As the gears of federal government have ground to a halt, a new energy has been rocking the foundations of our urban centers. From Atlanta to Seattle and points in between, cities have begun seizing the initiative, transforming themselves into laboratories for progressive innovation. Cities Rising is The Nation’s chronicle of those urban experiments.
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Kevin Muccular is on the streets of Richmond, one of the most violent cities in California, nearly every day. He’s a tall, heavyset African-American man who makes his presence known at community events with a navy blue hat emblazoned in silver with the name of his organization—the Office of Neighborhood Safety (ONS)—which is devoted to ending street violence, one shooting at a time. His work is dangerous. “We are here at risk; every day we are at risk,” says Muccular, whose official title is Neighborhood Change Agent.
Richmond is a city where a retaliatory shooting has broken out during Sunday church services and a 16-year-old student was gang-raped at a high school dance. Drive-bys have long been part of life here, evidenced in part by the bullet holes that dot houses near the railroad tracks dividing Richmond’s rival neighborhoods.
Muccular and his co-workers at ONS tackle the problem of shootings and retaliatory murders with an approach that seems counterintuitive. While other cities are busy flooding high-crime areas with squads of armed police officers, who spend their days stopping, frisking and arresting young men for minor infractions, the ONS team seeks out high-risk Richmond residents—and offers them mentors and financial support.
ONS defines high-risk as young men—as old as 25 and young as 13—who have likely been involved in previous homicides and shootings. The organization then asks them to sign up for an eighteen-month program called an Operation Peacemaker Fellowship. Over a year and a half, fellows develop and follow a “life map”—concrete steps they’ve laid out to build a different kind of life. In exchange for an agreement that they will put their guns down, ONS helps them reach those goals, with assistance that includes a monthly stipend of up to $500 in the final nine months of the program for fellows who are following through with their plans. They also connect fellows to job opportunities and social services.
“They need structure,” Muccular explains. “They love someone to tell them, ‘look, you are not going to do that. You are better than that.’”
I first met Muccular at a community center in North Richmond, a neighborhood where the sound of bullets is almost as familiar as the honk of car horns. That day several would-be shooters from the neighborhood were landscaping together instead.
The outreach workers spend much of their time driving around the city to offer solace in the wake of violent crimes and develop relationships with young men like those on the landscaping crew. Though it may seem drippy and sentimental, the approach is actually ruthlessly pragmatic. The Richmond method pushes aside moral questions about who deserves help, money and public services and goes to the heart of the homicide problem with one goal: fixing it.