Pass the microphone

Reducing violence requires this community to engage young people, including some responsible for shootings


Toledo City Council members gathered last week at One Government Center to denounce violence in the community. No one could blame them for raising their voices, but it’s not clear who, besides a handful of reporters, was listening.

Shootings in Toledo are actually down significantly from the previous two years. So far this year, 66 people have been shot, including six deaths. Last year at this time, 74 people were shot, with nine deaths. And during the same period in 2012, 109 shootings occurred, including 14 deaths.

The council members were, of course, on point to note that current rates of gun violence are still unacceptably high. No one should become complacent.

Unfortunately, the young men who are shooting up the streets of Toledo — or Detroit, Chicago, or Cleveland — aren’t listening to their city council or, for that matter, most of the other people who have led the conversation on violence.

Reducing violence in Toledo, or anywhere else, requires the community directly to engage people who have done some of the shooting. People who commit violence are most likely to listen to others with similar experiences but who have managed to change their lives — especially if they can offer an opportunity to do something better.

On a small scale, Toledo is already using peer mentoring to reach troubled young men. A year ago, the Toledo Police Department started taking local teenagers who have committed minor offenses to Ryan Correctional Facility in Detroit.

At Ryan, prisoners in the Youth Deterrent Program — which is getting national attention — talk to young men about respecting themselves and making better choices. It’s a conversation guided by respect, even love. Most of the inmates who run the Youth Deterrent program are serving life sentences for murder.

The Flip the Script program in Detroit, run by Goodwill, also uses peer mentoring to work with young men coming out of — or headed for — prison. They go through a tough 16-week program where they strengthen math and job skills, find employment, learn how to manage money, and develop self-respect and purpose. The head of Flip the Script, Keith Bennett, a tough taskmaster, is also driven by respect and love for the young people he works with.

In Toledo, Alicia Smith, the program coordinator for Maturing Young Men, and Roshawn Jones, a 25-year-old mentor and coach, also have worked directly and effectively with young African-American men in the central city.

Such programs don’t reach everyone, but Flip the Script has become a national model, showing extraordinary success in working with young men whom other people and programs have demonized or written off. In Toledo, young men just like them must be included in the city’s anti-violence initiatives and conversation.

Those efforts should include low-cost but effective programs that enable young men with records to acquire skills and a sense of purpose, mentored by other young men like themselves.

Many young people in Toledo want to help. Some may have once been part of the problem. It’s time for the city’s leaders to pass the microphone to them.