When Dijon Andrews was 12 there wasn’t much to do for fun that was safe and legal in his East Knoxville neighborhood. But he didn’t have much time for fun, anyway. While some folks nearby were choosing drugs as a way to escape poverty, his mom was working two jobs. She relied on her eldest son to finish cooking dinner each night, feed and bathe his siblings, and try to put them to bed before she got home. Time for being a kid wasn’t scheduled. “I definitely felt overwhelmed,” he recalls.
These pressures, compounded by the stress of physical danger, are a daily experience for young black men in Knoxville’s low-income neighborhoods. Andrews, now attending Morehouse College in Atlanta, made it out. Others lately haven’t been so lucky.
When Jajuan Latham was 12, he was shot and killed in the back of his father’s SUV in a random gang drive-by shooting at Danny Mayfield Park in Mechanicsville. Latham’s April 16 death was the second recent high-profile gang shooting of an innocent in Knoxville. His cousin Zaevion Dobson died in December protecting two Fulton High School classmates from misdirected gang bullets. Neither young man was involved with a gang himself.
The stresses of multi-generational poverty and violence in neighborhoods like Lonsdale, Mechanicsville, and parts of East Knoxville have led to a disturbingly high rate of young black men killing each other in the city. From 2003 to 2013, both victim and perpetrator were black in 56 percent of all murders committed with guns; 71 percent of the city’s gun killings were committed by people between the ages of 18 and 34, according to KPD statistics.
Mayor Madeline Rogero’s Save Our Sons initiative aims to combat this crisis by dealing with the underlying problems that lead to a culture of violence.
Despite being almost two years old, Save Our Sons remains little understood, partly because it keeps evolving and has spent a long time on gathering information. Its first high-profile, direct initiative was unveiled last week: A new $2.9 million “Change Center,” a hangout spot and job training initiative for teens and young adults, which aims to address some of the youth needs identified by Save Our Sons, particularly the need for nearby safe places and activities for at-risk youth.
Rogero proposed Wednesday for the city to put more money toward Save Our Sons initiatives in the coming budget, including doubling the budget for the SOS office itself and providing $381,000 in grants to community organizations that serve at-risk young black men (including the Change Center). This is more than three times what the current budget included for such initiatives, Rogero says.
So far, Save Our Sons has several elements:
1. City initiatives to help address problems that contribute to the crisis, such as job opportunities for former felons and recreational facilities for youth.
2. A staff coordinator, funded by a grant, who acts as a clearinghouse to connect community organizations with clients, volunteers, and donors.
3. A series of initiatives involving police, code enforcement, youth, and ex-convicts focused on specific neighborhoods. These are within about 2.75 square miles east and northeast of downtown, including parts of the Five Points neighborhood, Morningside, Edgewood, Parkridge, Park City and Burlington as well as Austin Homes and Walter P. Taylor Homes.
The entire Save Our Sons effort was developed by an advisory committee appointed by Rogero, which includes Knoxville Police Chief David Rausch, Project GRAD executive director Ronni Chandler, City Councilman Dan Brown, and local pastors and black activists.
“We’re not here to compete or replace groups that are already out there,” Rogero says. “We’re here to raise them up and connect them with resources.”
Some in the black community say Save Our Sons has spent too long planning and needs to take decisive action. Jackie Clay, the Save Our Sons coordinator, just completed drafting a set of measurable goals for the grant funds.
The effort gained more urgency city-wide after Dobson’s death. “It was like wow, this is real,” says Andrews, who had been part of 100 Black Men of Greater Knoxville with Dobson. “When I was in middle school (at Vine) of course I heard stories of people getting killed, but it was like every two or three months. Now it’s like every month or three weeks,” he says.
“Zaevion’s death was a spark that started a fire, but Zae was not the first kid that died,” says Pastor Daryl Arnold of Overcoming Believers Church in East Knoxville. “(The community) west of Papermill still doesn’t get that. There’s a lot of wailing mothers.” Arnold, a founding member of the Save Our Sons advisory committee, conducted Dobson’s funeral. “It’s not that rich white people don’t care,” he says. “They just don’t know.”
