Changing a Violent Landscape
By Robin Berkley, Julie Lonardo, and Jhae Thompson
Robin Berkley is executive director of Horton’s Kids. Julie Lonardo is community center and outreach director for Horton’s Kids. Jhae Thompson is deputy director of Horton’s Kids.
TaQuan Pinkney was a determined, positive young man who was getting ready to start college. Though he did everything he could to steer clear of violence, he could not escape the reality of his Ward 8 neighborhood and circumstances far out of his control. On the afternoon of Sept. 9, TaQuan was senselessly and fatally shot while walking home from a corner store.
TaQuan was a regular participant in Horton’s Kids, an organization dedicated to empowering children living in an under-resourced neighborhood with some of the city’s highest rates of violent crime. For 30 years, Horton’s Kids has worked in Wellington Park, the Anacostia apartment complex where TaQuan lived, offering personalized, comprehensive programs designed to help children graduate from high school ready for college and career. Last year, with the support of their families and community, 100 percent of Horton’s Kids high school seniors graduated.
This year, there have been more than 120 homicides in the District; 67 were in Southeast. For decades, a cycle of violence has ravaged many of the city’s low-income, predominantly African American communities. Beyond flooding these neighborhoods with police, little has been done to address it. Overpolicing simply obscures the deeper, systemic nature of the issues and essentially criminalizes poverty.
Rather than reacting only after violence occurs, we must shift our approach to proactively raise communities by using personalized and culturally competent approaches, leveraging leaders and coming together as a city to draw from wide-ranging resources.
Poverty east of the Anacostia River is not simply about a lack of resources; there also is a lack of opportunity. Residents are deprived of hope and, too often, dignity. Neighborhoods are remote, schools underperforming, expectations low, basic needs unmet and health care lacking. Moving away is extremely challenging because of a lack of affordable housing.
This context is particularly difficult for children, especially if they lack a structured home environment. Even when their support system is strong, children living in communities with high rates of violent crime experience fear and anxiety regularly — when they walk to school, ride the bus and play outside. Exposure to this kind of chronic elevated stress makes it difficult for them to learn, develop their memory and meet other developmental milestones.
Further, in the very places that are meant to support them, children often receive punitive consequences for doing things that seem normal to them. For instance, schools enforce rules that prohibit hitting, but in Wellington Park, children learn to protect themselves. Institutional expectations may contradict how children survive and navigate their neighborhoods. It’s like trying to win at gin rummy when everyone in charge is playing poker.
Young people in these situations often become frustrated and disengaged. They seek out validation by creating tightly bonded friendship groups with other youths in their neighborhood. Often, these groups seem like the most promising option in securing connection, meaning and opportunity in their lives, and fighting with other communities bonds them together.
What’s more, young adults participating in violence subscribe to different values when it comes to the rule of law. You don’t talk, even if it means a murderer goes uncharged. Fortunately for the Pinkney family, the D.C. police recently made an arrest in connection with TaQuan’s murder.
Changing this landscape requires early intervention. Starting in elementary school and persisting through adulthood, young people must see real options for their lives and authentic pathways for getting there. This requires providing comprehensive supports, especially on education, employment opportunities and mental health.
We must also provide assistance and real alternatives to youths and adults who want to pivot away from street life. Once a person has a target on his back, every bus stop, every street corner and every day at work or school can bring danger. It feels impossible to walk away. Empowering people to change the trajectory of their lives will require an investment of resources and commitment from mentors and organizations who believe in them.
Organizations such as Horton’s Kids have worked for decades to improve outcomes for children and families using many of these strategies, but there needs to be greater investment across the city.
Effecting real change is all about relationships — deep, authentic and consistent partnerships between providers and recipients. We must meet people where they are, validate their need for nurture and safety and support them in a personalized way to overcome obstacles.
Young people like TaQuan deserve nothing less.