My path in crime prevention started almost 20 years ago; my formal path that is. But, even prior to that, my work with those who were marginalized and/or victimized was also “crime prevention”. I just didn’t know it then. I certainly didn’t call it that. I know better now!
Justice goes well beyond the walls of courthouses and prisons to the heart of citizen capacity and imagination. In a way, justice lives in a tension between security and democracy. Security, of course, frequently uses methods to exclude certain people from certain places. Democracy, on the other hand, can be measured by the extent of our willingness and ability to include all people. Places where everybody matters, even those, or maybe especially those, who make us somewhat uncomfortable, are something to aspire to in democracy. But measures of security will often tell us the opposite. Herein lies the rub. And it is often no more obvious than in our interventions with youth.
Throughout time youth have caused us some discomfort. Not because of whom they are, but because of the associations that have been created between youth and crime. How we treat those who are in that critical transition between childhood and adulthood is an essential measure of the character of our community. How we interact with youth, how we express ourselves to and about them, says so much about us. It may not actually have a whole lot to say about them.
“We must learn to work for young people but also with young people. Our society must learn to trust them and avoid generalisations which stigmatise them, or portray them as potential criminals. The challenge to us all is to guarantee the legitimate right to safety of each and every person without discrimination and the scapegoating of youth.” (European Forum on Urban Safety, 2000).
It is good news then that progress often seeds itself in grounds of dissonance. Discomfort can be an opportunity for growth and learning if we only allow it to be.
inREACH was a golden opportunity. It brought discomfort in so many ways that we can only be grateful. We got to test assumptions about youth generally and street gang prevention specifically. We ended up rocking our boat of easy answers.
I am no expert in crime prevention. I have searched high and low for such person and have yet to find one. I am certainly not it. There are no bumper stickers in crime prevention no matter who brings them to you (and sometimes those who bring them have formidable power). The issues of crime, youth crime and street gang related crimes are immensely complex. They defy convenient truth. Sure, it is true that there is solid evidence to suggest that some children and youth are a greater risk of coming in conflict with the law. There is also solid evidence to suggest that this can be prevented. It would therefore make a whole lot of sense that we invest more in preventing children and youth from becoming involved in crime than we do in warehousing them through their teenage and adult years. But such sustained commitment to community safety can only thrive in an environment that distinguishes facts from fiction. And few things seem to be as fraught with myth and fiction as youth crime.
And that was the whole point. inREACH was about learning what works not what we believe to work. And whenever we are on a learning path we will encounter screaming successes as much as fabulous failures. At inREACH we had to not only dispel the overused myth that connects youth and crime, we also had to dispel the myth of singular professional expertise, as well as the myth of being a community where inclusion and collaboration are always easy. We finally had to learn that outcome measures are an empty promise at the beginning of such journey.
What a gift!
And without the voices of youth and true efforts at inclusion that gift would not have been possible.
But “kids at risk” are not supposed to be engaged in shaping public policy; they are supposed to live at the fringes of the community – not on its stages. But we found that listening is a most powerful method for changing trajectories. Listening can begin to untangle the complex interplay of individual traits, family, community, and wider social supports. And when we listen we learn so much.
- We learned that risk factors do not follow a neat mathematical “1+1 = 2” formula. As much as one more risk can bring a person to the precipice of crime, so one resilience factor can stop him or her from falling off. This resiliency can be sparked by a significant adult who refuses to give up, a teacher with an eye not only to the irritating behavior but the roots of it, a school that deals with the social inclusion first and academics next, programs which assist stressed families by first and foremost meeting their essential needs of life.
- We also learned that we can ALL be essential partners in this quest for safer communities and civic vitality if we make the connection between basic needs (such as food and shelter) and meaningful engagement, sense of belonging and viewing others as opportunities not threats.
- We also learned that knee-jerk reactions, approaches rooted in fear, or a philosophy of blame are the greatest barrier to successful prevention.
In the never ending circle of seeking who is to blame we have become confused and numb to our own opportunities to be part of scripting a whole new story about us and the young people among us – ALL young people. In a way, inREACH was an opportunity to test our resolve to focus on prevention sometimes despite of it all. It was our opportunity to wiggle in discomfort as we sought out momentums for sustainable change.
The moral of the inREACH story is that no one system alone is equipped to deal with the complexity of gang related crime. We had to work in partnership. It was not a choice. Hats off to Dr. Spergel for saying all that so many years ago, long before we ever even conceived of inREACH. But “partnership” is not an old boys/girls club or tired relationship on auto pilot. Partnership is a vital agreements to work together, to share a vision, to establish a set of values, to be held collectively accountable, to disagree, and disagree some more, but to never stop moving forward together. Partnership does not end at the board room doors but rather moves us into the heart of the service we provide. That was the task we set for ourselves and it was a difficult task indeed.
The confession that easy answers are little else than a distraction from the larger social and community roots goes hand in hand with the invitations to citizens to overcome such psychology of learned helplessness. Learned helplessness is the outcome of a gradual but persistent chipping away at our collective confidence that anything can be changed let alone that we can be part of that change agenda.
Ask most people what to do about crime and at first they reach for the 911 dial. Give them the opportunity to recognize the power of everyday action and they can rally together in a way that goes beyond our wildest imaginings. The neighbourhood mobilization work of inREACH exemplified that more than anything I have ever seen. From parents to teachers to artists; when we merged the stories of those in social services with the stories of everyday citizens and those with lived experience, a comprehensive plot emerged in which truly everybody mattered.
Too often have we developed services first and the asked why. In this “we know what is best for you” mentality we often even maintain programs out of tradition, not because they worked. Such skewed problem solving is, at least in part, the outcome of organizational distance to the people we serve. inREACH youth came up very close and personal. And we were and are richer for it.
Some answers of convenience are not wrong in and off themselves. They are just wrong by way of their omissions. inREACH youth had a voice and in hearing that voice we designed an approach that was rooted in their reality even if it wasn’t always popular or comfortable. In helping them to break their silence we had to face our own fear of contempt, censure, judgement or lack of recognition. But in the words of Audre Lorde: “The fact that we are here is an attempt to break the silence and bridge some of the difference between us, for it is not differences which immobilize us but silence”.
I so look forward to tomorrow. Tomorrow is our chance, free of the confines of funding (yes there is freedom in not being funded) to again amplify the voices of those who live and lived it, and those who had the courage and wisdom to live it with them.
In the end, it is up to all of us to say: OK! We hear you! Now what?
Author: Christiane Sadeler is the Executive Director of the Waterloo Region Crime Prevention Council.