Last year in Allegheny County, 242 women were arrested. Though men often play the leading role in the stories of crime and violence across the city, women are increasingly becoming key players.

At The Symposium on Reducing Youth Violence on June 17, attendees heard from Erica Gay-Fields, director of administration and the Sisterhood Initiative of One Vision One Life, who shared her own shocking history with violence. By focusing on the ever-growing problem of violence among young women, OVOL is addressing a segment of society long ignored by the juvenile justice system.

“Ladies, we are not excluded from jail or death,” Gay-Fields said. “Why do women engage in crime and violence? It can be because of low socio-economic status, lack of education, and the media (hip-hop videos). The main reason is to keep a particular lifestyle.”

Through her work with the Sisterhood Initiative, Gay-Fields strives to empower young women, encourage personal growth and foster positive relationships between females. Since its inception, the program has played a key role in mediating conflicts between young girls in local schools and neighborhoods, much in the same way OVOL staff have mediated conflicts between rival gangs.

“So how do we help, through programs such as One Vision One Life with women on staff who have had similar experiences. These women can assist females ages 12 and up with getting their life together and helping to prevent future violence,” Gay-Fields said. “We can stop the violence today. You can be someone’s angel.”

Gay-Fields listed materialistic wealth as one of the main reasons women engage in crime and violence. However, when they are led into this lifestyle by their partners she said low self-esteem is the deciding factor.

“When we engage with these young women, come down to their level and talk to them. We don’t tell these young women how wonderful they are and how proud of them we are,” Gay-Fields said. “We need to make sure children remain children. Each and every day, I encourage them to be all they could be.”

Before revealing herself as the leading lady in her story, Gay-Fields exposed the audience to her life as the wife of a drug dealer. Despite growing up as the daughter of a U.S. Marshall, she eventually found herself purchasing guns for her husband while he cheated on her with a woman who lived down the street from their home.

“So what do we do as women, we accept that there is a shortage of African-American men and we share them with other women,” Gay-Fields said. “Because a large portion of our men are in jail or dead, it’s affecting us and our children.”

Several years later, Gay-Fields is working to earn her masters degree and has seen her children go on to strive toward their own degrees in higher education as well.

The two-day symposium was presented by the Pittsburgh Psychoanalytic Center in conjunction with Manchester Bidwell Corp. It was held at the Manchester Bidwell Corp.

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