Angela (AGB): (00:05)
Welcome to the Radical Imagination podcast where we dive into the stories and solutions that are fueling change. I'm your host, Angela Glover Blackwell, and this is the final episode of our first season.
News clip: (00:18)
"shots are being fired and there are people running, possibly victims involved. Again, we have a report of subject with a gun."
The radical idea we're going to look at today addresses a big problem in the U.S. especially, gun violence. Every year, more than a hundred thousand people are shot in the U.S. and the reality is that gun-related homicides often happen in low-income communities of color. City authorities will typically respond by hiring more police officers, increasing neighborhood patrolling, and then just hoping for the best. But what if we tried a different path? For example, police abolition, a topic we tackled in a previous episode, where people are trying to reduce the role of police in certain neighborhoods and test out less harmful alternatives. Take Richmond, California, a city that has struggled with rampant gun violence since the 1930s.
News clip: (01:16)
"Richmond police say this isn't a random shooting. However, they do not believe the victim was intended target. "
It's also the place where an organization named Advance Peace has come up with a new approach to disrupt gun-related homicides.
It does this by hiring young men with a history of lethal weapon offenses, taking them from being a part of the problem to the forefront of finding solutions. And we'll be hearing a riveting personal story from one of those young men later in this episode. But before that conversation, we're first joined by DeVone Boggan. He's the founder and CEO of Advance Peace and he's here to tell us why he thinks that betting on these young men who have been written off by society is the right approach. And full disclaimer, I'm on the board of Advance Peace and I've known DeVone for several years. DeVone, welcome to Radical Imagination.
DeVone Boggan: (02:09)
I'm excited to be here.
Would you start by telling people what Advance Peace is and how it started in Richmond, California?
Advance Peace reduces a cyclical and retaliatory gun violence in U.S urban neighborhoods by engaging the individuals who are at the center of gun violence. So Advance Peace addresses violent actors that traditional law enforcement has struggled to address. So that's the first thing. So my job, without a gun, without a badge, uh, was to help the city address what seemed to be a very intractable problem, a historic challenge.
News clip: (02:50)
"It is it's fourth homicide in Richmond in just three weeks after a peaceful start to the year."
35, 40 homicides a year, in 30 years. So I think it's important that we lift up the city of Richmond because it was the public system leadership who said, 'we've got to do something very different.' We've put more police on the streets and that's not helping us to get to where we want to get to. So we need another instrument. I think the second was this idea of capturing formerly incarcerated individuals who themselves had a common lived experience with those who were at the center of that city's gun violence.
News : (03:31)
"Five bullets came from a white Mazda, a brother and sister shot to death in Richmond last night." "This potent mix of pain, anger, and teenagers with guns here, at the streets are hunting grounds, corner after corner. Young men run for their lives."
So we decided to hire formerly incarcerated individuals from the city of Richmond as city government employees, full-time, fully-vested. Not only were we looking for formerly incarcerated individuals from the city of Richmond, but we were looking for formerly incarcerated individuals who had gun charges in their backgrounds to become what we call neighborhood change agents, to be deployed in those neighborhoods where gun violence was most prevalent, to begin to engage those individuals who were thought to be most responsible for that gun violence. So that's the second thing that we were able to accomplish. And then the third thing, we would only focus on those individuals who law enforcement had the greatest difficulty addressing; individuals who were suspected to be actively involved in gun violence, who had yet to face a legal or criminal consequence for those acts of gun violence. So our thesis was and is, unless and until law enforcement can stop those who shoot from shooting, those same individuals should be motivated. They should be inspired, they should be empowered to change their behaviors on their own.
"In exchange for turning away from dangerous behavior. The men, about 40 of them right now, aged 16 to 25 join the fellowship, they draw up a life map where they set positive goals for the future. They get daily contact and counseling, help finding jobs, and money. Boggan says the funding comes from private donors over an 18 month period. That money becomes an incentive for the men to choose better behavior, mess up, and they will get nothing.
Wow! I mean first we're talking about neighborhood safety and then we're talking about people formerly incarcerated with guns being neighborhood change agents and then focusing on people who are engaged in gun violence on the street, but not yet in the system. And this is not about police going out and doing anything.
