When Jesse Thorn's college radio show got picked up for national distribution by Public Radio International in 2007, he became the youngest national host in public radio history.
A recent surge in gun violence has left many residents across the Washington region wondering how and why disputes involving young people spiral into deadly confrontations. Kojo gets a local and national perspective on underlying causes of youth violence.
- Delbert McFadden outreach coordinator, Columbia Heights Shaw Family Support Collaborative
- Charlie Whitaker CEO and founder, Career Path DC
- Ben Calhoun reporter, This American Life;
This American Life: Harper High School
A two-part series on Harper High School in Chicago, where 29 current and recent students were shot in 2012 alone. This American Life went to get a sense of what it means to live in the midst of all this gun violence, how teens and adults navigate a world of funerals and Homecoming dances. They found so many incredible and surprising stories.
- Listen to Part One
- Listen to Part Two
Part two picks up where the story left off in the second hour from Harper High School in Chicago. Reporters find out if a shooting in the neighborhood will derail the school’s Homecoming game and dance. They also hear the origin story of one of Harper’s gangs. And, finally, ask a group of teenagers: where do you get your guns?
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. The spray of gunfire came from two cars speeding down North Capitol Street last week. Thirteen people were wounded from bullets grazing their bodies or hitting their legs as they stood near an affordable housing complex called Tyler House and the stretch of late-night clubs.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFor years, we've been told that homicide is declining in D.C. Even as communities in Prince George's County struggle with gun violence, so the North Capitol shooting has left members of the political class scratching their heads for an explanation. Was public housing the problem? Was it the nightclubs around it? Or is this shooting the sign of something deeper in the culture of young people in D.C.'s disadvantaged neighborhoods?
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThis hour, we talk with people who have spent time with kids caught up in urban violence and try to understand the roots of gun violence on the streets on D.C. and other cities nationwide. Joining us in studio is Charlie Whitaker. He is founder and CEO of Career Path D.C., a community service organization that helps prepare ex-offenders for the workforce. Charlie is doing something that I advise all people against doing. He's working on his birthday.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIHappy Birthday to you, Charlie.
MR. CHARLIE WHITAKERThank you, sir.
NNAMDIThank you so much for joining us. Also in studio with us is Delbert McFadden. Delbert McFadden is outreach manager at the Columbia Heights Shaw Family Support Collaborative. Delbert McFadden, thank you for joining us.
MR. DELBERT MCFADDENThank you for having me.
NNAMDIAnd joining us from studios at "This American Life" offices in New York City is Ben Calhoun. He is a reporter for "This American Life." He contributed to its recent series on gun violence in a Chicago high school. Ben Calhoun, thank you for joining us.
MR. BEN CALHOUNGood afternoon. Thanks for having me.
NNAMDIGood afternoon. You too can join this conversation. You can call us at 800-433-8850. You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Did you live in the District when the homicide rate was soaring? What effect did it have on you? Or what do you think of the recent shootings in the area? Do you think violence is on the rise? 800-433-8850. You can send email to email@example.com, or send us a tweet, @kojoshow.
NNAMDIYou can go to our website, kojoshow.org. Join the conversation there. Delbert, I'll start with you. The Washington area has seen a recent surge in gun violence, a drive-by shooting last week on North Capitol Street, wounded 13 people. And Prince George's County has seen a series of fatal shootings, many of which involved high school students. What's going on with young people and guns?
MCFADDENWell, I think a lot of things are taking place. I heard you speak earlier about what the issue is. It's not one thing. I think it's different things that impact youth. Working at the Columbia Heights Shaw Family Support Collaborative, we see -- there's power failure basically in the household, community and in D.C. public school system. And I think where all those things and really not having those positive role models, looking at generational poverty and the different things in the community really exasperates the situation.
MCFADDENSome of the things that we're working on really looking at the youth, spending that face time, that face time is very important, connecting youth to different services. Mental health services is one of the things that we try to get better at here in District because that's one of the things that I feel that we're failing that in the sense of youth who's dealing with psychological traumas really not being diagnosed or getting the services that they need, so they become numb to a lot of the issues of shooting and violence.
MCFADDENAnd so there's different things that's taking place, but there's also a lot of things that's happening on the positive side to combat some of those things. I feel that we need to do more with cross-sector partnerships across the city and have trainings and an understanding of youth violence work across the city that will bring it closer together. There's a lot of organizations that do the work, and the partnership and the cohesion can be way better than it is today.
NNAMDIBen, Chicago has a rising profile as a city under siege of gun violence. In 2012, 443 people shot dead. Last fall, you and two other "This American Life" reporters spent an entire semester embedded in a Chicago public high school. How much was gun violence a part of the daily lives of those students?
