L to R: Sam Vaughn, Neighborhood Change Agent; Rohnell Robinson, Peacemaker Ambassador; and Devone Boggan
There is no denying that gun violence is a public health crisis in America, but national media tends to only cover the nightmarish tales of single-shooters opening fire in schools and public places – ignoring the communities that are profoundly affected by gun violence every single day.
Gun violence disproportionately impacts African American youth, particularly boys. According to a 2014 Violence Policy Center report, African American males between the ages of 15 and 19 were almost 30 times as likely as Caucasian males and more than three times as likely as Hispanic males of the same age to be killed in a gun homicide. In California, homicide is the second leading cause of death for all youth ages 10 to 24, with the large majority of homicides committed using firearms. However, for African American youth in the same age range, homicide is the leading cause of death.
Richmond, California is one of those communities plagued by gun violence. Devone Boggan and the Office of Neighborhood Safety has been successfully working to change that.
“As a youngster I had opportunities that came by way of very strong mentors that interjected themselves into my life at very critical points,” Boggan says. “As a result of those experiences, my interest in youth development and mentorship in violence interruptions and prevention with young people evolved.”
Originally from Michigan, Boggan moved to California to attend UC Berkeley and, later, law school. He decided to enter the nonprofit world, serving as the President and CEO of the Mentoring Center in Oakland for 10 years, where he helped other organizations regionally and nationally to create mentoring programs for youth at different points in their lives, training thousands of mentors during that time.
Boggan then served at the Policy Director of Safe Passages in Oakland, working on a myriad of youth strategies that included after school programming and violence prevention. He was also responsible for policy work and maintained a violence prevention portfolio.
After four years there, he received a call from a former colleague at the Mentoring Center – they had received a grant from the City of Richmond to work on prevention strategies for firearm assaults and associated death. They wanted Boggan’s assistance launching the program, and shortly thereafter he became the Director of the Office of Neighborhood Safety in 2007.
The Office of Neighborhood Safety is the first office of its kind in the country. It is a non-law enforcement government agency inside city government with a very specific focus to reduce firearm assaults and associated death – not a gang taskforce, but specifically focused on the reduction of firearm violence.
The real question is how can an agency reduce gun violence if it’s not functioning in the capacity of law enforcement? If the men most responsible for gun violence within the community are not arrested and incarcerated, how is this violence supposed to be prevented?
These questions are at the very heart of the work of Neighborhood Safety. What sets this office apart from other gun violence prevention programs is that the strategy is to reach out directly to the men most responsible for gun violence in the community, and offer them the life-changing chance to help stop it.
In order to do this, Boggan first hired individuals who had been formerly incarcerated with firearms charges in their backgrounds to provide a roadmap for those they would be engaging on day-to-day basis. In 2008, these Neighborhood Change Agents were deployed in the neighborhoods most affected by gun violence. Almost overnight they saw a precipitous change – from 47 deaths in 2007 to 28 deaths in 2008.
But Boggan’s real “ah-ha” moment came when he met with law enforcement agents who believed 28 individuals were responsible for 70 percent of the firearm activity in 2009.
“I went back to the Neighborhood Change Agents and said, ‘We’re going to find a way to engage those who are considered to be the most lethal young men in the city.’ I gave them three months to convince these 25 young men” – three had already been lost to gun violence – “to meet me in City Hall to give them a life-changing opportunity.”
The Neighborhood Change Agents had to convince the young men, ages 16-26, that they would not be arrested upon entering City Hall; that they are going to be safe and engaged. 21 of the 25 showed up in June 2010.
“We treated them as the VIPs that they were,” Boggan says. “They had the greatest influence over helping the city reduce gun violence as they were the primary suspects for creating it. We invited them to do something we could not do without them. I made a pitch to these young men: ‘Thank you for coming. You’re very important to this city. I apologize for it taking so long for city government to reach out outside of law enforcement to engage this issue. We want to help you and help you help us.’
‘Any city looking to reduce gun violence has to engage this population in a way that is responsible to this population but also in a way that engages this population as a viable partner in a way to reduce that violence.”
Boggan’s strategy of gun violence reduction is to address the root of the problem – why young men use guns as a means of conflict resolution in the first place.
“These men are alone, angry, and continually confronted with conflict they’re either shooting out of or more into,” he says. “We’re essentially talking about communities similar to the wars in Israel and Palestine. There are bombs being dropped on them, back and forth, back and forth. They grew up in that. They’re sort of told, ‘Rep your ‘hood; that’s the enemy over there.’ That’s what we’re dealing with over here. We’re really helping them make better decisions in how they handle that conflict that they’ve grown up with.”
At these first 2010 meetings, Boggan offered the young men a chance to participate in the Operation Peacemaker Fellowship. This fellowship would provide daily engagement by Neighborhood Safety staff that would meet them where they were, engaging multiple times a day with multiple people. He told them, “If you need something, if your family needs something, we will help you.”
