Crime rates have dropped significantly in the county over the past year; according to statistics recently released by the Prince George’s County Police Department, homicides are down 35.5 percent, robberies have reduced by 8.5 percent, burglaries have dropped 19 percent, and auto theft is down 14.9 percent when compared to 2011 levels.
County officials, including Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (Dem.), credit much of the reduction in crime to the effectiveness of Baker’s Transforming Neighborhoods Initiative, which focuses a wide range of services on six county communities which are traditionally high crime areas: East Riverdale/Bladensburg, Hillcrest Heights/Marlow Heights, Langley Park, Glassmanor/Oxon Hill, Kentland/Palmer Park and Suitland/Coral Hills. Beyond the efforts of TNI, churches, nonprofit organizations and concerned individuals are working where they can to make a difference in the lives of young people, to continue uplifting individuals and their communities.
“One person can’t do it, but together we can make a big difference in our county,” said the Rev. Akil Dickens, youth pastor at Ebenezer AME Church in Fort Washington, Md. His church has long worked to turn youth away from gang-related violence, and in 2004 the church was the setting for an official truce declared between Dominic Taylor, then head of the Shadow High gang in Fort Washington, Md., and Henry “Hank” Johnson, then leader of the Birchwood City gang in Oxon Hill, Md. The two men earned the Community Peace-Building Award in 2005 from the Washington, D.C.-based organization Search for Common Ground for their efforts to end gang conflict between the two neighborhoods. They also went on to work at Ebenezer AME, where they continue to do youth outreach to discourage young men and women from engaging in the ongoing conflicts over which neighborhood gangs fight.
“There’s a lot of beefing over stuff that happened 20, 30 years ago. Before these kids in high school were ever living,” said Dickens. “I tell them, these are people just like you. There’s more to life than a street and a block, fighting, dying and going to jail over a street you own no property on.”
Dickens, who coached basketball at a local high school before becoming a full-time minister of youth at Ebenezer AME Church in 2008, said that the gang divisions in neighborhoods have been passed down for generations, among people who ordinarily would get along. Two years ago, after a gang-related brawl at Charles H. Flowers High School in Springdale, Md., Dickens was called in to work with students.
“These are kids who grew up together, and were friends. They get to high school and the neighborhood says you can’t be friends anymore,” Dickens said.
The middle school and high school years can be treacherous for young people, whether or not they’re involved in gang-affiliated activities. Tim Jenson, executive director of Community Crisis Services, Inc., a Hyattsville, Md.-based nonprofit organization which runs local, regional and national crisis hotlines, said that most callers to CCSI’s Gang Hotline (800-422-0009) are parents or other adults worried that their teen may be entering the gang life.
“It really is crisis counseling at its core. It’s about parenting, about hooking people up with mentors,” said Jenson. “The first, easiest and best thing is just that somebody answers the phone.”
CCSI’s volunteer counselors provide an outlet and a safe place to bounce ideas around without fear of judgment.
“We aren’t going to call anyone a bad parent or chastise them for what they may have done, we’re just going to help them figure out how to get where they’re headed to,” said Jenson.
The gang hotline is funded in part by the Prince George’s County Department of Family Services Youth Strategies Division, as part of a federal program. Approximately $26,000 of the organization’s $1.1 million annual budget funds the gang hot line, run mainly by volunteers who receive 40 hours of training before they take their first call, and ongoing training for as long as they volunteer.
Though the telephone hotline is popular among concerned adults, youth who have questions about gang activities and their consequences tend to opt instead to join CCSI’s web chats, hosted 4 p.m. - 9 p.m. Monday through Friday at www.help4mdyouth.org.
“Younger people don’t pick up the phone. They access services on their digital device,” said Jenson, who cited a London-based study that concluded that 70 percent of young people who first contact a crisis hotline through the Web follow up for further assistance through a phone call, but would not have called the phone hotline first. “Ninety percent of the people who join our web chats self-identify as under 25 years of age.”
Counselors at CCSI answer questions about gang involvement. Often, Jenson said, those questions are “basic, general safety questions. What is it like? How do I tell someone I know is in a gang? Is being in a gang like it is on TV?” The counselors also provide referral to local law enforcement, long-term counseling, youth and family service bureaus and mentoring programs to help at-risk youth and their parents make good choices and find connections in the community that lead to positive behaviors.
“The Prince George’s County Department of Parks and Recreation offers Midnight Basketball and other programs. Their studies show that if kids are doing Midnight Basketball, they’re not going to be in a gang,” Jenson said, “And those programs are wildly popular.”
Dickens said that hundreds of youth have participated in youth empowerment programs through his church, including the Pen or Pencil program, a group which “challenges young men to do right through community service, education and self-improvement. They can chose the Pen--the penitentiary--or the Pencil--their education,” Dickens said.
Youth and their parents agree to enroll the youth in Pen or Pencil or other church-run youth empowerment programs.
