Editor’s Note: This roundup is part of the CNN Opinion series “America’s Future Starts Now,” in which people share how they have been affected by the biggest issues facing the nation and experts offer their proposed solutions. The views expressed in these commentaries are the authors’ own. Read more opinion at CNN.
Concerns about violent crime and guns remain top of mind for American voters, polls show time and again. These issues certainly stick with Kathy Pisabaj, of Chicago, who was 19 in 2018 when she was shot by a stranger and nearly died.
“We believed that if we stayed away from gangs, we would not get hurt,” she wrote. “Gun violence continues to tear apart communities and devastate lives like mine every single day.”
We asked experts working in various fields what they think needs to be done – what can reasonably be done – so that all of us can feel a bit safer.
Ricky Aiken: ‘Real change happens when the people who need it, lead it’
I grew up in the Tamarind Avenue corridor of West Palm Beach, which is notorious for poverty, drug abuse and violent crime. It’s just a few miles from what was the “Winter White House,” or Mar-a-Lago.
Summer is typically a deadly time of year for communities like ours. Young people are out of school with nothing to do and have easy access to firearms. And when gun violence happens in our communities, it’s not outsiders tearing up our communities. It’s insiders.
In 2015, the rate of violent crime in West Palm Beach was the same as Chicago. That summer, my cousin and I were lamenting the fact that every time we turned on the news, someone we knew had been shot or someone we knew was the suspect in a shooting. We decided to try to do something about it.
I was 26 and working the graveyard shift at an emergency shelter for displaced youth. My cousin, then 28, was a maintenance worker at a local nonprofit. Together, we went on to create Inner City Innovators, a nonprofit with three initiatives.
One of them is our Hope Dealer mentoring program, which combines individual and peer-to-peer mentoring, leadership development, community service and social-emotional learning. We prioritize giving youth (13+) someone to talk to.
Our anti-violence workshops go into schools, community centers, anywhere with kids. We talk about how to reduce their chances of being victimized by gun violence.
And then through community engagement activities we walk the streets to let the community know we’re here. We respond to shootings when youth are involved, hoping to connect with families to support them and reduce retaliation.
We also do court advocacy. A lot of young men get gun charges early on, at 15 or 16. Once they’re in that kind of trouble, no traditional mentoring program accepts them. We build partnerships with public defenders and judges working with juveniles to give these young men a second chance.
Any young man in our program gets help with job placement and therapy. If he is having trouble keeping food in the house, we fill up his refrigerator.
Our goal is simple: to keep every young man in our program free and alive through age 25. Most offending starts around 13, and 25 is when they say the brain is finished developing. We want to capture and stabilize them when this demographic is known to struggle the most.
We don’t want to just keep them alive physically. We want to keep them alive spiritually and emotionally as well. We introduce them to yoga, mindfulness, out-of-the-hood experiences. When you’re born and raised in a community of constant disadvantage, you think everywhere is like that. We want to inspire them to do more.
Lack of education, poverty of community, brokenness of home – those aren’t sources of shame. Those are sources of power. I want them to use these things to make better decisions in their lives.
We give them space to be involved and space to lead. When you challenge a young person who’s been through hard times, they want to stand up and show you they’re capable.
We’ve built a culture that accepts goodness, and we’re expanding. We have a playbook we want to send to other places.
We can’t stop all shootings. But of the young men who’ve been involved in our Hope Dealer mentoring program and have firearm charges, most stay on the path we put them on and leave activities that require picking up firearms behind them.
Ricky Aiken is the founder and executive director of Inner City Innovators, a nonprofit based in West Palm Beach, Florida, that combats crime rates and gun violence by empowering and inspiring inner-city youth through mentoring programs, anti-violence workshops and community engagement. This piece was adapted from an interview with CNN’s Jessica Ravitz Cherof.
Charlie Dent: Stopping lawlessness takes political will
Earlier this year, I wrote about the alarming incidents of violent crime in Philadelphia. I recounted the city’s record-breaking homicide rate and shared how crime affected my two children.
A college classmate of my son’s was murdered during an attempted carjacking. My daughter, a physician in residency, was assaulted. In the eight months since I wrote that piece, circumstances haven’t changed.
My son’s friends, living in his former apartment, were robbed at gunpoint during a home invasion. My daughter scolded me recently for wearing an Apple Watch while walking two blocks to dinner because she feared I would be mugged.
America has a crime problem, and it weighs heavily on the minds of people who live in those high crime jurisdictions and those who care for them. Even if crime polls lower than issues like inflation or abortion among voters’ concerns, no one should underestimate the potency of crime as a political issue.
While most crime is prosecuted at the state and local levels, the political implications at the federal level are palpable. Republican congressional candidates are deploying the crime issue effectively against Democrats because it resonates with base and swing voters. As a matter of damage control, House Democrats recently passed a package of four police funding bills in an attempt to shore up support among voters who believe them to be too soft on crime or in support of defunding the police.
While these funding bills no doubt will be welcomed, they do not address the underlying issues driving up crime rates. It feels like police have been placed on the back foot. The era of proactive policing has come to an end, and violent crime has soared. A new wave of progressive district attorneys bent on criminal justice reform, in cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles and Philadelphia, have run into the hard wall of angry residents demanding public safety.