An Open Letter to our City and County Leaders,
Last Friday, County Commissioners met to discuss ways to stop the violence in Wilmington, and I support them in their effort. Many city leaders attended, including law enforcement, the district attorney’s office, the judicial branch, and others. In the meeting, the Commissioners unanimously agreed to allocate the funds necessary to solve Wilmington’s gun violence problem.
Along with this financial commitment, Commissioners presented a violence intervention strategy developed by Cure Violence (www.cvg.org
). This organization views violence as a disease that can be prevented, and uses the following approach (3 points below copied from Commissioner’s slide):
1. Detect and Interrupt Potentially Violent Conflicts
a. Prevent Retaliations
b. Mediate Ongoing Conflicts
c. Keep Conflicts “Cool”
2. Identify and Treat Highest Risk
a. Access Highest Risk Individuals
b. Change Behaviors
c. Help Obtain Needed Social Services
3. Mobilize the Community to Change Norms
a. Respond to Every Shooting
b. Spread Positive Norms
I believe this strategy is one of the components in stopping violence. In fact, these are all part of the TRU Colors’ mission, and we engage daily in these areas. However, as with all good strategies, success depends on execution, and this is where many cities are struggling to deliver as promised.
Cure Violence started in 2000 in Chicago and has been implemented in several cities around the country. In 2016, based on the Cure Violence approach, Durham NC launched Bull City United, and our county leaders plan to meet with them to learn about the program’s efficacy.
I think they will find that Durham had 966 shooting incidents in 2020, and of those, 318 people were shot and 33 killed. Not great. And in New York City, a Cure Violence flagship, 2020 saw 1,531 people shot and 462 killed, a significant increase over 777 and 319 respectively in 2019. And in Chicago where the program was founded, Cure Violence was shut down in 2015.
So, if the strategy is sound, what’s preventing it from being more effective? Like with any organization, effectiveness depends on people and culture. In the case of Bull City United, their website shows they are part of the Department of Health, and as such I assume must work within the bureaucracy of government. And if Durham is like Wilmington, it’s tough to hire those with the street cred needed to do this work, since many with backgrounds and affiliations are not allowed. These and other cultural and procedural misalignments limit potential.
And I’m not bashing Cure Violence or Bull City United. I’m a fan of their efforts. However, when law enforcement and government try to implement this type of strategy through the lens of politics and stereotypes, their efficacy is significantly limited. Unfortunately, any new solution to a complex social problem like violence will always come from the edge, not the status quo. And in the beginning it will likely appear counterintuitive and risky. This is not an environment government functions well within.
What I have learned over the past six years of being around gangs and the street is that if you want to stop violence in the short-term, you need to speak to the guy with the gun. But before that, you need to build trust and understanding which takes time and a willingness to meet people where they are. Not just physically, but also with an understanding and respect for what’s going on in their world. The TRU Colors team has this understanding and has worked hard to earn that trust. And we are committed to meeting those at risk exactly where they are.
Furthermore, for long-term sustainable peace, you must also address the economic issues. Almost all street violence comes from lack of economic opportunity and societal exclusion. And this is a core reason TRU Colors exists, to effectively execute the above strategy and more, but then to make it sustainable by providing inclusive economic opportunities.
So, does it work? TRU Colors employs 60+ gang members who in the past were considered high-risk to our city’s wellbeing, but today are working in accounting, sales, HR, brewing, etc. They make at least $37,500, have stock options and health insurance, and are taking care of their families and contributing positively to our community. They are not high-risk any longer and instead are examples of what can happen when we are willing to meet people where they are and provide education and real opportunity.
The TRU Colors team represents the good and the potential within gangs, and contrary to public opinion, there is so much of both. And if you doubt that, we have over 60 team members who are clear evidence of this truth and would love to meet and talk with you.
So, before we make decisions and spend money, shouldn’t we consider alternatives to underperforming status quo solutions? (And for clarity, TRU Colors does not take government grants and is not interested in the County’s money. Instead, we are fully committed to Wilmington’s wellbeing, and are working every day towards peace and a united and prosperous future for all.)
So, if our city is having a conversation on street violence or gangs, would it not make sense for TRU Colors’ team members to be part of the conversation? Like everyone at the table, we want peace and unity, but no-one in Wilmington (including law enforcement) knows more about the issue or has more experience with the above strategies than the TRU Colors team.
But there is a problem. After the Commissioner’s meeting, a public official shared that while some agreed TRU Colors did all that Cure Violence did and more, there was “no appetite in the room for working with anyone in a gang”. With all due respect to our city and county leaders (and recognizing all are not this way), this is the type of outdated limited thinking that causes cities around the country to continue to spend millions implementing (politically low risk) solutions that don’t fully deliver the desired outcome.
If we are going to solve this problem, our leaders and citizens must be bold enough to drop the politics and stereotypes and consider that yesterday’s enemy might just be today’s ally. And we must be open enough to consider we might be wrong and therefore speak with the people we’re blaming. To solve any complex social problem, all sides must know and understand one another.
The truth is, if we continue to intentionally exclude people and tell them they are the problem, they will eventually give up and believe it.
I pray that Wilmington has the courage, fortitude, and grace to unite, talk openly without historical bias, and work together to really solve this problem. So many people are counting on us to do just that.
-George Taylor, TRU Colors CEO