Saturday, November 10, 2001

As America struggles to adjust to a new era of terrorism, I turned for advice to some voices of experience.

They are unfortunately easy to find.

In a country where 1 in 6 children still live in poverty, despite some gains in the prosperous 1990s, many families have learned to live with the terror that the entire country is beginning to share.

In neighborhoods where parents routinely fear for themselves and their children as they go about their daily lives, the “new normalcy,” as Vice President Richard Cheney called it, is not much different from the old normalcy.

Kerron Weston knows. In 1993, the Washington woman’s 28-year-old brother, Gary, was shot to death in a quarrel in a D.C. alley.

Six months later, she, too, was shot. She was hit in the neck by a bullet from a shootout near the Environmental Protection Agency office where she works as a program analyst.

The bullet barely missed a major blood vessel, but she dismisses the suggestion she was lucky to be alive.

“Luck is for people who believe in the lottery and scratch tickets,” she told me. “I don’t believe in luck. I believe in God.”

A few months later, in 1994, her faith was tested further when her nephew, Leroy, was shot and killed for a jacket he was wearing. How does she cope?

“Tragedy helped draw our family that much closer,” she said. “We try to help each other understand what love and life is about, control our anger and figure out what to do with it. “

She “threw” herself into community work. She volunteered to counsel other survivors of violence at a community service center at Hunter Pines, a local subsidized Section 8 low-income apartment development.

She also helped organize Survivors of Homicide Inc. to help members through their grief.

“The community work I do came out of that experience of teaching the value of life, of conflict reaction and of not reacting with violence to every negative word,” she said. “That’s kind of what I do to try to heal.”

Her story echoes three themes I have heard repeatedly from those who have experienced neighborhood violence: faith, family and community.

“Make the best of a bad situation,” said Tyrone Parker, who helped organize the Alliance of Concerned Men in Washington after his son was shot to death in 1991. Six years later, the organization mediated a truce in a war between two gangs in the District’s Benning Terrace housing development that had claimed nine lives and terrorized the neighborhood.

Acting as mentors, the alliance members, some of whom were reformed ex-offenders, helped some youths quit the gangs, find jobs and reduce the development’s homicide rate to zero in 1999.

“Americans should be encouraged by the stories of those who have had troubles, yet still march on,” Mr. Parker said.

Yes, they should. Since September 11, the entire country has begun to learn a little more what that terror feels like. Terror attacks and anthrax scares have made the future feel less certain, more fragile, more threatening.

In neighborhoods where violence is not new, residents turn to whatever resources they have at hand, beginning with family, friends, churches and other neighborhood networks.

“Ground zero is happening every day for the grass-roots people we work with in violent neighborhoods,” said Robert Woodson, head of the Washington-based National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, which helps neighborhood-based community groups. “Every day is their version of Afghanistan.”

“They have a choice,” he said. “They either become apathetic or they organize and they reach out to help save their community and themselves.”

That pretty well describes the task that lies before us Americans today. Many Americans have made a habit of avoiding neighborhoods that have been plagued by crime and violence. But they may have a lot to teach us.

Today we Americans are faced with outsiders who want to kill us for no other reason than the fact that we are Americans. The world has become a dangerous neighborhood. We can’t run away from it. We can only try to improve it with faith, family and sense of community that tries to embrace all of us.

Clarence Page is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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