CALHOUNWell, I mean it was a defining element. It was the defining element of what it meant to live in that neighborhood and go to school in that neighborhood. The school that we were at, Harper High School, last year, they had 29 students who were shot, eight of them fatally. For a while, we've been sort of looking at the coverage in our hometown of Chicago and what was going on with violence there and feeling like the coverage in a lot of ways sort of in still the opposite of what the situation demands that the way that these issues are usually covered in still sort of a fatigue and a despair.
CALHOUNAnd so we wanted to go to this place where, you know, this violence is just an element of daily life, and, you know, if people would let us stand next to some folks who see that issue on a daily basis and so thankfully Harper High School invited us in.
NNAMDIHow does Harper High School's experience with violence compare with other schools in Chicago?
CALHOUNWell, it's sort of, you know, varies from year to year. This year has been, you know, as far as gun violence goes for Harper, a relatively, you know, compared to last year, a much better year. Still, there's other schools all around Chicago -- there's a school, you know, Clemente High School on the city's west side which didn't have, you know, a year like Harper.
CALHOUNLast year, they lost three students in January. They're just coming back from winter break. So, you know, Harper is, you know, in no way an out, you know, it's an extremely bad situation, but it's no way uncharacteristic of what a lot of schools around the city deal with.
NNAMDICharlie Whitaker, the Washington area has a history of gun violence that is all too recent. Neighborhoods today may look different, but anyone who lived here a couple of decades ago starting in the mid-'80s may -- might remember the shootings that took place on the city streets. What kind of mark has that period left on young people in the city today?
WHITAKERWell, in my experience, it just...
WHITAKERIt appears to me that the '80s marked the pivotal part in our community where our community became disconnected where the young people and the middle-age individuals were taking off the streets due to crack. And once the middle-age individuals who were on the streets was taken off the streets due to crack were happening, the young people took over. And without any type of -- any guidance or a lack of experience with the streets, they started to play by a different set of rules.
WHITAKERAnd as you may know, even in the underground market, there's rules. So when you take out the individuals who created the rules or who played by the rules and you leave it to the young people who don't really understand it, what happens is then -- that's when you see a high volume of violence in your community.
NNAMDIBecause there are no longer any rules or because the rules are now different, because the people who now institute the rules have no understanding of what the rules used to be?
WHITAKERExactly, exactly. It's -- more or less, it's just like in any environment. When you take the elders out of the environment, what happens is all of the teachings that came down through that environment is now taken away because you no longer have a history of how you were supposed to behave in this environment, whether it be an underground environment, whether it be one following our social norms, the same things exist.
NNAMDIDelbert, in the South Capitol Street shooting of March 2010, you remember a few young men shot five people dead, injured eight others. The conflict all began because of a plastic bracelet. How does a simple fight or disagreement escalate into a major gun fight?
MCFADDENI think on some of the pointers that Charlie made, I think, you know, when you look at today's youth with not having that guidance in the household, not having positive male role models, an uncle, a basketball coach, not having individuals in your life who can basically set the rules so you have that understanding is really a big part of this work. And these youth are terrible at negotiating. To me that was a situation that could have easily been negotiated.
MCFADDENBut because of those environmental factors, that peer pressure -- and we have to understand that that peer group is the second most influential group in the youth's life, and working with youth from day to day, youth will tell you -- a lot of youth that I work with, I say, man, why do you make that bad decision? I gave you -- I've talked to you to death. I showed you documentaries. I've brought certain people to you so you could see what's -- what the outcome is going to be, but you're making decisions...
NNAMDIThat's not what my boy has been saying.
MCFADDENYeah. But the thing is, is what they say is that it's the heat of the moment. It's making that decision right there with those environmental factors on top of that peer pressure, on top of ego, on top of establishing identity, not wanting to be ostracized, belonging and membership. At that moment, youth make bad decisions.
MCFADDENAnd they feel like they can't -- if they feel like if they turn around and say, well, I'm not going to do this, I'm not going to squeeze this trigger or I'm not going to participate in this criminal activity, I will be ostracized. And I don't want to deal with that. And so we know how important belonging and membership is with today's youth.
NNAMDIThe South Capitol Street shooting, like I said, was over a bracelet that turned out to be a plastic bracelet. That doesn't seem to fit the death toll. Do you think it's hard for an outsider to understand the reasons or motives for this kind of gun violence over something that seems as petty and inexpensive as a plastic bracelet?
MCFADDENYeah, but I think it's truly about the bracelet. It's truly about the history, generational poverty. It's youth development. It's about so many other things. Before an individual pick up a pistol and say, hey, I'm going to go in the middle of the street and squeeze this trigger, there's so many things that has gone wrong in that youth's life, so many failures, like I said, from the household to the community to government issues.
MCFADDENYou know, and we have to be vigilant on making sure that we take care of our kids and when we see youth displaying anti-social behaviors, that we attempt to assist those kids. A lot of shootings that I have experienced in the Northwest area, especially those that involved school students, you know, we go out. We assist with the vigil.