Keira Wyatt, director of nonprofit C.O.N.N.E.C.T. Ministries, puts it more bluntly: “How many African American guys die every day, and nobody gives a crap? They really don’t. It’s just like, oh well, another one bites the dust. Awareness of [Dobson’s] heroic act caused people to look at young black men differently. People got to know all young blacks are not out to gang bang or kill or destroy.”
Wyatt and Andre Canty, president of 100 Black Men of Knoxville, both praise Rogero for creating Save Our Sons even before Dobson’s death ignited broader community concern. Canty, who serves on the dvisory committee, says the city has become more pro-active, especially since hiring Clay.
But until the end of March, the committee hadn’t met for six months.
Rev. John Butler and his wife Rev. Donna Butler, who serve on the committee, say there is some mistrust of Save Our Sons in the black community. The advisory committee needs to meet more publicly, at least monthly, and to add more people from the neighborhoods where youth violence prevails, they say.
“It’s for us, but it’s not with us,” says John Butler, who is also president of the Knoxville chapter of the NAACP. As long as the organizers and grantees are outside the community, he says, “You lose the strength to understand what all the challenges are.”
While enthused about the effort, these pastors of Clinton Chapel AME Zion Church in Mechanicsville want Save Our Sons actively working toward specific goals and funding organizations within low-income neighborhoods.
“I am not pleased,” Donna Butler says. “I feel like we’re doing a lot of talking. It’s time to roll up our sleeves and do the work.”
Save Our Sons was born out of Mayor Rogero’s interest in a group called Cities United, a national partnership to reduce violence-related deaths among young black men. Rogero asked Rausch whether this was a big problem in Knoxville, so Rausch had KPD crime analysts examine a decade’s worth of homicides, aggravated assaults, and robberies.
He says the results were disturbing. From 2011 to 2013, the number of black offenders using a firearm to commit murder increased by 140 percent. In 2012 alone, 90 percent of homicides were committed by black males against each other.
“That number just stood out at me,” Rausch says. “We are losing a generation to violence.”
(It’s worth noting also that 12 percent of homicide victims were under age 18, according to a presentation Rausch put together for Save Our Sons.)
Knoxville joined Cities United and Rogero convened what became the Save Our Sons advisory group to explore what role the city should play. The group met with nonprofits that serve at-risk black men and their families, officials from the district attorney’s office, public defender Mark Stephens, and Juvenile Judge Timothy Irwin. Meanwhile, President Barack Obama started the My Brother’s Keeper initiative, with similar goals.
Save Our Sons held a summit of 180 service providers and community leaders in November 2014. A University of Tennessee College of Social Work report based on feedback from the summit concluded:
1. Interventions aren’t addressing the family as a whole.
2. Service providers aren’t coordinating or communicating with each other enough, and a clearinghouse is needed to direct clients through local support agencies.
3. KPD officers need to spend more time in the community building relationships.
4. Mentoring needs to start earlier and last longer.
Shortly after graduating from the L&N Stem Academy last year, Andrews helped organize a “Sons Summit” of 150 black boys and men between the ages of 10-18 as part of the Save Our Sons initiative. Participants described pressure to provide for their family starting at age 14 or 15, while being hassled by addicts on the way home and sometimes being taken on drug runs without their consent.
As Rogero, Rausch, and black community leaders discussed these issues, they began working together in different ways. Police hosted a free night for families at Chuck E. Cheese. Rausch and Arnold encouraged teens to plan a party at Skatetown. Then they provided transportation for 85 young people, and Rausch, Arnold, and Rogero stayed to skate. (Rogero outlasted the guys on the rink.)
A joint church service was held at Overcoming Believers, with police officers welcoming visitors and singing in the choir. Rausch preached the sermon. “It was beautiful, and the police bluegrass band played in the ’hood church, and everybody was on their feet,” Arnold recalls. Afterward, officers and church members gave away 500 boxes of groceries in nearby low-income neighborhoods, he says.
The discussions with these partners also led Rausch to pursue some new approaches to policing. Last summer, when downtown business owners complained about large groups of black kids causing disturbances in Krutch Park late on weekends, Rausch sent a diverse group of officers hang out with the kids. In the past, Rausch says, police would have just made arrests and written tickets. But Rausch had come to realize that these were just kids who needed a place to hang out.
