If We Don't Address Poverty, We Won't Reduce Gun Violence

If America spent as much money offering opportunities to every 16 to 26 year old as we spend locking them up for minor offenses that further cut them off from a positive future, we could end poverty in a generation or two.
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The debate over addressing gun violence in the aftermath of Newtown fell into a pattern: "The good law-abiding citizens should have the right to own guns, although not assault rifles with magazines that shoot 70 bullets in a minute; the mentally ill people who might commit unexpected massacres should get mental health treatment; the bad criminal 'gang bangers' should go to jail."

Through 35 years of working with tens of thousands of young men and women, I know this viewpoint is wrong in relation to the so-called "gang bangers." We know how to break the cycle of poverty for young adults mired in despair, poverty, and street violence. And when we break that cycle, most of the young people eagerly abandon the culture of violence and reveal their true human desire to build a positive and productive lifestyle.

In 1978, working with young people in East Harlem, we created a program called YouthBuild which has brought education, employment, and leadership opportunities to over 120,000 of America's most disadvantaged youth. Thousands of dedicated individuals in local communities, supported by foundations, corporations, and government, have helped to spread it to 273 urban and rural communities, offering education, employment, counseling, leadership development, and tangible opportunities to serve their communities to 10,000 young people each year. Time and again, we have opened the doors to gang members who turned into positive community leaders and role models.

If America's leaders would invest in proven pathways out of poverty, we could radically diminish violence in America. If America spent as much money offering opportunities to every 16 to 26 year old as we spend locking them up for minor offenses that further cut them off from a positive future, we could end poverty in a generation or two. When young people find a true pathway to opportunity and a caring community, they become excellent parents determined to give their children the world of opportunities they lacked in their own childhood.

There is no mystery in how to do this. We know exactly how to unleash the deep and passionate desire of low-income young adults to create productive life-styles that will release them from fear and despair, and allow them to become good family members, parents, employees, and community leaders.

Recently at the 25th annual YouthBuild Conference of Young Leaders in Washington, DC, 125 students from 37 states gathered for four days to support each other's determination to rebuild their communities and their lives. They shared upsetting personal stories of their lives before YouthBuild, including deep pain, loss, poverty, homelessness, family struggles, murder, suicide, rape, abuse, confusion, fear, gang life, mistreatment by school and criminal justice systems. It broke my heart all over again.

I asked by a show of hands how many of them had friends or relatives who had been killed in street violence: Virtually every young person raised their hands. Every one of them.

Despite their real suffering, their experience of YouthBuild had given them hope. They shared an incredible level of gratitude, love, joy, determination, connection with each other, and eagerness to change the world to make it better for others.

Why? They had experienced the safe, respectful, loving community of YouthBuild in their home neighborhoods. They felt supported on a path to education, employment, and belonging to a shared community of peers with similar hopes and dreams. They had participated in building affordable housing for homeless and low income people in their neighborhoods and felt proud. They had earned their GED or high school diploma. Together they were celebrating their good fortune, their ability to transcend the odds with help from adults who cared, sometimes for the first time in their lives.

This positive energy always amazes and galvanizes me as much as their stories of pain sadden me. If this group of bruised and abused young people can rise up with such enthusiasm to seize another chance, WHY can't we as a society choose to give it to them? WHY is YouthBuild forced to turn away tens of thousands of young people seeking a chance to learn and earn and give back? WHY is our president talking about spending $4 billion for police on the beat to diminish gun violence and not talking about an equal $4 billion to open the doors of opportunity, off the streets, away from the violence, for the young people literally dying for lack of a pathway out?

We are suffering as a nation because millions of low-income young people have been written off by society as hopeless, worthless, and expendable.

If you had seen what I have seen for 35 years... tens of thousands of YouthBuild students eagerly seizing the opportunity with determined grit to climb out of poverty, gangs, dead-end communities, fear, and loneliness, and then showing extraordinary will and skill to help others ... you would know that investment in opportunities for them to find their best selves is the right thing to do. Giving them the skills and opening the doors to a welcoming community would be one of the best investments our nation could ever make. We are wasting talent. We are destroying lives. We are undermining our economy and our future. All because we believe there are bad boys, especially bad boys of color, who don't deserve another chance.

Let us offer the love and opportunity that is needed, seek and unleash the wonderful human potential that is being wasted by our preconceptions, and work together to achieve the Beloved Community envisioned by Martin Luther King. Gun violence will radically diminish in the streets of Chicago and every other low income community.

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