Building Bridges to a Better Community makes special presentation to City Council
According to researchers, the query “If a tree falls in the middle of the forest, and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” is a philosophical thought experiment that raises questions regarding observation and knowledge of reality. Observation and reality are at the heart of the issues that we have as we tackle the problem of violence in our community. For months, we have talked, walked and prayed individually and in small groups, but without the presence of our elected officials, it was as if our sound was silenced. But on Oct. 29, in City Council chambers filled to capacity and beyond with concerned community members, our voices were heard.
After a welcome from Councilmen Glynn Hines and Tom Smith, the community’s voice was given a rare opportunity to be heard officially by all nine members of City Council in a special session. For more than an hour, Jonathan Ray of the Fort Wayne Urban League presented with details on the work that many of us have done over the past few months focusing on what can be done to curb the current streak of violence in our community.
Fort Wayne is not alone in this recent increase of incidents; violence is on the rise in cities of all sizes across the nation. Gary, Ind., with a population of 80,000—only about a third of our 251,000—has had 55 homicides this year. But, our community is unique in its efforts to work collectively to get to the underlying issues that allow violence to consume a neighborhood.
Mr. Ray explained that Building Bridges to a Better Community (BBBC) is not an Urban League program, but rather a collaborative initiative of many community and faith-based organizations and individuals committed to building a healthy community that is sustainable, viable, diverse, united and relevant to the ever-changing needs of our multigenerational society. To do this, the goal of the BBBC is to develop a generational legacy that will promote support for the community through empowerment and engagement. This is where observation and knowledge of reality collide.
Amidst the charts and statistics, common themes continue to emerge. Many of the victims and perpetrators of the violence in Fort Wayne that led to homicides have been young black men. Nationally, African American Males make up only six percent of the population yet they account for 42 percent of the homicides.
When you look at the dots on the local maps where the shootings and homicides have occurred this year, it mirrors maps that showing the highest rates of unemployment for ages 18 through 24, and the lowest levels of academic achievement in our city. As Andre Patterson, of the Fort Wayne Commission for the Study of African American Males, addressed this issue to City Council, he noted these inequities but also lauded the current efforts within our community to seek changes.
In August, The Fatherhood Initiative coordinated a Back to School Event to encourage fathers to stay engaged or re-engage with their children. In September, John Dortch announced a new business coalition to train and employ young black men in jobs that will allow them to support themselves and their families. And recently, Fort Wayne received a grant from the National League of Cities for technical assistance that supports an effort to reduce disparities between black males and their peers. However this is just part of the path to a better community.
Jamie Garwood addressed the disparities in educational outcomes from elementary schools to the college enrollment and graduation rates. But, her voice was most powerful when she moved from the statistics to the experience of a young child who has witnessed violence first hand. From the sounds of the gunshots and sirens, to the muffled cries of their mothers and others, these children have trouble sleeping at night, and concentrating at school during the day. From TV and video games these children become desensitized as the fake violence morphs into the reality within their neighborhoods.
Dr. Chrystal Thomas Bush spoke on the issue of mental health and wellness programs to address the needs of the young people within the community that are troubled. Back to the maps, it shows that there aren’t enough facilities and clinics that address these issues within the community where the problems are on the increase.
LeAnne White spoke on the similarities of violence within our neighborhoods and her family’s experiences in South America.
Gene Smith testified that when he was about to turn to violence to resolve a problem within his family, that someone stepped into the gap on his behalf, and how he now mentors others.
Prophet Cedric Walker told the group that while everyone is busy, we must make time now to work on these matters.
While this was not an open mic session in which anyone could speak, the presenters did a magnificent job of showing diversity and connectivity so that our elected officials have been put on notice that the status quo is no longer acceptable to us and that we will hold them accountable to work with us on the Fort Wayne Community Action Plan Against Violence. We are asking Council members to do the following:
• Commit to incorporating Building Bridges to a Better Community (BBBC) in the city’s strategic plan and assign two council members to the BBBC initiative;
• Commitment from City Council to strategically consider programs and initiatives that impact community violence in the city budget;
• Commit to a focused, intentional economic development project on the central and southeast sides of Fort Wayne
• Develop a new community-policing approach to build trust in police forces and improve security and safety;
• Encourage and cultivate more diversity within the Fort Wayne PD’s Detective Homicide Unit
• Create a feedback loop on the status of open investigations; improve data collection to provide police, service providers and communities with accurate, on time information on violent incidents, to enable better targeting of prevention activities and law enforcement;
• Increasing the focus on building trust and social cohesion by supporting neighborhood associations and community groups and their involvement in community change
• Improving transportation and mobility options available for urban populations, that supports employment opportunities;
• Commitment to clearing and eradicating community eyesores and dilapidated structures
• Engaging urban youth to participate in Youth Councils and other social and environmental initiatives giving them a voice in local decision making
One by one, as council members responded to the presentation, most gave verbal support to the recommendations and offered to review city budgets as part of their commitment. City Council President Tom Didier recalled how the violent death of his uncle nearly 20 years ago still lingers in his thoughts today.
Dr. John Crawford voiced a concern that at first glance appeared objectionable, but is rooted in another social-economic trend in our society. While most of the charts and statistics cited in the presentation focused on the violence, demographically it also indicated that we now have a majority of minority households headed by a single mother. Regardless of race, single parent households struggle financially more than two parent households. In the African American community, many women have found it difficult to marry because their potential partners may be tied up in the criminal justice system or unemployed. Indeed there are even inequities within some of our assistance programs which tend to encourage the break up of a family. The reality is that this is not a phenomenon to be “fixed” by government, but addressed within our own families and faith-based organizations.
With commitments from Police Chief Rusty York and Deputy Chief Garry Hamilton, the elected officials, community organization leaders and individuals from the community, our voices are being heard and we are beginning to speak on one accord. Residents need to believe that when they report a drug house or crime, that the police will respond, but law enforcement depends on information from the public to resolve these crimes. Over and over again the words “trust” “hope” “opportunity” and “commitment” echoed in the room. It is a two-way street and the time is now to make these words into actions as we walk together on Building Bridges to a Better Community.
For more information about this initiative, links to the charts and video feed of the presentation, or how to get you or your organization involved, please contact the Frost Illustrated website, www.frostillustrated.com or call the Fort Wayne Urban League at (26) 745-3100.