MCFADDENWe go to the funeral, provide coverage at the funeral and things of that nature. When you're at the school, you see 300, 400 students that come out for the vigil. And, you know, that is very unlikely that percentage of those youth would get the mental health services that they need to deal with bereavement, loss, understanding death.
MCFADDENAnd so when youth continue to move on and on and on -- I remember when I was doing a group in one of my targeted communities, doing the weed and seed program. I had a group of 10 young men, and I asked those young men, in the last five years, how many friends or loved ones have you lost to senseless violence? And they named 35 people, so understanding the mental piece on youth when you've lost 35 individuals that you grew up with, you know, from what the youth say, from the sandbox.
NNAMDICharlie, according to the Department of Justice, teens and young adults have the highest rate of gun violence. And while homicides have dropped around the United States, the rate of gun violence among young people has stayed about the same since the aforementioned 1980s that you mentioned. What about that age group do you think makes them turn to violence?
WHITAKERWell, you know, when I was a kid, I brought a couple of other guys that grew up with me to the show today and just to talk before I even came in because I know what I'll be talking about this. And the thing is, when we were young, this is what I see that's missing from a lot of young people. We would fight. We were getting into things.
WHITAKERBoys will be boys. But those fights that took place when we were boys are now gun violence now. So that's where you see -- is unable to negotiate like Del said, able to negotiate a situation where, you know, instead of us getting out here and we, you know, we get out and boys will be boys, and we match up. Man, we have a civilized fight, and then, two weeks later, we shake hands, and we hang out.
WHITAKERWe friends again. That's done. Must we fight or if we even attempt to fight, I pull my gun out. I'll shoot you, or you shoot me. And once you start that cycle of violence, once somebody dies, everything change from there. And there's another key piece to that too that we -- that's missed out. That fear factor.
WHITAKERWhen you talk to -- if you can really get a young person to open up to you, what you hear is fear. So when you hear them talk in a way where you know that they don't feel safe from day to day, any time you are afraid, you are willing to do whatever you have to do to protect yourself.
NNAMDIIn order to protect yourself. Delbert, you wanted to say.
MCFADDENYeah. I wanted to say one of the things I think we really need to look at more when we talk about environmental factors and stressors and triggers, a couple of years ago, we did a project called Crossing the Line. And Crossing the Line was cross-fertilization program. We did it in partnership with a program called AMYLA, Adams Morgan Youth Leadership Academy and Georgia Avenue Collaborative with assistance from Councilmember Jim Graham's office.
MCFADDENThe first year, we took 20 youth up in the mountains. We went camping. And we had pre-outings before that. And I noticed when we were in a bus going to West Virginia, to the flock retreat, I noticed that the further we got away from the District, a lot of posturing, a lot of the behaviors, a lot of profanity, a lot of those things subsided. And so we had an incredible time up in the mountains, kids from different communities out in the rain, doing the campfire.
MCFADDENYou know, so you can't tell me that this work can't be done. The second year, we took 20 kids to Aspen, Colo. And from the first setting where we -- the situations that we didn't know about before we got there, we worked those situations out, and we say, OK, give this individual a pass. If you ever see him in the street, there's a situation he's caught slipping or whatever you want to call it, give him a pass.
MCFADDENAnd so it came from, I don't like this individual. I hate this individual. I respect what you're trying to do, Del. But if I catch him, I'm going to deal with him. From day one, that's where it was. At the end of the retreat, when we -- coming from Aspen or in Aspen, the tone was very different. The tone was, Del, I respect what you're trying to do. Shorty's OK. It went from I hate him, I want to shoot him, to, don't take a picture of us. And the whole thing about don't take a picture is what...
NNAMDIWas for when they got back home.
MCFADDENWhen they got back to their environment -- and it did happen -- some of the communities say, oh, man, he was up there loafing with so and so. But we have a lot of individuals, because of that program, they respect one another and really understand. And one more piece that I have to make. When we did the retreat to flock, what -- when we talk about the psychological piece and trauma, that Saturday morning, man, it was -- we had one kid from a certain community.
MCFADDENYou had to compliment the kid beside you. We had a kid who stood up, and, you know, he was crying. He said he didn't want to die. And you should have saw the effect on all the faces of the youth around the room, and these are the so-called high-risk, are hard to deal with, no-one-can-get-to youth, and these individuals were really -- were wiping their eyes because of that mental piece that is not being addressed.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation. We'll bring Ben Calhoun back in the conversation to talk about their experiences in Chicago. By the way, if you go to our website, kojoshow.org, you can find a link to the American Life segment that is that deals with the experiences they had at Harper High School in Chicago. But if you'd like to join the conversation, you can still call us at 800-433-8850. You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Why do you think the homicide rate has dropped in the District? I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWe're having a conversation on urban gun violence with Delbert McFadden. He is an outreach manager at the Columbia Heights Shaw Family Support Collaborative. Charlie Whitaker is founder and CEO of Career Path D.C. That's a community service organization that helps prepare ex-offenders for the workforce. And Ben Calhoun is a reporter for "This American Life." He contributed to its recent series on gun violence in a Chicago high school.
