The term “community” can be used in several different contexts. The most notable are as a sense of place or geographical location, a sense of shared interests or a sense of communion or togetherness among a group of people. However, regardless of the context used, there is no denying that for a society to function well, forging a sense of community is vitally important.
A huge impediment to this, though, is fear, and nothing feeds fear like the presence of crime. The recent wave of murders in Mobile has sent shock waves throughout our community. The fact that they have taken place in random areas of the city has only fed the growing sense of fear. The fact that so many of the perpetrators and victims are youth has been both disconcerting and distressing.
Our response as a community is so important. Even if the small part of the larger community we reside in seems “safe” and “unaffected,” persistent dysfunctions in one part or parts affects the whole.
That’s why I’ve been so heartened by the response of our city leaders to this problem. The focus is being put on our response as a community as a whole, and this is the way it should be. Without a collective investment and a collective response, success is not possible. Absent these, the balkanization or dividing of our community will become entrenched, stifling unity, opportunity and growth.
The immediate response has been a stepped-up presence and targeted tactics in specific Mobile neighborhoods. Yet, while these should be helpful in the short-term, true change lies in the implementation and sustained support of long-term initiatives.
The recent launch of the city’s YES (Youth Empowered for Success) initiative is an excellent example and framework to work within. It’s also where we as a community, as a collective, come in because it will take the community’s sustained support and involvement to see it through to success.
I recently spoke with 25-year-old African-American community activist Terrell Simmons. He observed that to truly transform our city — to transform our community — it will take a diverse group of us manifesting three essential traits: consistency, courageousness and solidarity.
“Consistency means that residents of our challenged neighborhoods see us out and involved over and over, they know we are committed to being there and committed to effecting change,” Simmons said. “Courageousness means these same residents see how strong our resolve is and that we’re not afraid to engage in their world … Solidarity means we can’t let divisive factors separate us as we work to effect change. In separation there is weakness; in unity there is strength.”
It will take these traits, Simmons noted, to sustain efforts in which we as a community create an environment and culture in our challenged neighborhoods that diverts the negative aspirations and actions of the youth there, which leads to the violence and criminality we see manifested. So often, he stated, and as others have observed, those negative aspirations and actions are born of the economics at play in these neighborhoods.
Someone who has been immersed in dealing with these problems for decades is long-serving Mobile County Public Schools resource officer Andrew Howard. He is the resource officer for Vigor High School and its collection of feeder-pattern schools. I asked him him to nail down what he sees as the central problem from which the violence, dysfunction and negative behavior stems.
“Economics,” Howard said. “Families don’t have resources, and in the absence of resources they’re unable to address and solve life challenges … according to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs learning theory, in order for kids to be able to focus on learning they have to have food, clothing and shelter and feel safe — the basics. Many of our kids don’t have any of these with regularity.”
To make up for that lack, drugs, robbery and other criminality becomes an easy means to an end. Howard further stated that kids look for someone to “respond, react and provide,” and if the traditional structures found in family and community aren’t doing that, the guys on the street will easily fill that void.
He has instituted something called the Change Initiative, a multi-faceted approach to dealing with the problems unique to his collection of schools, utilizing the efforts of the various school administrators, staff and those from the surrounding community. “When you find yourself saying ‘somebody ought to do something,’ that somebody is generally you.”
Mayor Stimpson noted in announcing the YES initiative, “Let me be clear. Mobile, Alabama, will be the first midsized city to curtail this problem and make a promise and commitment to its children’s success.”
I believe this goal is possible and that Mobile can become a model for other communities. But it will take sustained effort and focus, along with a vested interest and action on the part of the community as a whole.
It can’t be seen as “their” problem, but “our” problem. Accordingly, we must engage with understanding and knowledge, not judgment and cynicism. We can transform our community. The important point to remember is the “we.”