Nobody was arrested. Police (including Rausch in plain clothes) talked in a friendly way with the teens about cleaning up their language and talked with parents about picking their kids up before the midnight curfew.
Arnold says the Save Our Sons effort has helped him, and other faith and nonprofit organizations, find partners and support.
“It’s the glue,” he says of Save Our Sons. “I thought that I was the only one doing this work, and it wasn’t true.”
After the Zaevion Dobson killing, Arnold and ministers at First Calvary Baptist Church in Lonsdale recognized they were each reaching out to their own neighborhood gangs. They put out a call to gang members to attend a community discussion at Overcoming Believers about ways to stem the violence. Rausch took some heat for agreeing that KPD would refrain from arresting wanted gang members for a few hours near the meeting.
But Arnold and India McDowell, youth director at Calvary Baptist, argue that the payoff was worth the risk. The meeting led to some fragile truces and a movement among local street gangs to reduce the violence.
Dobson’s death “was a huge impact of opening the eyes of people in gangs,” McDowell says. “I think that ultimately in the long run, it’s going to really show.”
“You had guys who were enemies for 20 years hugging and praying for each other,” Arnold says. Some of these coalesced into the group “Heal the Land,” which has brought together rival gang members to help the community (see sidebar: What Are Knoxville’s Gangs Like?).
Mind the Gaps
Last October, Save Our Sons gained firepower in the form of a $600,000 grant from the federal Office of Criminal Justice Programs. Spanning three years, the funds are meant to reduce violence among young black men in specific geographic areas.
Rogero says although the grant is focused on particular neighborhoods, many of the resulting initiatives will benefit young black men across the city.
Clay’s personal experiences make her passionate about the goals of Save Our Sons. The East Knoxville resident raised a son on her own, while two of her brothers are in prison—one for 30 years, and one for life. “I understand how the judicial system can change a family’s life forever,” she says. Clay is also a social worker, instructor at the UT College of Social Work, and community organizer with four years’ experience as a project manager in Rogero’s office.
Under the grant, the city had six months to create an action plan, which Clay recently completed. It addresses the problem through prevention, intervention, support for young men leaving jail, and neighborhood revitalization.
Although the action plan continues to evolve, it calls for increasing the number of black young people getting jobs, a GED, and/or post-secondary education; providing safe places and activities for black youth outside school; and increasing positive interaction between Knoxville police and residents in the target neighborhoods.
Rogero and Rausch both say they want to see police officers out of their cars more, and are open to offering incentives for officers to volunteer in the same neighborhoods where they work.
To help prevent crime, Save Our Sons set goals to increase KPD community policing patrols, as well as to increase collaboration with juvenile court and the public defender in providing alternatives to jail for at-risk youth. This diversion approach would offer outreach, job training and life skills classes to young men in trouble. The long-term goal is to reduce robberies, aggravated assaults, and murders in the target neighborhoods.
Neighborhood revitalization goals call for spending money and developing partnerships to beautify blighted properties. Clay says this is an important step to helping young people feel a sense of ownership in their communities.
The city will measure progress toward its goals using metrics like KPD crime statistics, internship and job fair records, graduation and GED records, records of complaints about police, code violation records and nuisance property complaints, and surveys.
Leaders of some religious organizations say the lack of cohesive neighborhood support for black youth is partly a failure of its own faith community.
“I think there is an erosion of some of the networks in Knoxville that were there in previous generations,” says Kevin DuBose, director of church and community development for Emerald Youth. “The churches aren’t as strong as they used to be.”
“Who is culpable is the question we need to ask,” says Keira Wyatt, who runs C.O.N.N.E.C.T. Ministries, a faith-based nonprofit that supports at-risk youth and those leaving jail. “That’s the church, because we are supposed to set a moral compass for how we live and our moral values…. Save Our Sons is part of the solution because they can work together with the people who are supposedly dealing with core values.”
Arnold reflects on how his ministry has shifted its focus to the streets in the last decade. “The Lord spoke to me and said, ‘You’ve got to do more than preach funerals and start changing the city and changing minds, so people can come sit in the pews and not lie in a box.”
Many organizations exist to address the challenges identified by Save Our Sons. But they often lack the resources to meet demand, and gaps remain: Adequate support for people returning from jail, teens with too much time on their hands, overwhelmed parents, and families reeling from trauma and loss.
