Bill Moyers speaks with Angela Blackwell, vice president of the Rockefeller Foundation, about rebuilding communities scarred by violence. Blackwell is the former head of the Urban Strategies Council in Oakland, CA, and head of the nationwide Black Community Crusade for Children, which focuses on rebuilding black communities. In this program, she explains how “one caring adult” can save a child from a life of crime and violence.
MALE VOICE: I know we gotta die one time. I hope to die peaceful.
MALE VOICE #2: All I saw around me was poverty.
MALE VOICE #3: By 14 I was deep into the gangs.
FEMALE VOICE: We'd get in fights. We'd shoot people, stab people.
MALE VOICE #4: No one cared. Years of violence, years of being violent.
MALE VOICE #5: People don't think sometimes. They just react.
FEMALE VOICE #2: I'm scared. I'm not gonna lie.
MALE VOICE #6: I don't want to be another statistic.
MALE VOICE #7: I would like to be part of the solution.
FEMALE VOICE #3: I wanna be somebody.
MALE VOICE #8: I don't wanna die. I wanna live.
BILL MOYERS: I'm Bill Moyers. America's highest rates of violence occur in poor, inner-city neighborhoods. That's where we found the highest concentration of adolescents reared in poverty by single mothers. These women have little access to prenatal care. Good jobs are scarce. Schools are substandard. And they're isolated from flourishing neighborhoods in other parts of the city and suburbs.
Rebuilding these communities is the most urgent and difficult challenge of our democracy. But Angela Blackwell says it is not impossible. She's just been named vice president of the Rockefeller Foundation. But for several years Angela Blackwell has led the Black Community Crusade for Children. Saving children, she says, begins with caring adults. (MUSIC)
ANGELA BLACKWELL: Locking people up is the wrong way to prevent violence. It — some people have to be locked up because clearly they aren't going to change. But when you think about young people it's important to remember that you can always make a difference in the life of a child.
Lots of programs all across the country from church programs, community-based programs, school programs are making a difference. And the difference comes when adults commit to young people and figure out ways to really connect young people with caring adults and connect young people with options to the sort of deadly strategies that they've seen on the streets they begin to connect with options that teach them new ways to live, different kinds of hopes to have for their future, and different ways to cope with the stresses and the strains of everyday life.
Adults can help young people to take that first step. If they say they wanna have a time for ongoing dialogue, open up a church and make the church available for people to come and have on — going dialogue. If they say, "We'd like to start a little business and work on somethin' together," pull them together with some of the businesspeople in the community and help them get goin'.
If they say, "We don't wanna be on these deadly streets at night. We'd rather be in a safe place, but home is not all that safe, so don't tell me there's a curfew and go home." Find a place where young people can come. Find a house in the neighborhood where adults are willing to gather and young people can come there.
Make a school become a real community asset. Open up that building at night and on the weekends and make it a place like the — Countee Cullen Beacon School in New York City where you're — in the evening and on weekends the school is open for the community. Not just for the children, but for the adults, too, to come and be together. What we have to do is bring young people together to talk to each other about how they feel, about the fears they have, about what they need. And then adults can get behind what it is they say they need and help them to make that first step. It brings the adults and the young people together, but it also makes the young people feel valued. And it makes them feel powerful.
BILL MOYERS: What have you learned about violence in your work? Violence and kids.
ANGELA BLACKWELL: What we've learned is that you can't use the homicide rates to measure violence and its impact. The homicides are the things that smack you in the face. They make headlines and we read about them all the time. And they're really horrible.
But there's lots of violence that doesn't end up with death that children are maimed, they're injured, they're crippled. There's lots of violence that leaves — a psychic impact in that the young person now has a different feeling about him or herself or their immediate community. Or even safety within the family.
We have learned that young people are afraid. We have talked to them in Oakland, California, and we have talked to them in different cities across the country. And again and again we hear young people, particularly children who live in areas of concentrated poverty, but it is not limited to our poorer communities. Children all across the spectrum are afraid.
BILL MOYERS: Are there ways you know of to reach those kids? To help those kids?
ANGELA BLACKWELL: Absolutely. The ways to reach them are to figure out as many ways as possible to put carin' adults in their lives. To make sure that they feel valued, that their communities are investing in them. There are programs in churches that invite children to come into the church during non-school hours.
And to just have family dinners. Family-style dinners. It might not be their family, but it's a family-style dinner where adults and children sit down at the table together and talk about the events of the day. Interpreting things that have happened. Giving young people a children to talk about what's on their mind in a non-structured way.
BILL MOYERS: Some of these young people have actually told us that they've been morally and spiritually turned around by the influence of a mentor in the community.
