If I do well in school can I jump over jail?
If I pray every night can I jump over this hell?
Will the preacher say a special prayer?
Will the social workers really care?
It doesn't seem that as a child it should be my fault
All these hurdles to jump over before I could even walk.
--from Against All Odds, by 17 year old Cardarius Becton, Life Pieces to Masterpieces
Program, three months before he was shot in the back and killed after being robbed.
The nation's capital has declared a Crime Emergency in response to a recent surge in homicides and armed robberies. But, as Courtland Milloy writes in the Washington Post, "Violent robberies are certainly nothing new in the Washington area…To a certain extent, however, these black-on-black crimes seem to be of interest only to the victims, their families and closest friends."
What has changed is gentrification, a new proximity between rich and poor, and the recent crimes being black on white. "The sense of security among the affluent and influential has been shaken," according to Milloy.
Adding to the sadness and outrage is the lack of political will, vision, and commitment to promote real change – to truly fight back against the poverty and hopelessness. To be sure, no one – including Milloy – is minimizing these crimes or the suffering of innocent victims. Yet it must be recognized: "Here's part of the problem: Juveniles, many of whom have been robbed themselves – ripped off by parents and schools and communities that couldn't care less about them – have become hardened and increasingly violent."
And while DC Police Chief Charles Ramsey has responded with increased rewards for information leading to arrests, and greater deployment of police officers, that is not what will change the tide of crime in DC or any other city. Again, Milloy: "But it's unlikely that money and police alone will solve the problem. The city is being terrorized – and, as residents of many low-income neighborhoods will tell you, it's been that way for years. When discussing terrorism abroad, we talk about giving would-be terrorists a better choice – of giving them hope of a better life and providing them with the tools to help them realize the fruits of freedom and democracy. Now that the homegrown terrorists have our attention, maybe it would be a good time to show how that's done – in the nation's capital."
There are no shortage of mentoring, tutoring or apprenticeship programs – with proven results – taking kids from the most difficult situations and helping them turn their lives around. In fact, one DC mayoral candidate, former VerizonDC President, Marie Johns, has highlighted such programs on her Fighting Poverty Tour. The Tour is designed to examine the economic divide in the nation's capital – the city with the largest wealth disparity in the nation – and offer leadership and ideas where current elected officials have failed.
"I want to do the work that has been ignored in our city for generations now," Johns said. "That's why I am running for office."
This past week Johns visited the Life Pieces to Masterpieces (LPTM) program that works with kids from the worst neighborhoods in DC. LPTM offers tutoring and enrichment programs, and teaches youths to express their challenges and accomplishments through artistic means. Many of the youths have been with the program for 8 to 10 years, and now serve as mentors for the younger kids.
"The younger kids who come in see the older kids – from their same neighborhoods – modeling positive behavior. It takes the stigma away," said Executive Director Mary Brown. "We are literally saving lives. But we've never had a candidate come to our program in eleven years of existence."
14 year old Malik – an eight year veteran of the program – was a little more pointed in his thoughts. During a session he told Johns, "You coming shows you really want to make a difference to help us out. Most politicians only care about money."
Johns highlighted LPTM because of its track record and its need for new space.
"There are great programs out there that turn lives around," Johns said. "But they usually only have resources sufficient to reach a small number of kids; they have to spend way too much of their time chasing money; and they often struggle to find space and a permanent home. The financial commitment it would take to stabilize and expand these preventative programs is a drop in the bucket compared to the human costs, public health costs, and the criminal justice costs of the way we are doing business in the nation's capital today."
On the national level, John Edwards stands out for making poverty a moral and political issue. He recently delivered an inspiring speech to the National Press Club where he called poverty "the great moral issue of our time" and issued a challenge to cut it by one-third in a decade, and end it within 30 years. Edwards called for raising the minimum wage, overhauling housing policy, strengthening education, cutting taxes for low-income workers and families, and helping Americans save for the future.
It's time we stop treating people as disposable. The "new" crime emergency for some has, in fact, been the status quo for many. There is a desperate need for vision, political will and action to produce real change right now. It is the only way the suffering of innocent people in our American cities will subside.