That's correct. And what most folks don't know or recognize, Angela, is that in urban communities where gun violence is most prevalent, the prosecution rates are oftentimes less than 30 percent, so for example, take Chicago, which everyone likes to talk about, by the way, it's not the most dangerous city in the country, but everyone talks about Chicago. It's had 1400 murders by firearm over the last two years. Less than 25 percent of the individuals suspected of those acts of gun violence will ever see a day of time for those suspected acts. So we know that law enforcement and incarceration isn't working, so why not try something different that keeps these individuals from crossing that line again?
So tell us about the results in Richmond.
In Richmond, we had 84 fellows through four 18-month fellowship cohorts, 84 individuals who were thought to be the most lethal young men in the city of Richmond, who were also thought to be those most likely to become victims of gunfire. And that's another piece I'd like to lift up. So of those 84 fellows today, 94 percent of them are alive. And I love when I hear alumnus of our fellowship say, hang out with the office of neighborhood safety or Advance Peace and you're going to stay alive. Now they use very different language when they describe it, that is probably not appropriate, but as I can. Uh, but 83 percent of these individuals who were thought to be dead within a six-month period of us beginning our fellowship engagement with them have not been injured by a firearm percenttoday. And here's the biggest smallest number of 77 percent of our fellows, since becoming a fellow, are not thought to be in new firearm related activity. That has translated into a 72 percent reduction in firearm activity in the city of Richmond that has now been sustained for five years. And the greater impact is how those fellows that are alive are now providing a healthier model for folks who have great close proximity to them in those very communities. Cause we didn't move them out. They still live in the city of Richmond.
This is so inspiring to hear what you've done and especially to hear the results that are associated with it. I want you to pull back for a moment, you have shown that we can make a difference without police. What are the implications for policing?
Boggan : (08:35)
That's a great question, Angela. Um, the idea of the concept of public safety being expanded beyond policing and incarceration to include these kinds of interventions and community empowerment is a heavy lift and a work in progress. I think I would be remiss not to be honest with you here today and with your audience to tell you that one of our greatest critics when we show up in a city is the policing unions in those cities. That's going to be very challenging for law enforcement because at some point we've got to begin to think about how we retrain and redirect those resources, and that's frightening for folks in that law enforcement space. I have seen how these young men and the issues that they are participating in that creates disruption and disruption are used to raise large amounts of resources. When you look at any municipal budget of a city who's struggling with gun violence issues, and I guarantee you you're going to find that 50 to 60 percent of that budget is public safety. Most governments would have said, Oh no. Oh heck no. You can't bring these guys into city government. In fact, law enforcement, law enforcement had a huge challenge with the folks I decided, because these were folks that for a veteran police officer, he or she had chased these guys in their hay day, so they were really challenged by it, but we were able to convince them that these guys themselves had their own transformational process and could demonstrate that they could work successfully.
And DeVone, that has been part of the criticism that people have leveled at you.
News clip: (10:28)
"Advance Peace takes violent criminals, sorry, violent alleged criminals and offers them 365-day a year counseling, job training, mentoring, and one other thing." "Criminals are paid not to commit crime. I'm serious..."
What people accuse you of doing is paying people not to shoot...How do you respond to that?
I tell you what, when you think about the cost of gun violence on a city, for every homicide, a conservative cost is $1 million and a further conservative costs is about $400,000. Mother Jones magazine did an expose in July, 2015, I believe on the cost of gun violence, and they said that we had spent $229 billion chasing gun violence in the year 2012, that was the last year the CDC did a study on the cost of gun violence and that comes out to be about $400,000 every time someone is shot. Uh, so when you consider the cost, every time someone is shot, and then you hear the criticism of paying criminals, albeit that's not what we do, but if $9,000 over an 18-month period kept people who shoot from shooting, I think it's a phenomenal investment, right? That's my response. The second response I have, what we're doing is much deeper. We often talk about getting these guys jobs or connecting these guys to services. Well, understand, that jobs are not ready for these guys and these guys aren't ready for the jobs. And that goes for the social and human services aspects of things too. Even where services are available and abundant, more often than not, they are not ready for this population.
