Building community in the wake of violence

Lisa Sharon HarperIn response to the recent beating death of a teenager in Chicago, Lisa Sharon Harper of South Bronx Community Conversations shares what lessons she’s learned about building community in the wake of tragic violence.

I’m speaking with Lisa Sharon Harper who is co-founder and executive director of NY Faith & Justice. It’s a faith based volunteer anti-poverty movement in New York City. Lisa’s been helping organize the project to build bridges between police and the South Bronx community after five police shootings in one month in the city a few years ago. Lisa Sharon, we’ve heard a lot in recent weeks about the beating death of a young man caught up in a fight between rival factions at a Chicago high school. What lessons can you share with Chicago from your work to build community in the wake of tragic violence?

Wow, well that’s a really great question, and a loaded one. I don’t think that any one solution is the solution to this issue. I was moved actually this last weekend - I watched the reports on CNN and other channels of the communities responses and also Americans sharing their feelings about what they were seeing in that videotape that was released. People were shocked and in aw at the level of violence of what they were seeing. Some people said it was the most horrifying thing they’d ever seen. And, to be sure, it was absolutely horrifying and utterly sad.

But the thing that really struck me is that having grown up part of my life in a neighborhood of Philadelphia that was in the middle of turning from a middle class neighborhood to a blighted area, I was familiar with the fact that neighborhoods that are marginalized and underserved tend to be highly violent areas. That’s not because the people are violent. It’s because poverty breeds violence. I think there’s been a lot of hopelessness and rage that have been boiling under the surface in cities across the country. In Chicago we got to see a glimpse of it.

So my first response to this tragedy that happened was actually - more than anything - a response to the responses. I was kind of shocked at the ignorance we have of that level of rage and that level of hopelessness in impoverished areas throught the country. It was a great indicator of the fact that we really just don’t understand what’s going on in our cities and in our neighborhoods. And that, quite honestly, drove me to tears. Because really what you’re really revealing there is the level of our inaction and how people’s lives are being driven to the brink because of inaction, and ignorance, on the part of so many in our country, many of whom are actually running these cities, who are creating the policies and/ or benefit from policies that favor some at the expense of others.

No one solution is going to solve this problem, because the problem is multi-faceted. I mean multi-faceted. The problem is systemic in its nature. It has to do with a brokenness in the way things work in our cities, and in particular in the most marginalized areas of our cities.  They are marginalized because the systems don’t work for them. The systems actually  work in lots of times  against them. That’s the kind of environment that breeds hopelessness.

How do we deal with the problems in our cities? How are we dealing with it? When it gets to be so great is our solution going to be build more prisons, put more police on the streets and make sure the violence doesn’t overflow into those areas? That has been actually the solution. So one way I would actually say that neighborhoods that are struggling like this can move forward is to begin to work together on long-term solutions, in conjunction with short-term. There always has to be multiple layers of work going on.

On one level this is the kind of thing that actually does garner very quick action that can make a statement right here and now - some kind of action that can actually give people from the neighborhoods the ability to vocalize their anger, to vocalize their sadness, their grief, their hopelessness, so that they can move beyond that and move forward into positive long-term solutions. But once you get beyond that you need something else. And that’s normally where the ball is dropped. That’s normally where people go home from the protest and life goes on as normal until the next beating or until the next shooting. And that’s actually been the place where hope has found a home, I think, in the hearts of a few people who have tried out the Conversations for Change Initiative in the South Bronx and are now beginning to expand that initiative to incorporate three different precincts in the South Bronx.

You mentioned there was a series of five shootings in late 2006, well that fifth shooting happened in the South Bronx. That’s why we’re focused there. A person was shot at point blank range in the stomach when he did not have his gun pulled.

When we went through our pilot rounds of Conversations for Change this last Spring, both the police and the community members were shocked at how effective that curriculum was and the process itself was at beginning to break down the barriers of communication, open ears to begin to hear each other, get to know how’s in the room and more than that to become open to and actually active participants in a process that finds common solutions to common problems and actually leads to common action towards real change.

Our main solution that came out of that pilot was to expand the conversations because more of us need to be involved in order to enact the kind of changes we want to see changed. But even in the midst of that six week pilot conversation with about 45 people - 15 police and 30 community members - we were able to discern some real policies that the police have in place right now that part of the problem. Real structures that are in place and not in place that need to be there. We need more of the community involved in order to move these things so that’s why we’re expanding the conversations. 

Lisa Sharon thanks so much for sharing your thoughts and your insights and your lessons from your program.

Thank you. I hope that with the gravity of the moment that maybe there’s some good that can come in this moment as we begin to get fed up with short-term solutions only and we begin to invest in our long term life together in our cities.

October 12, 2009

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