NEW YORK – Under her head wrap, Iesha Sekou’s eyes are serious and shrewd. They’re trained to spot signs of potential violence in her central Harlem neighborhood, a skill she’s honed for almost 40 years.
On her drive home in late March, a scene triggers her professional reflexes: one man, shirtless and angry, surrounded by 15 police officers. Immediately, she’s back on the job.
Sekou recounts the moment in detail: She jumps out of her car. She sees the officers reaching for their guns, their holsters unclipped. She knows there are perceptions that turn black men’s bodies into weapons. Saheed Vassell, Stephon Clark, Philando Castile. She intervenes for this man because she couldn’t intervene for them.
These days, police know her by name and even the officers who don’t know her know to respect the sister with the head wrap. When she says “I got this,” tensions are already de-escalating.
She asks the man if he is okay and they begin to talk. Soon his temper is gone and the officers are relaxed. The situation is resolved peacefully.
“I think about all of the different folks who have been shot down when I see a young man being approached by so many officers, and it rides with me every day,” Sekou says as she reflects on the encounter. “It’s second part of my thinking. How do you strategize to get this young person out of a situation? How do you keep this situation from becoming more volatile?”
These moments of intervention between civilians and police, rival gang members or quarreling friends have played out throughout Sekou’s career as a peace advocate with Street Corner Resources and community organizer in the heart of Harlem. They are what keep her neighborhood safe, but they aren’t the private domain of Sekou nor of central Harlem. All throughout the city, across the country and around the world, community organizers are building personal relationships and holding interventions to keep their neighborhoods safe. They are part of a public health initiative called Cure Violence that is changing the way governments and community organizations are dealing with gun violence.
The New York Trend
New York has implemented Cure Violence programs since 2009 and the results have been cause for hope. An October report by researchers at John Jay College found that the presence of Cure Violence in a community is associated with significant improvements in public safety.
“Neighborhoods operating Cure Violence programs show declines in acts of gun violence and the expression of pro-violence social norms compared with similar neighborhoods not operating Cure Violence programs,” states the John Jay report, which evaluates outcomes at Cure Violence sites in the New York boroughs of the Bronx and Brooklyn.
Cure Violence treats violence as a learned behavior and relies on a network of outreach workers called “violence interrupters” to build trust and provide support in their communities. The Cure Violence model focuses on establishing relationships between residents and community-based organizations, public services and mediation programs to encourage positive behavior change and prevent violent activities in a given area.
The model was developed in Chicago in 2000. In its first year of implementation, shootings in Garfield Park, one of Chicago’s most violent neighborhoods, dropped by 67 percent. Since then, Cure Violence has been adopted in cities all over the U.S. and countries including Trinidad, Jamaica, El Salvador, Britain and Morocco.
“What makes [Cure Violence] effective is that we are using people from the neighborhood,” said Marcus McAllister, a national trainer for Cure Violence.
Violence interrupters are people who have previously been gang members or served time in prison, but have since given up all criminal activity. They work in the neighborhoods where they grew up, where their reputations and rehabilitation make them credible leaders.
In late October, McAllister sat in on training at the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to help prepare new violence interrupters. Participants learned about developing and maintaining relationships with individuals at high risk of violence, and discussed the best ways to work within their communities as mentors.
McAllister has travelled the world to establish Cure Violence sites and says New York has been remarkable for the number of sites that have gone at least one year without any shooting victims.
“In New York, that’s become the trend,” he said, mentioning sites in Yonkers, Queensbridge and Brooklyn that have gone at least a year without shootings since implementing the model.
The key to successful implementation of Cure Violence in New York is sustainability, McAllister said. It’s a product of funding and integrating the model into a network of city operations, including the health department and the mayor’s office.
Philadelphia, New Orleans and Baltimore have had difficulty in implementing the model because of funding cuts, layoffs and site closures. Cure Violence efforts in Chicago were hurt by scandal in June 2017 when federal prosecutors accused Francisco Sanchez, a well-known violence interrupter, of gang-related activities.
New York, however, is looking to expand its Cure Violence programs. At a Bronx town hall on Oct. 4, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced plans to add two more precincts as Cure Violence sites.
