In a recent exclusive editorial board meeting with Pittsburgh Police Chief Nate Harper, he discussed the need for more community responsibility to end the epidemic of Black-on-Black violence in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County. There are several community groups, those individuals who work with little or no funding to better their community. The New Pittsburgh Courier asked several of the groups their reaction to Harper and what their roles and solutions were end the violence in the community.
|GIVING THEIR TIME—Back, from left: James Arms, James Herring, Fred “Scrappy” Bulls and John Arms. Front, from left: Flo Wilson and Mildred Tyler. All are members of the Northside Old Timers, one of the most well known community groups in Pittsburgh.
One of the most recognized groups is the Northside Old Timers, which works with youths from kindergarten to eight years of age. English Burton, Outreach chairperson and one of the original founders of the group, said they focus on young people because those are the ages that set the foundation to prevent kids from getting involved in violent situations.
“Being old school, when we look on the corners and see 16-, 17-, 18-year-olds they have pretty much made their decision of what they want to do, especially with peer influence. And when they see the money the ‘bad people’ are getting it’s kind of hard to influence the guys like that,” Burton said. “So we work with the young kids. Our target group is K-8 grade because they are more susceptible to change. And by getting them at that age, we’re more likely to keep them from getting on the corner or getting involved in that lifestyle.”
NSOT has been in existence since March 2007. Burton said they are the youngest group, but the best known in that area.
“All our programs are interactive and we don’t just concentrate on one part of the North Side, we focus on the entire North Side,” he said. “And by working with the kids, we hope that they take home what they learn and teach it to their fathers, brothers, uncles, etc.”
The group takes kids from all 19 neighborhoods to skating and bowling parties and trips. Burton said the group works with approximately 3,000 kids per year. Although they are not working in the schools as of yet, they have collaborated with local organizations and churches to get things done. They have teamed up with Greater Allen AME Church about starting a scout troop and have been in talks with the North Side Project Destiny, to establish a tutoring and chess program, so kids can compete on a positive level.
“We are trying to stretch out all over the North Side, not just the places where violence often occurs, in order to do this we need to establish relationships with other groups and organizations.
The largest anti-violence events in the area is the NSOT Annual Reunion, which invites North Siders back to the community for a peaceful day of fellowship and fun. This year at West Park there was an attendance of 7500-10,000 people.
Burton said, “This was a weekend of no violence. To see people who are usually feuding in such close proximity and not do anything was great. It was like the park was sacred ground.”
Burton agrees with Harper that it takes the community to get involved and reporting what they see.
“Snitching is a code among criminals for criminals, not for innocent people. And we try to emphasize to our residents that they are the backbone of the community and the police cannot be everywhere, this is a partnership. We have a responsibility to the community.” He also said that he thinks there needs to be more programs in the schools, such as the drug program DARE and the crime program with McGruff the crime dog.
While he recognizes the community needs to step up, so do the politicians. “There needs to be more activities for kids to take advantage of. There are all these closed schools, Columbus School, for example. That is space that the kids could be using. We know we cannot save all the kids, but we can work one at a time and save one kid at a time.”
Like the NSOT, the 100 Black Men of Western Pennsylvania agrees that it takes working with young people as soon as possible. Their mentor program, which has been associated with the National 100 Black Men of America for 25 years, is geared toward positively impacting young Black men in middle and high school grades through focusing on four key areas, such as mentoring, education/culture, economic development and health & wellness.
“There are staggering statistics (in regards to drop-out rates among young Black males, unemployment in the Black community, poverty and more) and the only solution to turn the trend around is by putting the focus on it and getting involved,” said Ron Lawrence, president of 100 Black Men of Western Pennsylvania. “ We have to get kids involved and motivated. And right now kids are not motivated. It takes engagement and it takes it from everyone. Like the saying says, it takes a community.”
Lawrence also said that one of the major problems in the Black community is unemployment. And when you have young men with pent up energy and nothing to do, that is when problems, such as violence and crime start to increase. In order to reduce that it takes occupying and engaging them in positive activities.
The organization works all school year and part of the summer months with students in academics, they hold a Kwanza celebration, a African American History Challenge Bowl, where students can compete nationally and a financial literacy program. They primarily work with Pittsburgh Public School students, but they also have students from surrounding areas. Along with their programs they also partner with local universities.
When it comes to what is needed from elected officials, police, churches, Lawrence said, “We have lots of organizations, but we have to think of more positive things to get our kids involved in. We work three to four hours a week, but that is not enough. These kids are sometimes in these negative atmospheres for eight to 10 hours a day. Until you make their (young people’s) environments positive and make the positive outweigh the negative, you are going to get what you get (from these kids).”
Although many organizations agree that it takes setting the foundations early to help keep a child on the right path, Sharon Daniels of the Beltzhoover area’s My Brother’s Keeper disagrees and feels that more emphasis needs to be put on older teenagers than younger children.
“A mentor program that goes up to 8th grade in the city is ok, but what about after? They need to take a look at 9th grade and up,” she said. Daniels said those are the grades when most of the violence and crime begins.