They would also create a life map with the men, mapping out what these men felt they needed in order to be successful – education, transportation, employment, financial help, parenting assistance, personal development, life skills development, or addressing spiritual issues.
“We want to develop goals and objectives associated with all of those things you need for your life,” he told them. “We want to give you a life map based on your input and help you achieve your goals that you established.”
He promised to methodically connect them with social service opportunities that were appropriate for them and help them negotiate those organizations until the men felt they could do it on their own. He also promised to take them outside of their communities, exposing them to the world outside of Richmond by traveling throughout California and all over the world, including Mexico and South Africa.
“It’s hard to dream within a war-torn community,” Boggan says. “It’s hard to see beyond the carnage of your community. It’s safer for them to be outside of Richmond. When we travel in California they travel with the guys who are also the guys they’re shooting at. They do restorative justice or community exercises, meet mothers who lost children to gun violence, work with other youth. There are a host of opportunities we provide access to outside of Richmond. This weighs in on their healing and future development. But they have to be willing to travel with someone they have been trying to kill and who has been trying to kill them, and that is one of the most transformative portions. We’re batting a significant 100 percent – we have not had any issues on these trips.”
After six months of this 18-month non-mandated fellowship, the fellows become eligible to receive up to $2000 per month for the final nine of the 12 months. Most of the men receive $350-700 in stipends per month for whatever they need. Neighborhood Safety also places a Council of Elders in the fellows’ lives – retired or nearly retired men of color who aren’t afraid of the young men and are willing to mentor them personally.
Since the Operation Peacemaker Fellowship was launched in 2010, the City of Richmond has seen a 76 percent reduction in firearm-related homicides. 82 fellows – considered the most lethal young men in the city and the most susceptible to gun violence – have participated in the program over the last five years. Data as of April 2015 shows that 94 percent are still alive, 84 percent have not sustained a gun-related injury, and 79 percent have not been arrested or charged for gun-related activities since becoming fellows. While 10-15 percent still reject the Peacemaker Fellowship offer, Boggan says, “We just have to work a little harder to convince them that this is in their best interest.”
Currently in their fourth cohort, Boggan says that there is less resistance to the program now that others have seen and heard from peers who have been fellows and they know it is not some elaborate law enforcement sting operation. The Office of Neighborhood Safety also retains paid ambassadors from each cohort to assist in keeping the program relevant and identifying the right individuals to engage.
“When we try to focus on everyone we achieve focus on no one, so we do a very targeted focus on the most lethal of individuals. If we’re targeting the right individuals they become a greater and healthier influence over time with people they are associating with.”
The National Council on Crime & Delinquency reports on the outcomes of the Operation Peacemaker Fellowship: “20% of fellows have received their GED or high school diploma, 10% enrolled in college or vocational training, and 50% obtained employment at some point during?the fellowship. Fellows interviewed for this evaluation also reported beneficial experiences they have had through the Fellowship, including setting and meeting goals, developing a?sense of responsibility and accountability, and transforming their perspective and worldview, as well as tangible outcomes such as obtaining a driver’s license and becoming employed. These improvements contribute to fellows’ overall ability to transform their lives, improve their self- esteem, and continue on a healthy, productive path.”
The Office of Neighborhood Safety has shown such strong results, in fact, that cities all over the country are now developing similar programs, including Oakland, Toledo, D.C., Baltimore, Miami, and St. Louis.
For Boggan, the end goal is certainly a reduction in gun violence, but specificallythat it is reduced because these young men are healthier.
“We are targeting a very small group of young men who grow up in these communities besieged by gun violence. We help them where traditional forms of support have failed. We get up for every day for the day when there is no gun violence in the city, all because they are negotiating their conflicts in a healthy way.”
Still, there are those who would question a purely restorative rather than punitive approach. Boggan responds, “It’s important that the public understand a few things. ‘Why invest these kinds of resources into young men who don’t “deserve” them?’ is a very punitive-minded approach. They are walking the streets right now and have no one to help them negotiate the conflicts they are negotiating on a daily basis. Six out of 10 folks walk free of any kind of criminal consequences and will continue to engage in gun violence until there’s some entity committed to them in some way to not engage in gun violence.”
Mother Jones recently looked at the cost of gun violence in America every year: $229 billion. Or: $400,000 every time a bullet hits someone in an urban setting. 11,000 people, 5,500 or more are African American men under the age of 30, are lost to gun violence every year.
“If we are going to be successful in these communities in particular, we have to engage the young men involved in that nonsense in a different way,” Boggan says. “We need to humanize them and see a human dignity there. More than anything we have to develop experiences that are responsive, robust, credible, and legitimate through lens of the young men themselves. Their voices have to inform what we do on their behalf. When we launched this office and the fellowship, we were going against the grain of everything typically offered these young men. And that’s why we’ve been successful.”