464 Days Without a Shooting
Street Corner Resources became a partner in the Gun Violence Crisis Management System organized by the Mayor’s Office in 2015. As a part of the city contract, SCR received a $250,000 grant and was assigned an eight-block catchment area – from 137th to 145th Streets between Adam Clayton Powell and Malcolm X Boulevards – in central Harlem where it focuses its gun-violence prevention efforts outlined by the Cure Violence model.
Under the contract, the SCR catchment area saw 464 days without a shooting, a period that started at the end of October 2016 and lasted into the early days of February 2018. It was a hard won success that started 13 years ago.
In 2005, Sekou established SCR to connect young people in the area with educational opportunities and employment training, but she shifted her focus as she began to notice an increase in gang activity.
“I knew that Street Corner Resources, before we could really bring young people to education, employment and training, we would also have to address the issue of gun violence,” she said.
SCR began to respond to shootings all over Harlem and neighboring areas. Sekou and her team showed up at crime scenes and made small gestures of consolation, like passing out water. They mediated conflicts and worked to discourage retaliatory shootings. They showed up at hospitals to console families, and held vigils to pray for victims.
“We were all over the place because we didn’t have a model,” Sekou said.
The group was also running into another problem – funding. When Sekou heard about the opportunity to partner with the Mayor’s Office through a contract to implement anti-gun violence programs, she submitted her organization for consideration.
When SCR entered into the Cure Violence contract, Sekou says, the ink was barely dry before the next shooting happened in the catchment area. The violence continued into 2016, including a February shooting inside the bar Harlem Nights that left one man dead and the death of 61-year-old Odessa Sims who was caught in gunfire while playing cards at Charles Young Playground in August of the same year. On Oct. 30, 2016. NYPD responded to two shootings in the catchment area.
“A community that experiences trauma time and time again becomes traumatized … [and] trauma left untreated creates even more violence,” Sekou said. “So we know our community that has experienced violence over and over again needs to be treated for that.”
Then, after almost a year since entering the Cure Violence contract, the catchment area experienced days that turned into weeks and then a year without any incidents of gun violence.
“The success of 464 days was the result of being on the ground, being in the neighborhood and engaging with community leaders and neighbors,” Sekou said.
Some Help and Some Hope
Sekou says she believes in the Cure Violence approach because it isn’t just about intervention, it’s about opportunity. Sekou is known in the area for being a repository of information about job training and employment openings at the NY Metropolitan Transportation Authority or Harlem Hospital, or at a handful of other local employers. She doesn’t like walking around empty handed so she often carries hiring notices and passes them out.
It’s important for local residents, she says, because “no one is connecting with them in that way.”
“That’s why resources are important, because you’re bringing the people some help and some hope,” she says.
Habeeb Lane, 19, started an internship at the Mayor’s Office on Criminal Justice through SCR. A friend told him about the organization, and when he saw one of the staff in the neighborhood, he asked about their work. SCR staff connected Lane to the Institute for Transformative Mentoring, a professional training program organized by the Center for New York City Affairs at The New School.
“I told them I would take the class because I wasn’t doing anything,” Lane said. “Since then, I’ve been working.”
Lane completed an internship at the Mayor’s Office on Criminal Justice and then began working for one of SCR’s partners, Lemore Realty Development Corporation.
Every Day is Day One
On Feb. 6, a man was shot in the SCR catchment area in an altercation at 585 Malcolm X Boulevard.
“We had no idea that that shooting was going to happen. It wasn’t what most people would call a beef. It was spillover from something that we couldn’t predict,” Sekou said.
The man survived the shooting, and the SCR hospital responder team was at his bedside offering support and an opportunity to work with the organization in its gun violence prevention efforts.
“Sometimes you have to plant the seed and make the offer to help them and let that germinate,” Sekou said.
SCR held a peace rally shortly after the shooting, and in March organized a group of young people to participate in the March for Our Lives rally. The artist Lady Gaga sponsored a bus from Harlem to Washington, where they visited the NAACP headquarters and marched their way through the country’s capital urging politicians to take up the call for stricter gun control laws.
Street Corner Resources pushes forward in its mission to end gun violence in the local community, and hopes to go another year, then longer, without any shootings. But Sekou isn’t tracking the days.
“I try not to count, but I think we’ve done really well so far,” she says.
Instead, Sekou reminds her staff to think of every day as day one.
“Day one means you’re not comfortable,” she says. “Because when you get comfortable in a situation, that’s when things happen.”