NNAMDIBen Calhoun, 29 recent and current Harper High School students were shot last year. Eight of them died. Yet, had "This American Life" not gone into Harper High School, few people would know that story. Meanwhile, the Newtown, Conn. shooting caught the nation's attention and started a debate about gun control. How do you reconcile those different national responses?
CALHOUNWell, I think that there's a problem in newsroom in how they think about covering, you know, the kinds of shootings that happen in a place like West Englewood. You know, I think we're in an environment where newsrooms are dealing with shrinking resources, and we're also in a wind tunnel of tragic sheet stories of shootings like the ones that you see in a neighborhood like the one around Harper High School.
CALHOUNBut I also think that there's -- I mean, there's a problem that people aren't thinking strategically about how the -- how they cover stories of shootings like these and violence like these in a way that doesn't rob the situations of their complexity. The other gentlemen on the panel, I feel like I've been pointing to you, you know, just a wide array of factors that are involved in situations like the one around Harper, and the factors just that there are no easy answers.
CALHOUNYou know, I feel like a lot of times when it comes to violence in a neighborhood like West Englewood in Chicago, people kind of poised these easy answers on it, like, you know, people will say, oh, it's the parents or, you know, the kids are making bad choices. When, you know, if you go and you spend time there, you know that the teachers in that situation, the kids, the parents, the vast majority of people are doing the very best with the hand that they're dealt when they wake up in the morning.
NNAMDIYou talked about the complexity of it. You tell the story of a teenager named Terrance Green. He and his friends were never in a gang until they were in high school. Let's listen to his friend, Boogie, described the change that occurred.
BOOGIEOnce they come through -- and we taller now. It's all about height and stuff like that. So they call it hard legs, shooting at any hard legs. That means male -- any male that look of age. Any male that look of age will get shot. So we had to -- that's where it started, right there. You involved now. That's the thing. Like, now, you a part of it.
NNAMDISo, Ben, you grew up, you become a hard legs. These kids become hard legs. At that point, what options do they have left open to them? They're apparently, at the very least, going to be targets.
CALHOUNYeah. I mean, it is such a difficult situation that, you know, kids like Boogie and Terrance and, you know, this is one that happens a lot of times. The social structure within the neighborhood, within the school is defined by what part of the neighborhood you're from. And people are just aware of what neighborhood you're from. So in Boogie and Terrance's situation, you know, Terrance comes from a great home, lovely parents, lovely siblings.
CALHOUNHe was a star athlete, a really bright kid, charming. And the guys from another side of a -- from the other side of a boundary near his house were fighting with older guys from his neighborhood. And what happened was Terrance and his friends sort of just aged into the conflict. They didn't know anything about it. They didn't want anything to do with it.
CALHOUNBut because they lived where they lived, because they were essentially young men, the guys from the other side of this major street started targeting them, humiliating them on the street, you know, tracking them down, embarrassing them in front of their friends and their girlfriends, stealing from them. And so Terrance and Boogie were faced with a situation with this other group of guys where they had to say, you know, how could -- how can -- what are our options?
CALHOUNAnd honestly, you can see that there weren't a lot. I mean, if they were -- they're looking at this reality where, you know, the adults in the situation, be it, you know, the police, be it teachers, be it their parents, if they were going to be able to fix the problem, they would have done it already. It's more complicated than that so...
NNAMDIWhich brings me to this, Delbert, because listening to what Ben is describing here, we tend to think that these kids have a choice between staying neutral and joining a group for protection. What is it that causes young people to decide that they have to join a gang or a crew as their best option?
MCFADDENWell, here in the district, we more or so have crews. And the difference between gang and crew, gang has hierarchy. There's leadership. The leadership may not be here. It may be in El Salvador, in New York. It can be anywhere else. But with the crews, like Charlie was stating, it's every man for himself.
MCFADDENAnd I know from the work that we do that you can be an unofficial crew member. Because if you just live on a certain street and you get off at the metro in another community, you're going to have to deal with the same issue as if you're a full-fledged crew member. And so we do have those issues, you know, and deal with those situations time and time again.
NNAMDIAnd that's what Ben is describing. Ben, a Harper High School police officer told one of your reporters that the kids don't get to choose if they're going to join a gang or not. And to listen to the description you have been giving or the "This American Life" series is giving of today's gangs in Chicago, in their neighborhood, they sound a lot like the crews we have here. They don't seem to have the kind of hierarchy that organized national and international gangs have. But what lengths does a student have to go to just to stay out of a gang or crew, Ben?
