2013-01-24 / Other News

Save Our Streets Messengers Fight Gun Violence

Photo and text by Sam Akhtar

From Left to Right: Kenneth Edwards, Lavon Walker and Derick Latif Scott. From Left to Right: Kenneth Edwards, Lavon Walker and Derick Latif Scott. “We got a call!” Lavon Walker announced as a tip came in to the Save Our Streets (S.O.S.) Crown Heights office of potential gunplay at Albany Avenue. Very quickly and calmly, Walker and Kenneth Edwards changed into the orange and black colors of S.O.S., and mobilized to get to the scene. As the car pulled up, their co-worker, Derick Latif Scott, was already there along with two uniform police officers.

Founded in 2010, S.O.S. is a community-based effort housed out of its storefront at 256 Kingston Avenue and strives to end gun violence. It displays a running tally of days without a shooting incident on the door for passersby to see. The non-profit works closely with local organizations, clergy of various faiths, community residents and high-risk individuals most likely to commit a shooting. Initially a project of the Crown Heights Community Mediation Center and the Center for Court Innovation, the S.O.S. program is actually modeled from Chicago’s CeaseFire initiative. The city pioneered the effort in response to the growing number of violent incidents, particularly gang-related shootings.

Since that time, numerous cities, including New York, have copied the Chicago model. The program strives to accomplish its mission through outreach, public education and community mobilization. It utilizes data to pinpoint what it refers to as “hot spots” within its forty-block catchment that borders Atlantic Avenue to the north, Eastern Parkway to the south, Kingston Avenue to the west and Utica Avenue to the east.

Scott, who served lengthy time in prison, is just one of the few men who have turned their life around and have now dedicated themselves to helping others. “I was in the mess hall (in prison) when I realized I’m really in here,” Scott said as he recalled his epiphany moment that led him to change his life.

After having served several years in prison, Scott focused not just on his future but the future of others. “My children were trying to emulate the old me,” said the then father of five children. “There’s a saying, that prison can either be a tomb for a mental death or a womb for growth,” Scott said. “There is no reason to glorify prison. My kids grew up without me, my mother got sick and passed away, my wife moved on,” he paused, listing the moments he missed while incarcerated.

Once he joined S.O.S., he became an Outreach Worker identifying at-risk men and helping mediate potential conflicts. “We give them hope. We’ve been there, done that,” he said.

During the course of his work, Scott himself has not been immune to the disease. On September 21, 2012, his brother, who lived in South Carolina, was a victim. As he tended to his family’s tragedy, Scott kept in touch with some of his clients by calling them. Even with the emotional lows of their work and their own lives, there are highs.

“I’ve stood in line for hours at the Department of Motor Vehicles getting a client an identification card,” he shared. He went on to discuss a recent participant who finally called, saying he was ready to enroll in school. Even sharing the story, Scott’s enthusiasm could not be contained. “That was a great moment for me,” he beamed.

The work does not conform to regular 9-5 hours. There is no such thing as scheduling appointments for shootings or intervention for these dedicated men. While they do maintain a business-like approach with weekly meetings and updates, their hours are anything but conventional. Very often, the Outreach Workers and Violence Interrupters such as Kenneth Edwards, take to the streets long after business hours.

Edwards, a soft-spoken Violence Interrupter, also doubles as the organization’s first Hospital Responder. There is a real crisis management approach to S.O.S.’s mission. After a shooting, Edwards is notified and responds to Kings County Hospital to try to seek out the family.

The young looking 40-year-old spent seventeen years locked up. He says within two years he knew prison life wasn’t for him. Among the many positive influences within his life now, he credits two instrumental teachers he had while at Rikers. “One is a principal in East New York and the other works for the Department of Education,” Edwards said.

As the Hospital Responder, Edwards relays his findings to Outreach Workers who then try to curtail any sort of retaliation or escalation. “We’re like scouts, the frontlines of defense,” explained Edwards. “We steer participants to Outreach Workers who then begin the screening process.”

Outreach Workers such as Scott and Walker, carry around fifteen to twenty cases in a way similar to social workers. But their education and expertise is grounded in real world experience that lends the program its credibility and hence its designation of “credible messengers”. Because they have “lived the life” Walker, Edwards and Scott are able to reach out to young adults who are gang members in a way that others can’t.

Walker said, “I grew up in the neighborhood and gang banged.” However, his pastor at Peterson Temple Cogic at 487 Ralph Avenue, steered him in a different direction. “My pastor knew my background,” Walker articulated. And despite dropping out of high school in the 11th grade, Walker is an Outreach Worker Supervisor and described his transformation as “Being a citizen as opposed to being a menace.” New York City’s 45th District Councilman, Jumaane Williams along with 14th District Councilman Fernando Cabrera, wrote about the need for community programs to curb violence in their December 21st, 2012 Gun Task Force report released a week after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut. In an article in last week’s issue (Canarsie Courier Exclusive: Task Force To Combat Gun Violence), Williams spoke at length about a broad based approach to the problem of gun violence and complimented the work of organizations, such as S.O.S., saying, “They do great work.” Just like the Gun Task Force, S.O.S. targets the spread of gun violence focusing on it as a public health issue. “Gun violence is a disease. We all have a hand in changing the climate of gun violence,” Scott explained. When it was first founded, S.O.S. used to cover the entire 77th Police Precinct area but through its work, has chosen to focus on its current forty block area. And while it strives to work with community businesses and organizations, it maintains a distance from the NYPD. This distinction allows outreach workers to gain the trust of participants as it mediates conflicts. With the promise of not turning in clients, Outreach Workers and Violence Interrupters very often give their personal word to negotiate truces. “It’s that respect thing,” explained Edwards.

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