Will Luvene Jr. had been in and out of jail until his father died of cancer while Luvene was serving time. Although he’s from Chicago, Luvene came to Knoxville when he was released four years ago. His mother was in Tennessee and he found a small halfway house near one of the only Knoxville agencies focused on serving people leaving prison. C.O.N.N.E.C.T Ministries directs them to services that can help with finding clothes, housing, a job, addiction treatment, and legal help.
“You get tired of the revolving door, so you got to move in a different direction,” Luvene says. “My father’s death played a major part. I wasn’t able to be there for him. I used that to move forward.”
C.O.N.N.E.C.T. helped him find a job at Goodwill and provided him with a bus pass to get there. When Luvene found an apartment in Fountain City, he struggled to convince the landlord to rent it to him. An administrator at the halfway house and co-workers at Goodwill vouched for him. “The landlord said, ‘A lot of people are backing you,’” and he gave Luvene a chance.
At Goodwill, Luvene worked his way up from the warehouse to management, then became licensed in food service and sanitation. Now he’s a prep cook at Calhoun’s and renting-to-own in West Knoxville with his girlfriend and their daughter.
Unfortunately Luvene’s success story is unusual. “A lot of places won’t take a risk to hire someone out of jail or allow someone to live there,” Wyatt says. The jobs available pay too little to live on, and struggling ex-cons become depressed and use drugs to cope. As many as 80 percent of them end up returning to prison, she says.
“It is so easy for us to go back to our old ways simply because that’s part of what we know,” Wyatt says. C.O.N.N.E.C.T. serves many people who were imprisoned 10 years or more—almost all for drug convictions—who find themselves middle-aged with no job experience.
Charjuan Hayes, 24, says many men who have served time have no alternative but to return to the same environment that landed them in jail. (Before you even have time to look for other housing, you have to provide an address so a parole or probation officer can find you.)
“Most definitely one of the main issues is when you go back to your mom’s house,” says Hayes, who served a couple of years in jail for marijuana distribution. “You’re right there with the same people.” He says he resisted the temptations through prayer, keeping busy with his son, and volunteering as a kids’ basketball coach. “When you have time to do too much, that’s when you start getting back into the same things you used to do,” he says.
Even Luvene, far from his old turf, had to resist the influence of the street. Some old friends from Chicago tried to follow him.
“It’s on you to distance yourself,” he says. “I don’t hang out on Magnolia. I have no reason to come towards the East Side…. Trust me, I been on these streets for 31 years, been a gang leader. My family in Chicago and all over the world, they’re shocked.”
To help support this kind of life change, Wyatt says, Knoxville needs a re-entry center funded by local, state, and federal government: something like a halfway house offering housing and resources to help people leaving prison transition into the community. “It needs to be a systematic continuum of care,” she says. “The gap is making sure we actually have a place for people to go.”
One of the Save Our Sons action-plan goals is to increase collaborative efforts to identify services and job opportunities for parolees and probationers.
This is an area where Rogero would like the city to provide more leadership. Knoxville began offering a “Second Chances” program last year that gives men leaving jail, including Hayes, a chance to try out a job in the public service department by filling in when a regular employee is on medical or family leave. If the temporary worker is a good fit, the city will hire him to fill a long-term job opening or provide him a reference for another job. Rogero says if the program continues to work well, she’ll look for ways to expand it. She has proposed spending $47,250 in next year’s budget to expand Second Chances to work with a dozen former convicts.
Rogero and Rausch want to see other employers follow this lead. “We’ve got to help employers understand that sometimes you’ve got to give people a chance,” Rausch says.
No Place to Go
Black boys and men at the Sons Summit at the Civic Coliseum last summer said they need more after-school social and cultural opportunities and more access to playgrounds and athletic fields.
Canty says the city should host more of its festivals in inner-city parks instead of downtown.
“On the East Side of town, there’s not a lot of places you can go to just go to have fun,” Andrews says. “When people get bored, they tend to follow and go in the wrong direction.”
“I always push back when people say there’s nothing to do here,” Rogero says. “Look at Zaevion—he grew up in public housing in Lonsdale, but he had been on the swim team at Emerald Youth and he had a mentor.”