By the way, I don't talk about this a lot, but my family is a victim of gun violence. Eight months after I took the job in the city of Richmond, I lost my youngest brother to gunfire in the city of Lansing, Michigan. And when I went home to bury my brother, I came back really thinking that, you know what, maybe this isn't for me. I mean, I took, it was a blow. I didn't see that coming. And it was a fellow, someone that I had hired at our office to help me understand gun violence. Uh, someone who was directly involved in it, who said to me, welcome to my world and I don't get to leave. That has always stuck with me.
So I think being able to never forget whose voice you're carrying, whose message you're carrying, and making sure that's genuine, authentic, and real at all times at all costs.
One of the things that you really bring to this work is seeing people in their wholeness. Talk about that.
As I look at these young men and see myself, see my brothers, uh, see my team. These young men are us and they want what we want. They want safety. They want security, they want to make a contribution. They just haven't had anyone to provide them with a model or even the support of what a healthy contribution looks like. They want to be loved. They want to be cared for. They want to be embraced. They want everything that we want. I think going in, I knew, but it became crystal clear as I work with these young men every single day and they were committed. They were committed to trying something different in spite of them continually negotiating a barrage of war-like environments that they were having to navigate, negotiate.
DeVone, thank you for speaking with us.
Debone Boggan is the founder and CEO of Advance Peace and a former neighborhood safety director with the city of Richmond, California.
Coming up on Radical Imagination, we speak with James Houston. He was 16 years old when he was convicted of second degree murder. After 18 years in prison, he is now a neighborhood change agent and a Senior Advisor to Advance Peace. Stay with us more when we come back.
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And we're back. James Houston was convicted of second degree murder at 21 after intervening in a domestic dispute that ended up with him shooting and killing a man. He served 18 years in prison and he is now Lead Neighborhood Change Agent for the City of Richmond's office of neighborhood safety. James, welcome to Radical Imagination.
James Houston: (16:18)
Thank you, Angela.
I am curious what it was like for you growing up. What are some of your clearest memories of that?
Actually, I was born in Decatur, Illinois. My mother and father were together at that time. At six years old, I've seen my mother being abused by my father and I remember my brother who was five-years-old, he was the one who went up to my father and bit him on the leg. My father picked him up and threw him over a table onto a couch. And for me, that fight, flight, or freeze, I froze. And from that moment on, I kind of felt like a coward. Shortly after that, my mother picked us up and moved us to California and I felt that I had something to prove. Like I was the oldest. I had to make a name for our family out there because what was going on in the streets in Richmond.
What' was going on on the streets of Richmond?
There was, uh, a lot of fights, a lot of drugs. I remember imitating the drug dealers. They never taught me how, but I watched from a distance and I felt like as the oldest it was my responsibility to kind of contribute to the family.
When you were growing up in Richmond, looking at who was on the streets and who seemed to have status on the streets, did you have anybody to turn to, to talk to, to bounce ideas off of as you were developing yourself?
I had one person and it was my great uncle. I didn't appreciate him at that point. I felt that he was, he was in, I would say about fifties and so I felt like he couldn't relate, but he did a lot to try to bring me under his wing. He started me off at eight years old in pop Warner football. When I started working summer jobs, he would give me a ride field trip for school. He was the one who made the lunches for us, but I never seen him as somebody I could look up to because I felt like he didn't understand.
You were 21 years old in 1996, is that right? And that's when the incident happened that suddenly changed your life. Could you walk us through that?
I was in the streets selling drugs, uh, had been shot at before. I was carrying a gun. I had no conflict resolution skills.
I was an angry young man. I was frustrated because I had a son who was 10 months, I didn't know how to be a father. All I knew, at the time was money, get more money. I didn't know the power of being there in his lives and the impact that was and how more important that was. So I'm coming home from the store. I started drinking a lot more. I seen my neighbor, who was a friend of mine's mother in a conflict with her boyfriend who I also knew and I had actually sold drugs to. They'd call me over there cause they knew the type of person I was. I went over there, I confronted him. I said, give her money back. He said, no. I pulled out my gun to kind of intimidate him with the gun. He reached for it. I pulled back and shot him.
