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In the aftermath of a tragedy, there is often a hue and cry for action – and then people gradually forget. Life returns to normal – until the next tragedy happens. This recurring cycle of action and reaction only serves to reinforce a community’s sense of helplessness and our belief that nothing can change.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. And, in fact, it appears that Albany and Schenectady have both turned a corner in developing sustained community responses to the epidemic of murders and suicides that have claimed the lives of a number of very young community members.
In Albany, the death by gunfire of 10-year-old Kathina Thomas in 2008 has generated a legacy of community responses, including the city-sponsored Gun Violence Task Force, the formation of the Community Coalition to Prevent Violence, state funding to the tune of $500,000 for an evidence-based gun violence prevention model known as SNUG, and unprecedented collaboration between the police department and key community stakeholders, including grassroots community groups and SUNY’s School of Social Welfare. (Now, if the state Legislature would just get its act together and come up with the promised funding…)
Schenectady is somewhat behind the curve. It’s scandal-ridden police department has a lot on its hands just trying to fire a few outlaw officers. However, Chief Mark Chaires’ father epitomized the community policing approach on Hamilton Hill before anyone knew what the words “community policing” meant. Let us hope that Chief Chaires, given time, will reorganize the police department in a way that honors and extends his father’s legacy.
The Schenectady City Council has appeared somewhat clueless – announcing that it may discontinue funding for the Weed and Seed community crime prevention program a mere week after two young men were gunned down in March. Unless the City Council relents, the $60,000 appropriation for Weed and Seed could be absorbed into the city’s 2011 $700,000 budget line for code enforcement.
However, grassroots efforts to address violence in Schenectady have been sustained ever since 2009 – when the community was awakened by a suicide cluster involving high school girls of color. At least two new community coalitions have formed: the Community Stakeholder’s Group, and the Community Empowerment Partnership. These are self-directed organizations that exist without any government funding. Both groups have formed around some common themes: 1. The violence affecting inner city communities is neither inevitable nor acceptable; and 2. Leadership in preventing violence is most effective when it comes from the community itself.
Last Saturday represented a landmark of sorts in Schenectady’s community organizing against violence when the Community Empowerment Partnership hosted a community retreat for about sixty residents of the neighborhoods most heavily affected by violence. The retreat took place over four hours at the Haven Family Life Center of Calvary Tabernacle Church on Albany Street. The theme of the day was Turning Ideas into Action. Participants processed a year’s worth of ideas and suggestions and formed themselves into four separate implementation teams that will pursue achievable, concrete actions to address the problems that are sending too many of our young people to prison or the morgue instead of to college.