CALHOUNWell, they pretty much have to completely take a detour out of the world of, you know, dealing with other students in their high school. I mean, they -- we -- the valedictorian from Harper, the likely valedictorian for this year has essentially, pretty much opted out of the social structure from his high school. And, you know...
NNAMDIHe doesn't go out at all?
CALHOUNNo, he doesn't -- he told us on tape that he essentially hasn't left the house for 3 1/2 years. And, you know, there's a gray scale of affiliation within the high school. You know, I, you know, we -- the situation in Chicago -- we saw a very fractured gang structure where -- and the way everybody sort of tells it is the police have so effectively taken out the leadership of the gangs in West Englewood that you have, you know, within a 1.5-mile radius of Harper High School, you've got anywhere from 15 to 22 different, smaller gangs operating.
CALHOUNAnd almost every single kid is from one of those neighborhoods. Now, it doesn't mean that they're active in the gang. But it means that when they walk to school, they walk with the guys from that neighborhood. It means that other people affiliate them with the guys from their neighborhood.
CALHOUNAnd if there's a fight in their lunchroom, there is an expectation that if guys from their neighborhood are involved, they are going to back up the guys from their neighborhood because they would provide them the same protection. That kid might be, you know, want nothing to do with that fight. They want nothing to do with the conflict or the gang structure, but it becomes unavoidable in a lot of ways.
NNAMDIOne other aspect of this that the guests in our studio may also be familiar with, Terrance Green's death led to an entirely -- the creation of an entirely new gang. Were you surprised by how big of a mark his death left on Harper High School? And what was this -- how was this new gang created?
CALHOUNWell, the gang -- he essentially -- he and his friend, Boogie, who he mentioned earlier, when they found themselves in the situation where they were sort of being drafted into a gang conflict that they had nothing to do with, Terrance kind of called his friends together, and they said, well -- he said, you know, I'm starting a group, and we're calling it Young Life, is what he called it. And we're just going to look out for each other, was essentially what it was about.
CALHOUNAnd following his murder, they renamed the neighborhood around his house Terrance Green City. And that group of guys essentially became this clique. That's what they called them in Chicago, a clique called TGC. So that was sort of the birth of that group. But because of their, you know, Terrance's story is not one of a kind in that neighborhood. I mean, there's -- I could, you know, list half a dozen other parts of the neighborhood around...
NNAMDIYet Ben, his father, seemed to know little about his son's gang or the gang that was dedicated to his son's death. What's the dynamic that causes this to be almost invisible to outsiders, even parents sometimes?
CALHOUNI mean, I think that among a lot of people, there's a feeling that they understand what gangs are and how they work and the understanding is outdated. And that's true for -- that was true for, you know, some of us who were reporting at Harper. It was, you know, it's true for Terrance's father. But there is an understanding from, you know, the '90s and the early 2000s that gangs, you know, you join, you get initiated, there's something official about it. There's hierarchy, and there's leadership.
CALHOUNAnd, you know, oftentimes, there's, you know, criminal enterprise selling drugs or something like that. When these are -- these new -- the new gang structure that we're looking at, say, in West Englewood, looks nothing like that. And Terrance's father has lived in that neighborhood for over 25 years. He thought he knew how the gangs worked, and he could see that his son was not in them, when, in fact, he had been pulled into the point where he was murdered.
NNAMDIDelbert, crime data show certain pockets of urban areas face a lot more violence than others. How much violence are the kids you work with in D.C. exposed to?
MCFADDENI would say, incredible amount of violence. If you look at media sensationalizing some of the situations, if you look at violence in a neighborhood and urban communities, to survive in these environments, you have to be a little violent. Coming up in Washington, D.C., I grew up in the Kenworth (sp?) community, and the saying was if someone hit you, you hit him back.
MCFADDENAnd like Charlie was saying, when you deal with fear, that individual will always lash out and try to deal with their issues in a violent manner instead of negotiating and working through the situation. So that's why our kids -- they're not there. They're just not there. And the community -- we really need to start listening more to the youth. We really need to involve youth in our program and really get a sense of what's really going on.
MCFADDENAs an outreach manager and a public relations speaker for the collaborative, I still go to homes and see youth and engage with youth because I want to be current on what's going on. And you have to kind of smell it and touch it so that you're current and in the know. But you can see, when you step out of your car, you can see the dysfunction in the front yard. So a lot of those issues play a role in that.
NNAMDICharlie, same question to you. How much violence with the kids you work with in D.C. exposed to?
WHITAKERThe youth that I work with are committed to DYRS. So most of -- so all of my youth have either committed a crime and been sent away or are on probation. So I see a lot of my youth who've been involved in traumatic situations, have suffered trauma, and what I notice when -- anytime a young person or anybody suffers trauma, what happen is there's a delay in their development.
