Community Activists, Former Gang Members Mull Solutions for D.C. Violence

WASHINGTON – Following a series of gang-related incidents this summer, residents of D.C.’s 8th Ward gathered at a local church to discuss the causes of gang violence and what to do about it.

The D.C. Commission on Black Men and Boys – a committee created in 2001 to study the impediments to the success of the District’s African-American men and to identify solutions – convened a group of former gang members and gang intervention specialists at the Matthews Memorial Baptist Church in Southeast D.C. for a roundtable discussion on gang violence.

The purpose of the discussion was, as the commission’s founder Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) pointed out, to allow the community to have a “candid conversation” on some of the issues involving gang violence among youth in the nation’s capital.

Norton said that even though the District does not have the same level of organized gang activity as other metropolitan areas in the United States, the city still has to deal with sporadic gang violence.

“We don’t have the kind of raging gang violence in this city that sometimes we’ve seen in the West Coast and even Chicago,” Holmes said. “What we have is gang violence…[that] emerges and then goes underground so as to prepare for the next emergence.”

In May, a group of gunmen in Southeast D.C. opened fire on people standing near a bus stop, wounding three, including two 17 year olds.

Earlier this year, a spate of street fights in Anacostia, and two shootings in uptown Woodley Park, including one outside the National Zoo, raised the alarm about a developing wave of gang violence in the city. The shootings prompted a community meeting, where people from affluent Northwest Washington voiced their concern that violence was spilling over from Ward 8 – an area in Southeast D.C. known for high rates of poverty and crime, and low rates of high school graduation.

Jeremiah Hawkins, director of family services at the Far Southeast Family Strengthening Collaborative (FSFSC), a nonprofit serving children and families in Ward 8, said that in light of these incidents his organization expected an uptick in violence in the area over the summer. Instead, the opposite happened.

“There has been a concentrated effort by the Metropolitan Police Department and community providers to address a lot of the violence that has been taking place and this resulted in a dramatic decrease in the violence that happened over the summer,” Hawkins said.

Hawkins said his organization has introduced violence intervention programs that focus on specific areas of Ward 8. He noted that the area had some of the lowest rates of violence in the city in 2013, which he attributed, in part, to the success of gang intervention programs.

“We believe these programs at schools and libraries targeted at youth in these areas have had a direct effect on the violence happening around these places, and we will continue to do what we can to address this issue,” Hawkins said.

Norton said that finding a way for these youth to stay in school might help keep them out of gangs.

“There seems to be a correlation between graduation rates and gang violence,” Norton said. “We know that if young men stay in school they are less likely to be engaged in ongoing gang activity.”

D.C. high school graduation rates have been among the lowest in the country for some time, coming last in the nation in 2010-2011 with 56 percent of high school students obtaining their diplomas within four years. The graduation rate ticked up to 64 percent in 2013, a three-point gain over the previous school year. But those numbers mask wide gaps between different schools. For instance, the five high schools at the top of the list all have graduation rates higher than 90 percent. But if you go to the bottom of the list, the last five schools all have graduation rates below 50 percent. The two schools at the bottom have graduation rates below 5 percent.

“The gap is quite amazing,” Norton said. “We don’t know what’s happening.”