Impact One’s youth are preparing at Blackburn High School for a talent show. They look innocent, full of talent and potential, alternating between adolescent awkwardness and bravado. The next day, Executive Director Jannette Taylor sends a text message with context to the work Impact One does:
“Forgot to mention; the group yesterday had 1 person who witnessed an uncle be killed 2 months ago; 1 whose father was shot repeatedly & paralyzed from the chest down; 3 people whose cousin was killed about 6 weeks ago; 1 person whose brother shot at the police & was shot by the police multiple times but lived. I witnessed a shooting that left 1 kid dead and 1 kid paralyzed.”
Every day, Taylor and Project Manager Barbara Robinson help gang members and at-risk youth face the fallout from neighborhood violence through the nonprofit Impact One, dedicated to gang intervention and prevention. Impact One currently has an operating budget of over $500,000, a staff of six and has served over 800 youth and families.
“Impact One targets the highest at risk of young people in the community,” Taylor explained in an e-mail, “We work with marginalized youth, labeled as gang members. Our primary focus is gang intervention and prevention. The group works with young people involved in the gang lifestyle to help provide alternatives to them.
“We assist these youth with finding employment, seeking higher education, navigating through the court system and addressing a variety of social needs. When there is a ‘gang related’ shooting, the group descends on the hospital and provides support to victims and families. If there is a homicide, we will attend the funeral and provide support to the victim’s family. At times, this includes connecting family to funeral homes that will ‘work with the families’ to get their loved one buried.”
The work they do with at-risk youth and gang members is modeled after a program in Chicago called CeaseFire, www.ceasefirechicago.org, whose work was profiled in the documentary movie The Interruptors. The group takes a public health approach towards violence in stark difference to a “criminal justice lens focusing on prosecution over prevention. This framework views success in terms of clearance rates (those captured and incarcerated after the commission of a crime) and measures prevention through a crime-control perspective often termed in military language (“war on drugs,” “war on gangs”). CeaseFire looks to shift the discourse toward the view of violence as a disease and placing the emphasis on finding solutions to end this epidemic.”
As with stopping any infectious disease, CeaseFire utilizes a three prong approach: detection and interruption of transmission; behavior change to the highest risk; and changing community norms. In this instance, changing the attitude that violence is an accepted method of solving problems.
Last week, Taylor and Robinson stood up for their clients — gang members or former gang members — when they came out in support of the Gang Assessment Report authored by Pete Simi and Dennis Hoffman. “We connected gang members to Hoffman and Simi. We told them to trust this process and now their voices are being silenced,” Taylor said. The report has been rejected by the organizations that commissioned it including the police, the Mayor’s office and the Empowerment Network.
Willie Barney, president of the Empowerment Network, has been quoted as saying that the gang assessment was incomplete. He told Simi that it ignored many successful programs the community has sponsored to combat gang violence. The report focused heavily on reports of police misconduct reported by current and former gang members.
Impact One and the Empowerment Network function as partners in the community so supporting Hoffman and Simi’s report took courage. Taylor explained over e-mail that “[Empowerment] Network was the key factor in getting Impact One funded and moving their work forward.”
Last Wednesday, Robinson, Simi and Hoffman were the featured speakers at Big Mama’s restaurant during a monthly meeting of the “Hungry Club.” Robinson briefly described the hardships of her life as a former gang member, including time spent in jail and losing parental rights to her children, which she proudly won back.
Robinson understands that people need help to change their lives. “The one thing I know is that people are being targeted (by the police) when they want to change their lives. People are saying that’s not true. We’re saying it is,” she said.
Emceed by north Omaha activist Willie Hamilton, he encouraged the crowd to attend a community forum to discuss the gang assessment as well as rising community violence on August 12 at 3 p.m. at the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement.
The organizers hope that the police, the Mayor and the Empowerment Network will participate in the forum, though at press time it wasn’t clear that any of them had been formally invited.
Robinson also understands that law enforcement has a job to do and that gang members commit crimes for which they need to be held accountable. But she objects to having her work as an interventionist undone by law enforcement. “The police are the police. Doctors are doctors. That’s their job. But at some point, you have to give people a chance to turn their lives around.” She looks incredulous as she adds, “That’s what the grant funding is for.”