ANGELA BLACKWELL: It's actually not hard to turn a young person around. I have heard Joe Marshall of Omega Boys Club talk many times about what he has been able to do through that program workin' with other adults just by touching a child. Touching a child with your hands and saying, "I care about you."
But touching a child with your life by demonstrating through your everyday actions that this person is important. What Joe Marshall does is he goes into the juvenile hall and connects with people that society has thrown away. And he takes these young people and he meets with them on a weekly basis. Sometimes daily, if that's what they need.
Talks about the tough issues. Talks about violence. Talks about the loneliness that they often feel. Talks about violence in the home. He talks to them about these — these young men about what it means to disrespect women. What it that does to the women and what it does to them. He talks about all of these issues. And once he gets these young people engaged, realizing that here's an adult who cares, who's not afraid to talk about tough stuff in the tough language of the streets. Once they get that sense of trust, then he can move them to start talkin' about, "How you doin' in school?"
If you've dropped out, how 'bout getting back in? And once you get that GED or that high school diploma, let me talk to you about goin' to college. That's the way Joe Marshall works with them. And he has turned around so many lives. So has Ken Amos. Ken Amos in Washington D.C. who personally has taken over 100 young people into his home and he has worked with them through family dinners, going to talk to their teachers, talking with them about what it is they ought to be thinking about doing in life.
He has taken over 100 young people, many of whom had been written off. Forty-seven of them are now in college. Because he wasn't afraid to touch a child with his own life and to let that child know that the child was important. It's easy to turn young people around because they are so needy. They are so responsive.
BILL MOYERS: Have you seen programs where the young people themselves don't wait until there an adult to fix things up?
ANGELA BLACKWELL: Absolutely. We have talked to young people about this issue of waiting for adults. And what they say is they don't wanna wait. They wanna act now. That sometimes because they haven't had good relationships with adults they don't have a lot of trust in adults.
There's Young Unlimited in New York City where young people have decided to set up entrepreneurial programs. They have a t-shirt making business called Strictly Business. They have — been doing other kinds of things in which they have really have aggressively reached out to their peers, some of whom have been in juvenile hall, some of whom have sold drugs, many of whom have been in gangs. And they have said, "Let's help each other. And let's help each other by talking together, trying to help each other through difficult moments."
"But then let's do some projects together. Let's start a business together. Let's sponsor — a Take Back the Park day so that we find some nice spaces in New York that aren't available to us and we develop a strategy for takin' that back." We have found that young people can be the most influential with other young people in terms of having honest discussion about what they really want in life, responding to their reality, not a made-up one that adults sometimes have. And really engaging in peer counseling. Sometimes peer tutoring. But always that peer involvement that says to a young person, "I know what your life is like. I'm trying to move beyond it. Join with me and we'll move beyond that together."
BILL MOYERS: Talk to me about Teens on Target. That's a very prominent part of your book.
ANGELA BLACKWELL: Teens on Target is a program in Oakland that teaches young people to be leaders rather than victims. It says that young people can be the most effective in terms of helping to prevent youth violence by talking to other young people in school about violence prevention strategies.
One of the programs that Teens on Target has been involved in was started by a young man named Sherman Spears (PH) who himself was a victim of violence. He's in a wheelchair now. And what he does is he goes himself and he has trained his friends to go into hospital emergency rooms after there's been violence, a shooting, and to prevent retaliation by talking to that young person about other options. Other ways to deal with the grief, other ways to deal with the anger. To really connect with young people during that time when they are most vulnerable and getting them on a different path.
BILL MOYERS: Most experts tell us that there just hasn't been enough research and evaluation of what works. Of interventions that actually achieve their results. How do we know what works? And have you actually seen programs that you can testify actually work?
ANGELA BLACKWELL: Yes, I have. We do have examples of programs that have been evaluated, and we know they make a difference. There's — Project 2000 in Baltimore, run by Dr. Spencer Holland in which he has taken after kindergarten group of African American boys, grouped them all together as boys, and they're in a classroom in which lots of young — males and older males, black, come in and work with them on a regular basis.
The program has been evaluated over time. It has proven to be successful. There's a strategy that has all of the kind of rigor that people want before they invest. But we also have programs that haven't been exposed to that kind of rigorous evaluation but pick up on elements that we know make a difference from things that have been evaluated.
For example, we know from looking at the Head Start program that if you invest in young children at an early age you can really influence them. And then to be able to continue to pick up when they enter school on those intervention strategies you can make a difference over time. And so we know that connecting adults with children at a young age, that we can begin to teach them some new ways.
