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Reformed Youths Talk Local Violence, Possible Solutions

With their days of street beef well behind them, a group of millennials, many of whom will soon enter their 30s immersed in the career field of their choice, reflected on their former lives and where they fit in efforts to quell the violence that continues to ravage parts of the District.

This recent brainstorming session, the first of many to come, took place in a spacious room several miles outside the familiar confines of participants’ stomping grounds. There, guests reunited with comrades and former enemies and spoke about a bevy of topics related to some described as traumatic experiences.

“The issues we face are deeply rooted so one day isn’t going to solve them,” said Alexis Hawkins, a student from Congress Park in Southeast currently in her first year at the Howard University School of Law.

Hawkins said her allegiance to her community cost her admission into every school in the D.C. Public Schools system. After obtaining her GED in Maryland, she attended and graduated from Benedict College in Columbia, South Carolina.

For Hawkins, a law degree will better allow her to help those coming behind her.

“It was good seeing a lot of participants,” she said. “I haven’t seen in five years. We got a lot of work to do with mentorship and giving back.”

By Saturday’s session at the Church of Scientology-National Affairs Office in Northwest, nearly two dozen homicides had taken place in the District since the new year, according to data compiled by the Metropolitan Police Department. A recent gun-involved incident at Ponds Street in Northeast involved a 12-year-old youngster who’s reportedly unconscious.

In response to an uptick in gun violence, Councilman Kenyan McDuffie (D-Ward 5) recently introduced legislation to fund a center to study gun violence.

Earlier this month, Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) and Attorney General Karl Racine announced the movement of local gun cases to federal court, much to the chagrin of some elected officials and local activists seeking what they call more holistic ways to address the underlying causes of intra-community violence.

Without hesitation, the more than a dozen 20- and 30-somethings from Lench Mob, Choppa City, Congress Park, Wahler Place and Robinson Place in Southeast and the Trinidad neighborhood in Northwest who attended Saturday’s discussion cited social media, gun proliferation, drug abuse and the absence of mediators with street credibility as elements that ferment the rampant violence overtaking their communities.

“We need to talk to these communities about how to govern themselves,” said Duane Cunningham, a violence interrupter known as Cousin Wayne from the Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement (ONSE), and a facilitator of Saturday’s meeting. “A lot of adults don’t deal with one another, so that makes the children do the same thing.”

Cunningham, along with other ONSE members, guided the young people in their analysis of key similarities and differences between their upbringing and that of their teenage peers. He said that the solution to neighborhood violence lies with the residents who call those communities home.

“We’re not showing an example of how a village looks. It doesn’t take a lot to have these meetings. We just have to push the beef to the side,” he said.

Activist and returning citizens advocate Tony Lewis Jr., also in attendance, conferred with the youth and later passed out copies of his memoir “Slugg: A Boy’s Life in the Age of Mass Incarceration” along with a study guide that compels introspection. He too weighed in on the conversation, pointing out that many of the elders that disillusioned youth needed had incarcerated for long stints during the War on Drugs and subsequent iterations.

Years after squashing their beef, Damon Sams, a professional rapper known as 9milli from Lench Mob, and Bernard “BJ” Hodges of Choppa City, spoke about their changes as a matter of life or death.

Sams, in particular, said that he didn’t want to squander the blessings he received, especially after a relatively light prison sentence for involuntary manslaughter and possession of a firearm in the shooting death of Ashley McRae in 2010.

“When I came home, I promised myself not to sell drugs [because] I have my daughter,” Sams said. “Being in the position I was in and now working at DC Water, you don’t get those kinds of opportunities and blessings unless you stick to your morals and principles.

“Getting that 10 years was a blessing because it made me realize it was time for a change,” he said. “You have to stay patient and be willing to ask for and accept help.”

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