But she acknowledges that there are not necessarily enough activities throughout the city or for all age groups. “We know everybody doesn’t play football, basketball, or baseball,” Rogero says. “We need more options.”
A significant option will be added next year on Harriet Tubman Street in 20,000 feet of vacant warehouse space donated by Overcoming Believers. The Change Center will include a roller skating rink (a repeated desire voiced by inner-city youth), a multi-purpose sports venue, a concert stage, a movie wall, a music mixing studio, a climbing wall, a game room, and a Hard Knox Pizza café.
Planned to open in late 2017, the center will have free adminission and modest activity fees.
In addition, there will be a major Change Center Jobs Initiative that will offer direct entry-level jobs, job training, job referrals, and an effort to partner with business mentors and community partners to develop jobs for entrepreneurial teens.
Between 2011 and 2015, KPD records indicate 76 percent of all homicides occurred within the 3.25-mile radius around The Change Center.
The Change Center is in the process of becoming its own nonprofit, not run by the church, although Arnold (and Rausch) will co-chair its board of directors. Among other board members are Mike Murray, president and general maanger of the Knoxville Ice Bears, Sterling “Sterl the Pearl” Henton, former UT quarterback and official DJ for UT, and Nathan Langlois, principal of Austin-East High School.
Much of the funding for the Change Center must still be raised. But pending City Council approval, the city will chip in $500,000 over two years. Another $500,000 has been donated already, including major commitments from the Haslam Family Foundation, Pilot Corporation, and Cornerstone Foundation of Knoxville. (The Haslam Family Foundation will also contribute $250,000 to operating expenses over five years, to prevent the Change Center from competing too much with existing nonprofits for donations.)
Hayes and Canty had previously suggested a need for access to recording studios where young men can express themselves through music rather than violence, which it appears the Change Center will offer. Canty had also suggested that the city offer youth cultural programs and workshops on topics like entrepreneurship and songwriting.
“Help kids create something—their own job, or a piece of art,” says Canty, who is also organizer of the Knoxville Hip Hop Forum. “Black men—we’re taught not to express ourselves. You can’t be emotional, or you’re looked at as less. Because we’re socialized to express ourselves in a certain way, those emotions come out in other ways.”
Andrews says after-school programs really shaped him. “Programs like (Emerald Youth) really just brought in all these different speakers and allowed me to really think about where my life could really be besides Knoxville and Tennessee, even,” he says.
Andrews says the experience also inspired him and his friends to start a Southeastern Consortium of Minorities in Engineering Club at L&N Stem Academy. They wanted to educate minority students about “opportunities out there besides your typical black role.” He says sports is often presented to black boys as the only route to a lucrative job or a college education; although teachers talk about having a back-up plan, they rarely present white-collar options.
“The essence of entrepreneurship could’ve been taught,” he points out. “Knoxville is the sort of place where small businesses thrive.”
Working happens to be a good way to fill a teen’s time. But John Butler says that in many low-income neighborhoods there aren’t enough jobs within walking distance that employ high school students. He also sees a need for apprenticeship programs teaching skilled labor like plumbing.
“A job is the biggest deterrent to a life of making marginal decisions,” DuBose says. “When they lose that hope, I think they are open and susceptible to some of the negative influences.” That’s part of the reason Emerald Youth tries to work with students from first grade through their first job.
PTSD and Family Support
Rausch and Arnold say they see a vast need for counseling. Young people and families that live surrounded by violence experience post-traumatic stress just like survivors of war. “These kids see death and hear gunshots every day,” Arnold says. “Counseling for this needs to be part of the school system curriculum—it shouldn’t happen only after DHS gets called in.” Young men who participated in the Sons Summit agreed, saying family counseling should be universal and mandatory.
Rausch says he learned through Cities United about an approach called “violence interrupters,” counselors who come to a hospital after a shooting to talk with family members and help calm the situation, diffusing the urge to retaliate.
“We have great conversations with families who have innocent victims,” Rausch says. “I’m not sure we do such a great job with families who don’t. It’s still a lost life. It’s still a person they loved. We’ve got a void in providing support for those families.”
Even young men who participated in the cycle of crime and violence were victims of it, Rausch says.