You had the gun.
Yes, I did.
Why did you have a gun?
For me, protection and also with that gun, I felt powerful. I felt like somebody, somebody that you were going to listen to.
And when you say they knew the kind of guy you were, what are you talking about when you say that?
Even though I did a lot of negative things in the community, in my way, I felt like I was the type of person that would look out for you if you needed me in a violent situation. Even talking to my family, most of the things that I was there for them for was violent situations. I had never let go of that feeling of being a coward. I was always constantly trying to make up for that moment. And so when that situation came with my neighbor, I had to realize, you know, because when I first committed the crime, I never thought that I would get that much time or an 18 to life sentence. I felt like I should be rewarded, like I did something good and over time as I looked at it and got to know myself and know my own story, because I ran from it so much, so long, I realized that it wasn't about conflict going on. Neither one of them. It was about that little boy who is six-years-old trying to prove that he wasn't a coward.
What's life like in prison? What did you reflect on when you were there and how did that experience change you?
When I first started my prison sentence, I would say approximately the first seven years I was pretty much the same guy I was on the streets. I was incarcerated in Susanville and there was no programs and so all I did was hang in the yard and pretty much continue the same things that I did when I was on the streets. Fortunately, I was transferred to San Quentin State Prison where there was a plethora of programs for me to participate in and it was the first time I ever had another man see me and my potential. I remember I was working on death row sweeping. I wanted to go, you know, work in education, go to school, go to college and the hours conflicted. And I talked to someone who became a friend and he talked to some people and got me shifted from that job to another job where I can go to take college courses. I never had a man really give me something and not want nothing in return. No, usually selling drugs. It was trying to work you to get, you know, some extra drugs or some free drugs. But for someone who just genuinely want to see the best in you, it sparked something in me. So I started following these men and seeing are you real? Is this really you? And it turned out they were.
So what was it like on that day when you got out?
It was a great day. Once again, my uncle was there. He had bought me a suit to come home in. I got out early enough to go pick my son up from school, because he never knew me on this side of the wall and just being reunited with family. And I guess the scary part for me was that the prison time just seemed like it was an overnight dream. That time hadn't really happened.
What was the hardest part about being back in community in society?
For me, I think the hardest part was understanding that I was 40-years-old and hadn't, you know, built up anything financially from our future and one thing for my son at that point, you know, this was his last year of high school and there were a lot of things I wish I could do, but I couldn't.
And so how did you connect with Advance Peace?
Actually, I connected with Advance Peace in prison. I was incarcerated, I was the chairman of a group called the Richmond Project where we was trying to make a difference from inside. And DeVone, one day he popped up in my cell, and we had a conversation. He started coming to our meetings and at some point, I remember him saying that, um, if you ever get out, because I still had a life sentence at the time and I'm doing something in Richmond, you got a job.
You've written about how important it is to relate to young men who have turned to guns, that they feel isolated, frustrated, searching for purpose. Could you describe more about your own reflections and how that's helped you to be able to work with other people who are following that path that you had been on.
For me is if you feel so great about yourself or know your worth, why would you evolve yourself in some of the things many of our young men involved themselves in, nobody has invested in them so they feel like nothing and many of them are doing the same thing I did crying out in their own way for attention. As a young man, I can't come to you in a neighborhood and say, I'm hurting the same, me I don't have shame. I have guilt for what I've done, but I use that guilt to motivate me to work with these young men.
So what does it mean to be a Neighborhood Change Agent? Walk me through what you do day-to-day and what kind of activities you're involved in.
So day-to-day we have our meetings, but each day we go out to the neighborhood, building those relationships, sharing our stories. We can see when their going through something, when something's bothering them, cause it's not just the superficial type engagement.
Tell us about the kind of situation you might deal with. What sorts of things come up and how are you able to guide or intervene or help these young men see a different way?