WHITAKERAnd what happens from that is -- then, just like what Del said, it seems almost like their life becomes off the path or whatever. They may have been going to school and things of that nature, but things change in the life of a young person. So you really get to see -- it's almost, for them, is the norm. It's just not.
NNAMDIHow do you -- in that situation where you're dealing with youngsters who have already been incarcerated there in the district youth system, how do you get them not to get caught up in the same kind of violence again?
WHITAKEROK. This is where my work come in.
NNAMDIThat's the challenge.
WHITAKERYeah. This is where my work come in. We use workforce development as an intervention to violence. And the reason why I know that it works is because I grew up in the same environments that my youth grew up -- that they're growing up in now. And what I think prevented me from getting caught up and going to jail is the fact that I always worked.
WHITAKERI started working when I was 14, 15 years old in Marion Barry youth program, youth workforce development programs. And through that, I also got a job around where I lived at, in Parkland, cleaning up. And so when my friends were out, you know, doing whatever they were doing at that time or when crack really hit, you know, I was working. My parents always worked. So I try to use that with my young people.
WHITAKERAnd I notice, when you're working, when you follow at least some of the social norms, it take you out of that pathway of a lot of the violent things that may take place because you got to go home and get some rest. And you're almost committed to doing the right thing. So workforce development is one of the tools that I use to keep my young people in a situation where they -- where I feel like they'll be a little safer than maybe other young people who are out there just on their own.
NNAMDILet me go to Ollu (sp?) in Greenbelt, Md. Ollu, you're on the air. Go ahead please.
OLLUGood afternoon, Kojo. I like your show.
OLLUYeah. First of all, I'm poor, so this is nothing against poor people. But whoever, you know, I don't know how they do this -- do it in D.C., but when you put a stack of poor people right there on North Capitol Street, you should have sensed trouble, the club around the corner, the low income people's (unintelligible) same house right there. Somebody should have saved them some trouble. That's my comment. Thank you.
NNAMDIThere has always been some criticism of public housing developments here in the United States, putting a number of poor people together in the same situation where, according to some people, they don't have the kind of role models that they should be seeing, the kinds of people that Charlie is talking about who are getting up and going to work everyday. Is that an aspect of what you were looking in Chicago, Ben Calhoun? One remembers all of the notorious stories about the Robert Taylor Homes, et cetera, in Chicago.
CALHOUNYeah. I mean, the public housing situation in Chicago has changed dramatically. Since those times, there's been sort of a decentralization of a lot of those huge high-rises. But I think that, you know, what we can -- what we did see in West Englewood in terms of what the caller's talking about are the effects of, you know, institutionalized poverty. You know, at some point, we -- just driving around the neighborhood, around Harper, you know, we went through the alleys of the blocks that surround the high school.
CALHOUNThe one directly across from the front doors, there's 14 vacant or abandoned lots on that block. And I think that for children to walk to school in their neighborhood and pass, you know, not just that block but countless blocks that look like it, you know, it sends them a message about how the world and -- is taking care of them, how it relates to them and the social contract that they have with, you know, with the other people on their city and the other people in the world.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. If you have called, stay on the line. We'll try to get to your calls. The number is 800-433-8850. Have you known young people who got caught up in street violence, either as perpetrators or as victims? Give us call, 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation about urban gun violence. We're talking with Ben Calhoun. He's a reporter for This American Life. He contributed to its recent series on gun violence in a Chicago high school. You can find a link to that series on our website, kojoshow.org. He joins us from studios in New York.
NNAMDIHere in our Washington studio is Charlie Whitaker, founder and CEO of Career Path DC. That's a community service organization helping to prepare ex-offenders for the workforce. And Delbert McFadden is an outreach manager at the Columbia Heights Shaw Family Support Collaborative. We're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. Here is Lewis in Great Falls, Va. Lewis, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
LEWISHi. Good afternoon. How are you?
NNAMDIWe're doing well.
LEWISGood. Well, look, this message is directed to Mr. Calhoun. First of all, I heard the series of the show in Chicago. I thought it was an excellent job. But the question is this.
LEWISI lived in Chicago for a bit, and you know, you hear all this violence about Chicago. And what's interesting to me is you would think that Chicago is, you know, the most violent city in the world. I was wondering if you all plan to do another story, perhaps looking at the distinction between the South side and the West sides of Chicago where all this violence really is taking place in just a few neighborhoods. And the North side of Chicago, which is really undergoing a renaissance, is like a different world. I just found it so fascinating when I lived up there.
CALHOUNYeah. Well, I mean, the racial and economic segregation of the city of Chicago is, you know, a deep and long story, and I think that that's sort of what you're speaking to. And then in terms of just, like, the reputation of the city, I do think that, like, this whole conversation we've been having, you know, the other gentlemen on the panel have been talking about the context around how we see these incidents and sort of, like, the human stories that exist around -- that gets stripped away in a lot of times the way that it's talked about or covered.
