarmament" when they lost their desire to use guns. It wasn't the access to guns, it was their desire that changed.

There is nothing more dangerous than a youth whose soul is morally and spiritually empty and who feels alienated from the world. Unless that void is filled, we can only look forward to more and more lethal incidents like the one that happened Easter Monday at the National Zoo. All our attention and support should now be directed at those agents of change that have proven they have the solution.

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

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