In the heart of Richmond, Calif. lies the Iron Triangle, named after the three railroad tracks that define and enclose the area. Today children can be seen playing at a renovated community park in the neighborhood, but this hasn’t always been the case. In this working-class neighborhood historically plagued by drive-by shootings, substance abuse and prostitution, parents haven’t always felt safe letting their children play outside.
The story of how the neighborhood, and other parts of Richmond, turned around has become a national model for engaging a community to fight violence,.
For years, Richmond unsuccessfully battled one of the nation’s worst homicide rates. The media often referred to Richmond as a “war zone” filled with out of-control gun violence, and rampant gang crime. By 2007, Richmond reported 47 homicides and was named America’s ninth most dangerous city, in the annual “City Crime Rankings: Crime in Metropolitan America,” published by CQ Press, a unit of Congressional Quarterly Inc.
With Richmond’s murder rate at nine times the national average, city officials began to desperately search for alternatives that went beyond declaring a state of emergency and calling in the National Guard. Rather than opting for harsh punishment tactics, the city council decided to start a violence prevention agency, and in 2007 they hired DeVone Boggan, a community organizer and nationally renowned expert in crime reduction, to lead the city’s new Office of Neighborhood Safety (ONS).
Boggan, a lawyer with an extensive background in mentoring at-risk youth and working with violent offenders, impressed city council members by presenting an innovative idea to addressing street violence. Rather than solely working to eradicate guns and gang battles, Boggan wanted to address underlying issues such as poverty and addiction. He loosely modeled his program on Cure Violence, a community-outreach program in Chicago, founded by epidemiologist Gary Slutkin, that viewed gun violence as a learned behavior.
Boggan’s program has since become a national model for reducing gun violence. In November, Boggan was one of six innovators named as a NationSwell All Star for 2015. NationSwell.com, a digital media company, was launched in 2013 to elevate the greatest solutions to national challenges. Their annual All Star awards recognize those who respond to those challenges with innovative programs.
Many U.S. cities have reached out to Boggan looking to replicate the program to battle rising crime. In the Bay Area, both Oakland and Santa Clara are hoping to roll out their own versions of the program in 2016.
Boggan started by training a group of four Neighborhood Change Agents to conduct outreach in the Iron Triangle, the neighborhood most affected by gun violence.
“All of the agents were Richmond residents and some had served prison time. This is possibly the only job around that requires you to have a criminal background,” says Boggan who now has seven outreach workers on staff.
The ONS also worked with law enforcement to identify those responsible for the majority of the city’s shootings.
“We were surprised to learn that an estimated 70 percent of shootings and homicides in Richmond in 2009 were caused by 17 individuals, primarily African-Americans and Latinos, between the ages of 16-25,” Boggan says. “Once they were identified, the change agents began working to build healthy and consistent relationships with those most likely to be a perpetrator or a victim of gunfire.”
Boggan admits that winning the trust of these teens takes time and persistence.
“These young men have been exposed to a great deal of trauma, and have never learned how to master conflict without gun violence,” Boggan says. “Then you add poverty, poor education, substance abuse, and the lack of available services available to them.”
Part of the job of the change agents is to engage the young men who are most likely to be the perpetrators and/or victims of gun violence, by creating relationships and directing them to community services that can help with issues such as addiction and anger management. The young men are then invited to participate in the 18-month ONS Operation Peacemaker fellowship program.
Boggan says the fellowship program, launched in 2010, is based on seven elements: participants must by engaged in multiple daily contacts with an ONS change agent; they must work with their change agent to develop a “lifemap” that individually assesses their goals and the specific steps they need to take to achieve them; participating in social services navigation and support, such as substance abuse counseling where they are accompanied by a change agent; excursions that allow fellows to experience life outside of Richmond and interact with fellows from rival gangs and neighborhoods; internship opportunities; mentoring opportunities with community elders; and stipend opportunities.
The last element is the one that Boggan says is the most controversial. Fellows who keep their commitment to the program for six months and who attend meetings and stay out of trouble, are eligible to earn up to $1,000 a month for nine months. The stipends are made possible by private donors.
“People have called it ‘cash for peace’ and criticized us for offering a monetary incentive not to kill,” Boggan says. “Yet in most cities, the response to gun violence is police sweeps and mass incarceration, strategies that cost taxpayers a great deal more.”
Boggan says the focus and foundation of the program is the relationships that change agents build with the fellows, and the work fellows put in to their job training, identifying education skills, developing parenting skills, and participating in anger management and substance abuse classes.
“We’re engaging difficult to reach, at-risk youth with the goal of showing them there’s a life outside of street violence,” says Boggan who believes addressing the nature and drivers of gun violence is the only way to achieve positive change. “Fellows have the opportunity to travel to college campuses and other countries but they have to be willing to travel with someone from a rival group, and to get to know the person they perceived as their enemy on a personal level.”
Eight years into the program, his efforts seem to be a success. In July, the National Council on Crime and Delinquency released a report studying the impact of the ONS program and applauds the steps the ONS has taken to craft programming with each fellow’s individual needs and the needs of the community in mind.
Boggan says that as of 2014, the program has held three cohorts and 68 fellows have completed the program, and that out of the 68 fellows, 65 are alive (95 percent); 64 have not been injured by firearm (94 percent); and 57 are not in custody (84 percent). The fellowship and its fellows have contributed to a 66 percent reduction in firearm related homicides in Richmond.
In addition, since enrolling in the fellowship, 20 percent of fellows have received their GED or high school diploma, 10 percent have enrolled in college or vocational training, and half obtained employment at some point during the fellowship.
Looking to the future, Boggan notes that several ONS change agents have expressed concerns about preteens in Richmond, who they believe are at-risk of gun violence.
“We’re looking at raising additional resources so that we can reach out to these 11 and 12-year-olds so they don’t end up in the cycle of gun violence,” Boggan says. “Our goal is to not only reduce violence, but to keep the youth of our community alive and free from violence.”