And there are lots of programs that work on that strategy. We know that mentoring programs can make a difference. We know that what it takes is that you have to have a staff for these mentoring efforts so that if it's a church, if it's a neighborhood organization they often aren't gonna have enough money for staff. And what we've seen happen in several communities is to develop a mentoring center so that that center serves the whole city and helps recruit mentors, helps recruit young people, trains people in large groups.
That helps to make a difference. We also know that it makes a difference if we pay close attention to pairing. That we don't put an adult with a child where we know that the child and the adult aren't gonna be a good mix. So if we do interviewing with adults, we do interviewing with young people and try to make careful matches.
And so we can learn from the evaluations of mentoring efforts how to make a particular mentoring program make a difference. The other thing that we know is that we don't know this perhaps from — rigorous evaluation, but we know it from our own experience. And we shouldn't become s — so sophisticated about evaluation that we discount our own experiences. That if caring adults connect with young people and they do it in a setting that's providing for their needs, you can turn a life around. It is never too late to save a child.
Let me just point to a program in Alameda County, California in which it — young people whose first offense brings them before the criminal justice system, take those young people, put them in a program of getting their GED, connecting with a caring adult over time, developing strategies for how to live differently. Those young people can get their — offense removed from their record and get a precious second chance.
For the people who have been through that program, none of them have come back before the juvenile justice system. That's not a rigorous evaluation, that's a fact. That when you connect with young people and you provide the other supports they need, you can make a difference. Lots of churches have had experience in being able to connect with some people in their community who have been causing trouble and going down the wrong road. And so what's being proven through some churches that are being aggressive about saying that, "We can't just be an enclave only for the people who happen to come to church on Sunday."
ìWe have to be a place that cares about all the people in the community. We have to go out and find people who would never come to church. And we don't have to ever bring them to church. But we need to take our values, our sense of caring, our commitment to making sure that everybody is treated with respect and can really have options in life. We need to take that philosophy to the places where young people are gathering, where they're meeting, where they're hurting, where they're feeling lost and alone, and make a connection."
BILL MOYERS: Some of your suggestions that you talk about in The Challenge seem so — well, so modest. Tell me about Turn Off the Violence Day.
ANGELA BLACKWELL: Well, in Minneapolis, Minnesota they have a Turn Off the Violence Day in which they try to get people all over the community not to watch violence, whether it's in music videos, whether not to listen to violence if it's — a record or a CD. Not to watch newscasts that have violence. Just get the violence out of your life for one day in terms of all these things that bring violence into the home.
Their notion is that this isn't gonna stop violence in America. It's not even gonna stop violence in Minneapolis. But what it does is it puts people in charge. It says that you can control these things. We need to be aware of the violence around us. We need to think about taking responsibility for doing everything that we can.
There are some things that have to do with violence that seem out of our control. But everything seems out of your control until you begin to act. Until you begin to say, "What can I do, personally?" And we can all turn off the violence coming into our homes. If we do it for one day it tells us that we're part of a community because we're doing this together.
BILL MOYERS: Tell me about Safety Night. What — what difference does it make to have — one Safety Night?
ANGELA BLACKWELL: Safety Night is a part of a program and a movement that will move toward safety in general, not just a Safety Night. But people have to start someplace. You can't convince people that we can make this community safe 365 days a year if they have not had experience with making it safe one day.
And we know when the violence happens. It happens. And this particular Safety Night is in New York. And in that community, by using data, they have found out that the violence in their community in Harlem happens between 6:00 on Friday and 2:00 on Sunday afternoon.
We know when it's likely to happen. And what often happens is the people on the streets are the ones who are engaging in these activities. And if we take back the streets, that is we get people out, we get people doing things together, it becomes more safe.
And so what Safety Night actually has in mind is pick a night. Make it a Friday night. And let's decide that we're gonna do somethin' in — in these few blocks. For these blocks we're gonna make sure that people are on the streets, that children are together with adults. And sometimes they have a talent show, sometimes they have a rap session. Sometimes they have speakers in to talk about an issue of importance to the community. But the point is let's just take one evening and see if we can't see a visible difference in the statistics that have to do with violence when we decide that we're gonna come out, we're gonna be together, we're gonna make sure that young people walk the seniors back home.
We make sure that the children are safe. We're gonna make sure that our neighbors and our friends are safe for one night. If we can be safe for one night we can be safe every night. Many of the things that seem small, that seem miniscule, that seem inconsequential that we highlight as strategies that community people can engage in are there to say, "Take that first step."
Take a small space, take a small neighborhood, take a small timeframe and say, "In this space, in this neighborhood, for these hours we're gonna look out for each other." If we can do it once, we can do it again. And then people become a part of a community that is trying to make a difference.
BILL MOYERS: Small steps like Safety Nights require community collaboration. It m — it brings us — brings us out of our isolation, right?