Dobson and his killer, Brandon Perry, are an example. According to the description of events laid out by police, Perry, 23, took part in a gang-related shooting in Western Heights on Dec. 17. Those who were attacked retaliated by shooting at Perry’s house, wounding his mother, later the same day. In his own mistaken attempt at retaliation, Perry shot at a group of teens in Lonsdale Homes that included Dobson. (None of the teens were involved in the earlier shootings.) Perry himself was shot and killed a few hours later in what police say was further retaliation.
“Brandon Perry’s dead,” says Canty, who is also a leader in the local Black Lives Matter movement. “He can’t speak for himself, but he was a victim too. They were failed too. They were also taught a culture of violence…. Not just gun violence but domestic violence and sexual violence, too. It’s not always to the point of death, but it’s a different kind of death. When the mind’s not healthy, everything else will fail.”
Canty and John Butler say many parents grew up in the same environment, often in gangs themselves, and had children young. Butler would like more emphasis on educating the entire family of young children, including building parenting and conflict resolution skills, through day cares and public schools.
Direct Work by the City
Under Rogero’s direction, the city has already begun to try to directly address some of gaps in youth activities and job opportunities (most recently with The Change Center initiative) as well as employment for ex-convicts. The Save Our Sons mini-grants could help.
Wyatt wants to see that money stay in the neighborhoods. “I would like to see people who are actually doing the work get the funding,” she says. “A lot of nonprofits have received huge grants, and it hasn’t trickled down.”
In fact, the proposed budget Rogero unveiled Wednesday would fund 18 community groups that serve at-risk young men, more than double the number funded last year. C.O.N.N.E.C.T. was among them. If approved by City Council, it would receive $20,000, double the funds it received from the city last year. Organizations in the proposed budget that had never received city grants before include 100 Black Men of Greater Knoxville ($10,000), Big Brothers/Big Sisters of East Tennessee ($2,500), and Girl Talk ($10,000).
The city can also help with quality after-school programs at community centers, where it offers classes and sports leagues, sometimes through partnerships. For example, Emerald Youth and a church partnered to fix the pool at the city’s E.V. Davidson Recreation Center, where Emerald Youth now teaches all the kids in its after-school programs to swim.
In some cases, the city spends money on facility improvements spearheaded by its partners. The Boys and Girls Clubs received $250,000 from the city in Fiscal 2014 and $100,000 in Fiscal 2015. As of January, the city had also thrown in $508,047 for infrastructure and streetscape improvements around a new indoor soccer complex funded by Bill Samsun, where Emerald Youth now runs a league near the Fort Sanders neighborhood.
At the Mechanicsville homecoming parade, several people approached Rogero to complain about the lack of a safe neighborhood hangout. Rogero says she has asked the Parks and Recreation Department to map all city parks and after-school programs so the city has a complete picture of where kids can go after school, what partners provide transportation and where. This could help identify kids that don’t have access to services, and lead the city to recognize where it needs to build new playgrounds or sports facilities, Rogero says.
The city is trying to provide jobs and employment skills for teenagers through its summer internship program. It has served 15 high school and college students a summer in recent years, up from four in 2011. (Until two years ago, participants had to meet “disadvantaged youth” financial requirements, but that requirement ended.)
The city tries to partner with employers to teach at-risk teens about career options. Clay worked with Project GRAD and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory on holding a My Brother’s Keeper day that brought 50 black students to tour the lab and meet with African American lab employees this winter.
And Rogero wants the city to influence more employers to try their own versions of Second Chances and internship programs. “Maybe that’s our next big initiative,” she says.
The Butlers say they are ready for more, and ready to see more results. Rausch argues that results will be better because of all the behind-the-scenes groundwork.
“Nobody has gone to sleep,” he says. “Nobody has put this on the shelf.”
S. Heather Duncan has won numerous awards for her feature writing and coverage of the environment, government, education, business and local history during her 15-year reporting career. Originally from Western North Carolina, Heather has worked for Radio Free Europe, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in London, and several daily newspapers. Heather spent almost a dozen years at The Telegraph in Macon, Ga., where she spent most of her time covering the environment or writing project-investigations that provoked changes such as new laws related to day care and the protection of environmentally-sensitive lands. You can reach Heather at email@example.com
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