We must focus on keeping our promise to our youth

By Wendell M. Davis and Anthony Smith

Guest columnists

Frederick Douglass once observed, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” Here in Durham, and around the nation, investing in our youth cannot simply be an aspiration — we must make it a reality to create thriving communities for all of us.

But when we look at our neighborhoods across the country we see that these investments are either missing or inadequate, which contributes to poor outcomes, particularly for boys and young men of color.

Take African-American men and boys. Rates of violence against young black boys and men remain unacceptably high; in fact, research shows that their disparate experience with violence — whether as victim, survivor or witness — them apart from nearly every other demographic group, including black men older than 25, white men, and black women. Homicides are the leading cause of death for African-American men and boys.

This must change. In Durham, we are taking an all-hands-on-deck approach to transform the systems and policies needed to end violence. We rely on evidence-based interventions that have succeeded in cities and counties nationwide. In 2014, we adopted President Barack Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper Initiative to transform our young people’s futures. We focus on changing both policy and practice so that our youth access the fundamentals they need to get ahead in life — education, healthcare, jobs and safety.

We collaborate with national and local stakeholders to bolster our efforts. Since 2015, MBK Durham has partnered with Cities United to lift up what it really takes to build safe, healthy and hopeful communities for everyone — especially our boys and young men of color. Cities United is a national movement of more than 90 mayors that shares our vision of reducing community violence that affects our young Black men and boys.

Cities United advocates for 14 key action steps that, taken together, will enable cities to make significant reductions in violence and toward public safety for all. These steps include building political will for lasting change, engaging African-American men and boys in developing solutions, bringing all hands on deck, developing a data-driven integrated response strategy and using a public health approach to end violence.

To date, our collaborations and partnerships are making impact. Durham Public Schools collaborated with the community and parents to create a new Code of Student Conduct Policy in response to harsh school discipline that disproportionately hurt our young people of color, pushing them out of school and into the juvenile justice system. Adopted in early 2016, the new Code of Conduct prioritizes keeping students in the classroom and empowering students to make better choices.

Many youth find themselves involved with the justice system beginning very young. In addition to helping them stay in school, we needed to change how minor misbehavior is handled in our justice and courts system. In early 2016, officials from Durham City and County Governments, law enforcement, the courts and the Criminal Justice Partnership Program came together to develop and adopt the Durham County Misdemeanor Diversion Program. The program keeps 16- to 21-year old, first-time, non-violent offenders who have committed misdemeanors out of the adult criminal justice system.

We have partnered with Cure Violence to address violence as a public health issue and create community collaborations to interrupt violence at the individual and neighborhood level by employing outreach workers to help change the way residents handle conflict.

Last week we brought together city, county, youth and community leaders from North Carolina and South Carolina to examine our regional progress and redouble efforts to change the odds for our young people, focusing on boys and young men of color. The March 13-14 convening, “Urgency of Now: Shattering Biases. Building Equity,” offered MBK and Cities United communities from across the region an opportunity to gain the necessary tools to incorporate a racial equity lens into local policy, build youth leadership and measure the impact of local capacity building.

We cannot be complacent or rely on easy answers. The new Trump administration has prioritized a law and order approach to community safety that will make increased investments in law enforcement to the exclusion of the range of factors that truly keep our communities safe. We know real public safety requires social and economic opportunity paired with sustained investments in our young people.

In Durham, and across the nation, we look forward to lifting up the policies and practices that work, learning from our challenges and building on our successes to establish safe, healthy and hopeful communities for everyone.

Wendell Davis is Durham County Manager and Anthony Smith is the Executive Director of Cities United, a national movement of nearly 90 mayors who are united and committed to a vision of reducing the violence that affects young black men and boys.