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Dan Lawlor: Time to Invest More in Community

Wednesday, December 12, 2012


"May the living victims find healing. May those who loved the dead find comfort. May we some day, some precious day, come to our senses." - Rev. Peter Morales

The Rev. Morales was referencing the Aurora, Colorado shootings of this past summer. Yet his words ring true in Providence as well. As we enter into a season of gathering among friends, family, and, for many, in faith, it's worth recalling the year behind us. More specifically, I'm inviting us to recall who we in the city have lost due to violence in 2012.

Shortly after the new year, Rene Urena, a young man, was killed in Elmwood.

Thankfully, there was a lull in violence this Spring.

As the summer began, one of my father's friends remarked, "It's the season for violence. There's too much hate. I feel like walking around with a mirror, so people have to look at themselves and think before they start something."

Nearly each week in June involved either a shooting or a murder - the dead included Ralph Joseph, Ivan Taveras, Ramon Ruiz-Lara, Sammy Mateo, Devon Young, and David Hollis. Victims lived in Olneyville, South Providence and West End neighborhoods.

July 2012 began with the death of an infant, Christina Jimenez, and ended with the horrific triple homicide of a group of twenty-somethings in Wanskuck: Shemeeka Barros, Michael Martin, and Damien Colon. The age of the killers? Teenagers.

The violence entered a lull after that hellish triple shooting - families, ministers and neighborhood organizers made a loud plea to halt revenge killings. A priest on Smith Hill and an inman on the Southside both made strong appeals to end violence, as did the families of the victims.

On August 11, Robert Ballew was found dead in the West End. Toward the end of August, Jamal Cruz was found shot outside a club, and died at RI Hospital.

In early September, 19 year old Omar Polanco was found dead on Sayles Street.

A second lull ended in October, as a series of killing took place in Valley and Chalkstone. Roughly a week before Halloween, Joel Wills was found dead in his home on Beaufort Street. Shortly after, Sandi Fahnbulleh, the city's 17th homicide, was shot in the chest while standing on a porch.

In the year 2000, people in the city experienced 30 murders. In 2006, following a massive investment in community policing, people in the city experienced 11.

One promising group that has worked to redirect violence in the city is The Institute for the Study and Practice of Nonviolence. According to the Institute's website, the group was "founded by members of St. Michael’s Church team ministry in 2001 as a long-term solution to violence. Originally a training organization, the Institute hired its first Executive Director, Teny Gross, in 2001 and he introduced the Streetworkers program in 2003. Since then, a constellation of programs has grown to better serve the community’s most vulnerable youth and families whose lives have been affected by violence. Today the organization has a $1.8 million budget, a board of 30 members and a staff of 32."

St. Michael's is a vibrant immigrant parish on the Southside, and has been since 1859. It is a model of community-gathering, and has helped facilitate the Institute for Nonviolence, City Arts for Youth!, and Bishop McVinney Catholic School, among other community events. More of us in religious and community groups need to do similar facilitation and neighborhood support.

The Institute has developed a summer jobs program for teenagers. A 2009 survey conducted among youth who worked in the Institute's summer jobs program found, "nearly 50% of the respondents had lost a family member to murder; 75% had lost a friend to violence; 90% had a friend who was stabbed or shot; nearly 90% said they regularly witness violence in their schools." In 2010, according to Bob Kerr, 80 youth worked in the summer jobs program, and over 350 applied.

Look at the neighborhoods where many of the murders have taken place - little investment in business and infrastructure, numerous foreclosed homes, and a history of neglect by the powers that be. At the same time, you can also see clusters of hardworking people trying to build opportunities in their communities.

As we enter into a new year, ensuring funding for the Institute for Nonviolence and domestic abuse prevention organizations (from state and private donations), enforcing the upkeep of foreclosed homes to prevent the structures from becoming drug or crime havens, capital available for neighborhood entrepreneurs, and building up neighborhood coalitions to improve community and safety must be a priority. Now is not the time to walk away from investments in community work.

We can't have a healthy city without trust - and we won't have trust without civic organizations to build up connections among us.


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