CALHOUNAnd, you know, I mean, Chicago is one example, the way that it's being talked about right now. I mean, there were more murders in Chicago six years ago than there were last year. The murder rate in Chicago hasn't been falling as fast as the rest of the country. And so contextually, the murder rate is, you know, appears extremely -- it is an outlier in that it's remaining as high as it is. But it's also come down. So I feel like, you know, that's worth mentioning. It's just that, you know, there's more -- it's -- there's seemingly more context to every statistic and dimension of this when we're telling these stories.
NNAMDILewis, thank you very much for your call. Delbert, of the kids who have witnessed gun violence, how do they cope with those traumatic experiences? You mentioned mental health.
MCFADDENYeah, the mental health issue that I feel like we can do much better with. A lot of coping involves self-medication. A lot of youth really engage in that really for an escape. I speak intensively with the youth. And I'm like, can we find something else to replace that, you know, try to negotiate with them because one of the things is employment.
MCFADDENAnd so we have a workforce development program as well. And when I attempt to direct them there, their urine is positive for marijuana. And so they cope as best as they can with using drugs. And now we have this issue with the synthetic drug. That's another headache that we're dealing with. But mostly, it is alcohol, drugs and just day-to-day attempting to cope.
MCFADDENAnd our youth, you know, I think the story you just shared about your own son, with our youth, they literally see five minutes ahead. They're right then and now. They don't see five years from now where they're going to be. And if they do, they'll share a story with you that they're not going to be here because of the day-to-day situations that they go through.
NNAMDII was telling Delbert about my own kids growing up in Shaw and having friends and neighbors who saw in their own future nothing but bleakness and looked at my sons and saw in their future something different, even though they were living right next door. But I'm glad you emphasized work because I wanted to ask Charlie about that. But I'm going to let Daniel in Riverdale, Md. talk about that first. Daniel, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DANIELHow are you doing? Pleasure to be on your show.
DANIELI'm from inside the Beltway, and I know how I've got dragged into stuff as a youth and just trying to be around my friends and be safe. I mean, just going to the wrong neighborhood gets you in trouble with somebody just 'cause they know you're from here. You don't ask for it. So I know, once I started working and I pushed on and did full-time, my mind kind of separated from them. I kind of couldn't hang out. It's a good strong thing. I want to know, how can I get involved in helping and doing stuff for the youth?
NNAMDII'll have Charlie Whitaker respond to you because work is the centerpiece of what he's doing.
WHITAKERWell, just like you said, once you -- once an individual began to work -- and many times what that does, it does -- it almost gives you a pass in our community because once a young person -- like, with the young people that we do, one of your young -- one of your people saw them out there working on the street. What we do is this thing called clean and safe work where they are in their own communities, maintaining their community.
WHITAKERAnd they see people who they may have had conflict with in the past. But what happens is when they -- while they see them working, it's almost like our troops while we work. They know they're working. They got their vest on. They know that they're trying to do something different. And I think work is that -- is one intervention that you can use. And for the young brother, can you give your number out on the line?
NNAMDIOh, we'll put him on hold, and we will have someone take Daniel's number so that when Charlie leaves the studio, he will have that number with him. But I wanted to get back to how some of these young people cope, the mental health issues that Delbert talked about, because, Ben, of your reporters worked closely with the social workers at Harper High School. In their office, he met one student who had witnessed multiple shootings and two murders. One of the social workers asked him how he deals with that, how that affects him. Let's listen.
ANITAI do have a question for you, Thomas. With all the things that you have experienced, what -- which one is constantly on your mind? You've experienced so much.
THOMASI don't think about none of that.
ANITAYou don't think about none of it? None of it is on your mind, not the situation with your brother? What about on the bus stop? What about at the party?
THOMASNo, I don't think about it.
ANITAYou don't think about the party when you were a kid?
THOMAS(unintelligible) You know, that stuff's old now.
ANITAIt's old? You remember what happened, right?
ANITADoes it really get old, Thomas?
THOMASIt's done now.
ANITAIt's done. I do -- I know, and I understand that it's done. But does it really get old where you can say, OK, this is over. I don't think about it any more?
THOMASIf I think about it, I'll do something.
ANITAYou'll do something like what?
THOMASTry to hurt somebody.
NNAMDIHe said, if I think about it, I'll try to hurt somebody. How did the Harper High students around you, Ben, deal with those traumatic events?
CALHOUNWell, I mean, I think that Thomas is a very good example. One thing that you don't hear in that clip is that, when Thomas was young, the first shooting that he saw, he was at a birthday party. It was a little girl named Nugget, and there was a shooting. Somebody came in and shot at the party, and a stray bullet hit Nugget. And so he -- one of the first, you know, one of his early memories is of a little girl from a birthday party that he was at being shot in the head and seeing her dead on the floor.