Well, it depends on the different types of conflicts. So some conflicts may be internal and those are usually easier to navigate. So if a young man is having a problem with another young man from his own community, we kind of like share our experiences. What I've learned over time is I don't care who your with. I'm like, I tell him, I said, if I would've been in that cell doing time with my mother, we'd have conflict and it's okay to have conflict. It's just all about how you deal with it. External conflict, we usually rely on some of our relationships with the young people. Say I have a young man that I'm more close to and we see that there is something arising with another man who's from a different side of town. It may be me to go talk to the one that I have a better relationship with and then another change agent will go talk to the other young man and we talk about..., try to see where it started from. At some point try to bring them together if not a phone call and then bring them together.
And how is that going? How are your conversations going with these young men? Do you find that once they open up that you really are able to go into some different directions in terms of conversation and action?
I definitely feel that it helps a lot because as a young man, you feel like nobody else's story is as bad as mine. Nobody's been through what I've been through and for somebody to share and relate and you'd be able to say, that was me. I felt that. I've been through that, but we don't talk about that. We only are healthy as our worst secrets because we are stuck in our shame. This is, I'm wrong. Not that something happened to me that was wrong, that shouldn't have happened and there's lessons and gifts even in that, but we choose to hold because we feel like that's not the manly thing to do.
What do you see needs to happen in this country to change the prevalence of gun violence and what are you learning from your activities that reinforces your beliefs?
We have to change our view of our young people. We have to stop seeing them where they are now and seeing their potential and making those investments in their future because a lot of what's created in these communities has been going on for a long time. These young people stepped into a lot of these conflicts. They weren't the ones who started it, and so once we really invest in seeing that we play a part in what a lot of our young people, our experiences, I think we will be better equipped to address and resolve a lot of the conflict, but it can't be just a conflict arises, let's throw more police at the conflict or the problem.
What I hear you saying is that society's inability to see the potential in these young people hides the potential from them. They can't see it and we both have to start seeing it and reacting to it and treating these young people as the jewels that they are.
They are. If we stopped looking at them a certain way where they feel like I'm not wanted. Then their view of themselves would change as well.
I feel like I'm one of the young people, I felt like all that I've been through, now it has some type of value. I feel like it's a way to honor, you know, my victims, it's what I was meant to do. I hate the crime that I committed to get me to this place, but I'm grateful that I'm able to do this work.
James, I'm grateful that you're doing the work and I pick up talking to you that there's real power in strength that you have found that you're putting out. I think of it as a superpower. What's your superpower?
If I would name a superpower, I would say my passion because I know in this work dealing with young people, they know when somebody genuinely cares. You can't fake it with them. You have to really be from the heart, they see through you.
James, thank you for speaking with us.
Thank you Angela.
James Houston is a Lead Neighborhood Change Agent for the City of Richmond's Office of Neighborhood Safety. He is also a Senior Advisor to Advance Peace.
Solving the problems of police violence and mass incarceration can seem overwhelming, but visionary solutions are bubbling up across the country. Advance Peace shows what's possible when communities stop relying on the tools and hostile assumptions of law enforcement and focus instead on the outcomes we want to achieve. Peace, safety, healing, communities where everyone is valued and treated with respect, and we're all people, especially youth, have opportunities to make positive contributions. Reflecting on DeVone Boggan's work, I'm struck by how often and unjustly young people of color are held up as the problem when it comes to community safety. Boggan shatters that destructive narrative. In fact, youth are our greatest asset and the key to building humane, dignified, and effective systems for public safety and justice. James Houston is an example of what we throw away when we assume that some people are dispensable and seeing the contribution that he can make by giving back to his community, in terms of helping other young people turn their lives around, everybody has a contribution to make.
Radical Imagination was produced by the Futuro Studios for PolicyLink. The Futuro Studios team includes Marlon Bishop, Andrés Caballero, Ruxandra Guidi, Stephanie Lebow, and Jeanne Montalvo. The PolicyLink team includes Rachel Gichinga, Glenda Johnson, Fran Smith, Jacob Goolkasian, and Milly Hawk Daniel. Our theme music was composed by Taka Yusuzawa and Alex Suguira. I'm your host, Angela Glover Blackwell.
This is the last episode of our first season, but please be on the lookout for more episodes in the next season of Radical Imagination. And in the meantime, you can find us online at radicalimagination.us. Remember to subscribe and share.