One minute I’m told the story of Chris Pierce, who, at 23, applauds the support of family and community mentors who helped him skirt the odds and embark on a graduate-school journey that begins this month in France.
In another proverbial minute, I shared news of Building a Stronger Raleigh Together, a campaign by Passage Home – where Pierce found mentors and opportunities – and the J.D. Lewis Multi-Purpose Center to unify the city to break the cycle of poverty in Southeast Raleigh.
And now, I’m standing at the corner of East Jones and North State streets, where about 200 people turned out for a vigil Thursday for 13-year-old Keyshawn Tyrell Gregory. I’m here a day early, setting my eyes on a memorial of basketballs, flowers and teddy bears leaning on a cross and a Bible turned to Psalm 23. Police believe Gregory was shot less than a mile away while riding with friends who exchanged harsh words with three teens on the street who have been arrested and charged with firing into the car, killing Gregory.
I’ve tried to steer clear of writing much about the #BlackLivesMatter movement, which volleys reminders that something’s just not just about unarmed African-Americans dying in encounters with white cops.
I’ve steered clear too of another reality: black-on-black crime.
I steer clear because it hurts, and frankly, I don’t have a salve.
“It’s hard for us to agree on what the central problem is,” said Felicia Yarborough, a Shaw University assistant professor and coordinator of Criminal Justice, pointing to issues varying from HIV/AIDS and violence to teen pregnancy and incarceration rates vying for resolution. “It’s really hard to just focus on one at a time because we all believe ours is most important.”
Better coordination could strengthen advocacy, Yarborough said. She suggests an online centralization of calendars so organizations and residents can partner, rather than repeat or overlap efforts.
At the same time, she said, the black community must look in the mirror and accept personal, collective responsibility to step up – and out – to heal wounds that lead to violence. Otherwise, she said, gangs show up with open arms and opportunity, fueling violent trends of black-on-black crime that began more than 30 years ago.
“It’s something that sometimes is hard for us to talk about because it means having to take some really good, hard looks at ourselves,” Yarborough said. “Recently, most of our focus has been on law enforcement – the Mike Browns or Trayvon Martins or Eric Gardners – and those things are important too, but they have overshadowed.”
Young people need to see people who look like them but who found success anyway, Yarborough said. They need to understand how and why they can do the same for themselves. And they need to be helped along the way, by us.
“There is not enough involvement from people who’ve had an opportunity to rise above the odds; they don’t want to look back; they don’t want to give back,” Yarborough said. “Ultimately, the problem is the need for a certain amount of positive mentoring that is just not there.”
Yarborough is encouraged to see that more people, black men especially, are speaking out in the media and taking action in communities, echoing “enough is enough.”
Nicholle Brown Jackson counts among them. This season will be her first coaching a group of 10- to 12-year-olds she recruited to play at Roberts Park, part of the same city league that lured Gregory in to play.
“We worry about everything else in our community,” said Jackson, 46, the mother of three with husband Charles. “We’ve got to get back to ‘every child comes first.’”
A former educator, Jackson said she’s seen more and more children walk through school doors already forced into self-doubt by socioeconomic ills they’ve witnessed and endured. She’s also seen reticence to help parents.
“We’ve got to be willing to take some risks to save our kids,” Jackson said. “If we don’t do something soon … we really are going to lose a whole generation, and it’s going to take a long time to catch back up.”