CALHOUNAnd I think anybody, you know, out there who's listening, if they think about having that one experience and trying to cope with it, what that would mean in their lives. And then Thomas, since then, has witnessed multiple other shootings. Just last year, he was on the porch with one of the Harper students who was shot and killed.
CALHOUNSo the weight of that trauma, you know, is something that you see Thomas, you know, definitely self-medicating and struggling with, though he says that he's not. But -- that he's not struggling with it, as he said to Anita, the social worker there. But I would also say that, you know, this is something that, if Thomas were to ever act out in an act of violence that we're talking about, none of this part of his story would be visible in the way that these stories are usually covered.
NNAMDIWhich brings me to Delbert. If young people who experience violence are more likely to be violent themselves, then you seem to end up with a cycle of violence in these communities. What does it take to stop that?
MCFADDENWell, I think one of the questions you -- that you asked earlier, looking at crime rate and the numbers are down -- and you can't deny what's going on as far as law enforcement. And there is no way that you're going to arrest your way out of the situation. And looking at individuals being removed from the street, that's another father or mother who's child will grow out without their parent in their life or little brother or little sister that's still in that environment. And so what I think, we have to do more prevention work.
MCFADDENAnd statistics show that if we work with the younger population, we're just doing things with truancy programs in elementary and middle schools, the educational piece. I know we're talking about work, but also we have to work on the educational piece. We need to make sure that fourth graders are reading on grade level. And looking at that, if the youth are not reading on grade level or they drop out, they're eight times more likely to end up in the court system or prison system.
MCFADDENAnd so when we start to look at those things that actually work and start responding, you know, every time there's a shooting, we're responsive to that. But if we don't do things ahead of time and stop individuals from putting the baby in the street, then we'll continue to see this cycle. And my understanding is that each time we have a shooting or a homicide, you're talking about $50,000 to a million dollars that this city has to spend out.
MCFADDENAnd this is the officers that come to the scene, the triage in the hospital, the court case, on and on. And we feel that we have trainings and things. If we bring everyone together and create the synergy to really be on the same page to do what work, evidenced-based practices, and come together, I feel that the outcomes will be tremendously different than they are right now.
NNAMDICharlie, we spoke with one activist who said he felt that the media sensationalizes issues of urban violence and that that media coverage only hurts the work of people like yourself who are involved in social programs. How accurately do you think the media cover violence in the D.C. area? Do you think media coverage has anything to do with that?
WHITAKERWell, actually, I don't think there's enough coverage because many times, I know of young people who've been involved in violent acts, and I hear nothing on the media about it. I think it should be an outcry every time something happens to a young African-American within our community. So that's why I stand on that.
NNAMDIYou feel that the media does not cover this enough? If only -- as a matter of fact, because in media there's a tendency to cover things that are supposed to be unusual, we have gotten too used to thinking of young African-American men being killed, so a lot times the media don't think it's news at all.
MCFADDENThat's a whole another program.
WHITAKERYou know (unintelligible) ?
NNAMDIBut, Ben, finally there is this -- because we're running out of time -- Chicago and Washington, D.C. -- somebody sent me an email saying that it's the prevalence of guns. But Chicago and Washington, D.C. both had sweeping handgun bans, which some will point out did nothing to prevent murders in Chicago. Did you gain any insight at Harper High School as to why Chicago strict gun control laws are not preventing kids from getting guns?
CALHOUNWell, that one -- I mean, for the most part, it turns out to be sort of like the -- a story that a lot of us are familiar with, with straw purchasers bringing guns into the neighborhoods from places where they can purchase them legally. But just in terms of the subject you are just talking about with the media coverage, you know, I do think that, you know, newsrooms are in a wind tunnel with these stories.
CALHOUNAnd they have to think, you know, I would hope that people, you know, would be thinking strategically at this moment about how they cover these stories in a way that elevates the public conversation about this 'cause they're shaping the prism that people see these stories in.
NNAMDIExactly right, but we're out of time. Ben Calhoun is a reporter This American Life. He contributed to its recent series on gun violence in a Chicago high school. You can find a link to that series in our website, kojoshow.org. Ben, thank you for joining us.
CALHOUNThanks for having me.
NNAMDIDelbert McFadden is outreach manager at the Columbia Heights Shaw Family Support Collaborative. Delbert, thank you for joining us. Good luck to you.
NNAMDICharlie Whitaker is founder and CEO of Career Path DC, a community service organization that helps prepare ex-offenders for the workforce. Charlie, thank you for joining us. Try to enjoy some on our birthday, OK?
WHITAKEROK, I will. Thanks, Kojo.
NNAMDIThank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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