In 2008, Daniels began a youth development team after she began to notice that a lot of the crimes in the area were being committed by people as young as 14. She went from working with eight kids to 40. And she said since then, the petty crimes have decreased.
She said one of the major problems is the legal system. “The w
hole legal system needs to be addressed. Stop putting felonies on children. Before a record was erased when a person turned 18, now it is being carried with them through life,” she said. “Since records are following kids after 18, they feel they cannot go to college, get a job or go to the service, because of this felony. We have to have a second chance.”
Which is what her organization does, it offers second chances for those who may have gotten caught up in the wrong lifestyle, by teaching them trades and the idea of entrepreneurship.
Daniels also said more community engagement is needed from not only the police but the local politicians. “Police need to be more community oriented. Attend our meetings, live with us, picnic with us. They should also be working with the kids as teachers, not only as disciplinarians,” she said. “And politicians are talking loud, and just doing that, talking. They need to be doing the things they said they would do and we need to hold their feet to the fire.”
Along with the North Side, one of the other hardest hit areas in the city when it comes to Black-on-Black violence has been the Hill District. The Hill District Consensus Group has been one of the key organizations in the area for fighting to better their community, especially with the Community Benefits Agreement that they developed with the building of the Console Energy Center. Some of the major developments have been the new grocery store and the Thelma Lovette YMCA, which held its ground breaking over the summer.
Bonnie Young Laing, co-director of the group said that now the group is working to address some of the other concerns of residents. They recently held a meeting, in which they asked Chief Harper to attend so they could voice concerns that residents were having, such as nuisance bars, the recent shootings on Elmore and Chauncey Drive and the open air drug market along the Centre Avenue corridor. Laing said although Harper committed to attending, he did not show up, he sent a representative.
“We asked, he said he’d come and he did not. It’s problematic that he did not show up. Granted he did send someone, but it is not the same,” Laing said.
She also explained that the community has been trying to get cameras, which would help to address the open air drug market situation, and a year later after they were given a grant and told they would be put in, there are still no cameras.
When asked what she thought the community may need to address the violence issue, she said residents have been expressing the need for preventative services and more availability of recreational activities that would keep young people engaged in positive activities and away from negative influences.
She said it would also take holding our politicians more accountable for the jobs they were elected for.
Larry Wheat, a resident of McKeesport and a member of Stop the Violence McKeeport, a non-profit group that works with teenagers to keep them off the streets, agrees with Laing about needing to hold politicians and police more accountable for doing their jobs.
“We meet with the Council, Mayor, Chief of Police and the Assistant Chief of Police regularly, everyone talks and says they’ll help, but they never do,” Wheat said. “They need to get something to do for the young people whether its jobs or activities.” He said the only government entity that works with him is the police.
“The police are the best thing to happen to us. They come to our meetings; they have been working closer with us and the kids. They have been 100 percent,” he said.
Wheat who owns a business in the McKeesport area, said that when he talks to the young people, especially the ones involved in the gangs, they continue to express the need and want for a job.
“I took three local gang leaders to work with me at my club, paid them for two days of work and there were no incidents. I found out that most of them just wanted jobs. I figured that if I help the leaders, they will take it back to their other members and show them there is a better choice,” Wheat said.
Stop the Violence McKeesport is a community group that receives no government funding. Everything is done out of their own pockets.
Chief Harper explained that it takes work from the community and more from the churches to fix the issue. When asked about the support and help he receives from non-profit organizations in the area and the churches, Wheat said the organizations do not help. Some of them just come for the publicity and when the camera’s leave, so do they. As for the churches, he said there is only one church that helps some times.
“We have held our community days for 20 years and we go out and beg for the money. It is sad to say, but the dope dealers would give bigger donation than some of the churches. They have given more donations than anyone,” Wheat said. “The things they (the churches) have are not reaching the kids they need to be reaching. They are reaching the ‘good’ ones, and most of them (the kids) are already in the church.”
Wheat said while some kids are beyond help, some are not and in order to fix the communities it is going to take getting out on their level (the kids living the street lifestyle) and providing resources.
Along with the Hill District and McKeesport areas, Homewood has been an area where numerous violent incidents continue to plague the neighborhoods. Although there are several non-profit organizations, organizations that receive grants or government funding, in the area, there is a lack of prevalent volunteer based community groups.
While trying to find community groups in the area that are not non-profit, there was only one volunteer based group that could be identified and it was the Westinghouse Commission of Recognition, which consists of Westinghouse High School Alumni who focus on providing assistance to the high school and its students through scholarships and working with their tutoring and Lighthouse project.
The lack of community groups says a lot about a community. Especially when the community is constantly being bombarded with violence and drugs. How can one expect more from the youth and those committing crimes, if the community cannot even come together to form their own group to better their neighborhoods?
Although there were some similar and different takes on how to fix the issue of violence in some of the local Black communities, one constant similarity was the need for some of the funded organizations to step up and take a greater role in the community. And it is going to take a combination of groups to fix the problem of Black on Black violence.