Corey Baskerville has provided mentoring programs for children and youth since 2009 out of his Camp Springs, Md. nonprofit, Young Men And Women Empowerment. From preschool and before-and-after care to tutoring, life skills classes, basketball camps, workforce development and more formal mentoring program, he and his staff of five people help children and youth sort through “things they see on the news,” as well as the more immediate struggles of growing up.
“I used to work at the Prince George’s County Library for 10 years. Parents saw me as a mentor, someone in the community who could reach out to kids,” Baskerville said. His work also includes volunteering at Apple Grove Elementary in Fort Washington, Md., Princeton Elementary in Suitland, Md. and Crossland High School. He also works with youth at the Cheltenham Youth Facility.
“Kids that are incarcerated don’t have a family. There’s no dad, or no parents at all, they’re raising themselves or staying with their grandparents,” Baskerville said. “We try to teach them basic life skills, and we tour group homes, shelters and the cemetery, to show them this is where they’re going to end up. I try to get them motivated to go to college or trade school or the military, to be able to be productive in today’s society.”
Baskerville’s work with young men at Cheltenham Youth Facility included poetry workshops in which the youth wrote out their anger about growing up without a father, grandfather or other strong male role model.
“They’re angry because Dad doesn’t do anything with them, so they find men in the community doing things that are like a father figure to them,” Baskerville said. Getting young men involved in positive activities and relationships can insulate them from gang violence and crime.
Marcellus Glover, 13, of Camp Springs, knows he has no need to reach to the streets for validation. He is earning his high school community service hours at Young Men and Women Empowerment, helping supervise and tutor younger children.
“I plan to go to college and join the military,” Marcellus said. “I’ve done about 342 hours of community service, so far. It’s always good to give something a little bit more than you’re required.”
Baskerville said that enlisting young people as camp aides helps them find their place while they serve others. It’s the kind of lesson families and communities don’t always succeed in passing on to young people.
“The biggest struggle is parent support. Most of the kids are angry. Their parents are absent, strung out on drugs, or working so hard at three and four jobs to keep the lights on that a young person who’s just 13 years old is raising the nine-year-old (sibling),” Dickens said. When parents can’t, or won’t be involved in their children’s lives, small problems can escalate to a crisis. In those cases, youth often come to Dickens to ask him to do what their parents are unable to do.
“Last year, a student at Largo High School was suspended for something and she kept telling me she didn’t do it. I went down to the school and we watched the surveillance video, and she was not the student committing that act. She was not going to all her classes and doing what she was supposed to be, but she was not guilty of the thing that got her suspended. Students just need somebody who cares and will stand up with them,” Dickens said.
Jenson said that many parents fear their children may be involved with a gang, but they haven’t directly asked their children what’s going on in their lives.
“It’s hard to be 14. Just because you’re being weird at 14 doesn’t mean you’re in a gang or on drugs. It’s just you’re having a hard time,” Jenson said.
Jenson suggested that parents offer to host a pizza party at home to meet some of those new friends their children encounter as they enter middle school or high school.
“If you offer pizza to teenagers and they don’t show up, your radar goes off,” Jenson said. “Go ‘old school’ on it. Tell your child you want to go to their friends’ houses and meet their mom and dad. People don’t meet their child’s friends’ parents as much as they did a generation ago. That whole sense of community gets lost sometimes.”
Dickens also goes to school to sit in class with students who are having trouble, with the teacher’s permission.
“Immediately, they know: ‘Rev. Akil is here! I can’t act up, and somebody really cares.’ If I just come in for ten minutes, it makes a major difference,” Dickens said. He learned that lesson as a basketball coach at Crossland High School in Temple Hills, Md.
“If they see you’ll consistently be there for them, you’ll gain their trust. It’s a beautiful thing,” said Dickens. “We’ve had young folks struggling, ready to throw in the towel, and now they’re going to college,” a change Dickens credits to the exposure mentoring programs can give youth to broader horizons, better options, and a future based on plans and hopes instead of street-level struggle.
“A lot of it is ‘Talk to your kids,’” said Jenson. “The bottom line is to open up the lines of communication.”
Through relationships with administrators of colleges and universities, Dickens has helped many students start college at no cost, on a provisional basis, and seen them flourish.
“We take them on a yearly college tour--even those who look like they’ll never go to college--and they see ten colleges in four days, between Atlanta, Ga. and back,” Dickens said. “They see something greater than Prince George’s County. They see young individuals who look like them from all over the world, and they sit in college classes, and talk to the president of the school. They realize, ‘I can do this. It’s more than just my block in Suitland, more than just my neighborhood in Oxon Hill.’ They have to show us that they want it, and kids have shown us.”
Other programs at the church include life skills, cultural events and trips to see the museums and monuments of Washington, D.C., and a Boy Scout organization which Dickens said has produced more African-American Eagle Scouts than any other in the nation.
“Everyone doesn’t like everything, but everyone can find something that piques their interest,” Dickens said. “We want to see young people excel.”