ANGELA BLACKWELL: Uh-huh (AFFIRM). That's right. They bring us out of our isolation. They bring us together as community. They make us conscious that we're part of a community. That we are not alone. Safety Nights lead to community people working together to thinking, "Ah hah, we can make a difference. This was good. What else might we do?"
Until all of a sudden we have hundreds of thousands of people and thousands and thousands of efforts all across the country saying, "We care about our young people. We're going to make them safe. We're going to not only be anti-violent, but we're gonna be about somethin'. We're gonna be about peace, we're gonna be about healing." And it also sense the message that adults have to connect with young people.
And when they connect with young people we get so many other rewards. We don't just stop the violence, but we get young people thinking about their future. They begin to engage with their schoolwork more. They think about jobs and how to be ready for the world of work. We have spent too long disinvesting in our young people by disinvesting in them personally, in their families, and in their communities. If as family members and community people we begin to send new messages to young people about their value we then position them to have a stake in this country, a stake in their communities. And then we're not anti-anything but we're about making a better world, making a better life.
BILL MOYERS: You're talking about building a moral community. A moral community.
ANGELA BLACKWELL: Yes. Talking about building a moral community in which the responsibility for moral behavior is definitely — a two-way street. That we want young people to react in ways that we think are moral. But the society, to get that response from young people has to treat them in a morally acceptable manner.
That means that society has to say that we can't expect young people to do the right thing if we don't do the right thing by them. As a society we have to become morally responsible for these young people and treat them with respect in a way that allows them to grow up with dignity. And then we can expect from them a response in which they treat society with respect.
They treat themselves — with dignity. They treat others with dignity. And they begin to get on these steps and platforms and ladders that lead up to the kind of economic and social responsibility that we want in life. It is a two-way street. Everybody has to behave in a moral manner. And we have to become a moral society.
BILL MOYERS: What is the role in all of this of the corporation? Of American business?
ANGELA BLACKWELL: People in communities can get young people to the point where they're hopeful and they're not engaging in violent activity and they're trying to get on those ladders. It's gonna — that will lead to economic self-sufficiency. But we can't sustain that momentum if the corporations and the business leaders don't do their part in providing economic opportunities.
We really have three levels of strategy we have to pursue. We have to have jobs and economic opportunities that are there for young people who are committed to doing the things that have prepared them to take advantage. We also have to have strategies that remove barriers. Some of them are legal — strategies, in terms of job discrimination.
Some of them just have to do with language and transportation. And then we have to prepare people to take advantage of opportunities. A lot of what I've been talkin' about prep — prepares people to take advantage of economic opportunity. But corporations have to be willing to commit to these young people and to their families. They have to create jobs.
They have to hire people from the inner cities. They have to hire black and Latino youth. They have to make sure that they connect with the job-training world. It's not enough to have job-training programs that make young people h — h — hopeful if they're not preparing them for real jobs. And so the business community has to really make sure that they help job-training programs to gear their training toward the real jobs that are available. And they make commitments to say that if young people go through these hoops, if they finish school, if they get the training, there is a job for you at the end.
We need to think about the full continuum of preparing people so that they're not poor. Of supporting people who cannot work with dignity so that they are not — angry and looking for ways to lash out with their anger. But we also need to think about the kinds of jobs that we're going to create and make sure that they are jobs that respond to some of the needs in communities.
So I really think that right now we're on the road we have to be on, and it feels terrible. And some of the sort of backlash that we're seeing in terms of people not wanting to invest has to do with people not knowing how to respond to how terrible it feels on this road. People need to look down the road and they need to realize that getting everybody on this road and to widen it, its base is not firm. There are potholes in it. They're being buffeted around by all kinds of things.
But if they stay on it, invest in these young people, accept that this is the road we have to take to get where we need to be, then we will be happier. We will be more productive. So I think people are wrong right now in moving into themselves, being very selfish, thinking that, "I wanna lock 'em up. I wanna punish them. I don't wanna invest in those people."
Instead people should think that all of the people are our responsibility. All of the children are our children. And we need to treat them as we would treat our own children. Treat these other people as we would treat our own family members and invest, invest, invest. We need to have massive resources available to connect adults, caring, supportive adults, with children. We need to invest in community building. Everybody uses the phrase, "It takes an entire village to raise a child." But what does that really mean in terms of our actions?
It means that we have to create environments in which the adults in that community can create a system of redundancy so that if a child needs an adult and that adult is not in the home we have multiple places in the community where the child can connect. The church can do it. The school can do it. The neighborhood organization can do it. We must invest in creating systems of redundancy that ensure that our children have the connections that they need in order to develop healthily.
This transcript was entered on April 21, 2015.