Changing the outlook of racialized youth, not jobs, is the key to stopping violence.
Getting violent youth to stop reaching for trigger solutions
Lately, there've been more stories than usual doing bleed and lead duty. Even as this column is wrapping up, another student is shot in Scarborough.
On the heels of this shooting will come quotes from politicians, police, students still in shock. We never seem to hear the voices of those wrapped up in violence, and never ask why.
But there are some on the front line making a point of listening. Chicago's Project CeaseFire operates from a startling premise. Violence, they say at CeaseFire, is like an infection. Treat the people most infected and influence them through those who have already recovered from the disease.
It's a modus one hopes filters into our own troubled terrain.
In the organization's first year, 1996, the number of shootings dropped by 149. Tio Wilson, who grew up in inner-city Chicago and now works with the group, which is supported by more than 25 local churches, schools and neighbourhood groups, recounts a recent call.
"A man's daughter runs off with guys in the community. He has a lot of violence in his background and wants to go beat someone, to get his daughter back. Instead, he calls me. I send two of my violence interrupters. We get his daughter back in three hours."
Once interrupters get involved, they refer the caller to outreach workers who check in regularly.
This includes hooking up with social services - but to hear Wilson describe his job, it usually boils down to emotional work.
"People say, ‘Jobs jobs jobs,' but guys who are in the lifestyle aren't worrying about that. The game is the game. Jobs help some, but if someone doesn't change his outlook, he can work a job and [still] shoot someone. He can work a job for hustle money."
It's an increasingly common awareness on Toronto's front lines. The Violence Intervention Project, operating out of a building at Markham and Ellesmere, funds 18 outreach workers in seven of the city's 13 priority areas.
VIP is nominally a drop-in. Originally it operated out of a storefront, until someone who recognized a youth through the front window showed up strapped and looking to settle a beef.
Now you might have to ring. A pool table sits outside a glass- walled computer lab where kids work on journalism and multimedia programs offered by Ryerson U, putting out newspapers and doing art projects, and, currently, putting the finishing touches on the documentary Voices Over Violence.
The aim is to bring together community leaders and so-called "negative" leaders, charismatic and talented people who feel excluded from the approved channels for getting ahead. It's easy to forget, but many marginalized and racialized youth are actively self-employed, developing skills they're unable to get recognition for because they're applied illegally - sometimes the only way they can see to use them. One of VIP's offerings is a paid, six-month "pre-employment" program.
Says Michelle Moran, coordinator of the school-specific mentor program RISE, a project under the VIP umbrella, the issue is not to judge, but to help kids find uses other than criminal for their talents.
"We take their experience and work with it. Therapy is what goes on. But it doesn't look like it."
One of the biggest problems starting out, says VIP outreach coordinator Likwa Nkala, is that kids are growing up thinking they're rivals with those in other neighbourhoods. "Once we get them all together in a neutral zone, it's okay," he says.
Still, it's not unheard of for cops to keep the peace by trying to keep track of who's from what 'hood and suspecting the worst if kids stray from their assumed borders.
"Guns, bulletproof vests," says J.O., bobbing his head with its afro pick apex as he and five other VIP regulars put their pool game on hold. He's answering a question about police. "They can get anything they want." He sounds jealous. Is there an arms race in the 'hood?
"They can hit us, but we can't hit back. So they take advantage of it."
I note that he talks about cops as if they were a gang. "They are," laughs R.P. "The biggest gang in the city. Funded by the government."
Agree or disagree, consider the way many kids experience authority: teachers likely to suspend them, programs to help them get boring, low-wage jobs, armed police at school. I ask them if they're worried about gangs. They all shake their heads. J.O. scoffs. "If you've got baggy pants, they think you're in a gang. If you've got a hoodie, you're in a gang. There's no gangs. Just fam. Straight fam."
Says R.P., "It's a struggle if you've got no job. It's a struggle if you dress a certain way. I got stopped the other day for no reason. Cops have nothing to do."
If not police, then what's needed in their neighbourhoods? The clearest answer: video games. Just somewhere to go and do what other kids get to do at home. Nkala doesn't share the hostility over police, but he thinks priorities are askew.
"The police know where their money is coming from," he says. "We have to make a case before we do any little thing. And we don't get to say, ‘We tried this thing and it turns out it doesn't work.'"
Whereas that is arguably the constabulary's bread and butter.