Courtesy of Duane Cunningham/ONSE
Courtesy of Duane Cunningham/ONSE

At the beginning of the year, violence interrupters embarked on a mission to settle longtime disputes between young men from opposing neighborhoods. The first gathering in February reunited a group of reformed 20-somethings who discussed methods of helping their younger peers.

The second meeting, which recently took place at the Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement (ONSE) in Northeast, brought together more than a dozen teenagers and young men from Robinson Place, Choppa City, Condon Terrace and the MLK communities of Southeast who had been long been on the verge of clashing.

“This event made me feel safe,” said Kevin Pinkett, a Ballou STAY student who expressed plans of attending Livingstone College in Salisbury, North Carolina next fall. “We talked about respect and how the people around you aren’t really your friends.”

Since meeting violence interrupters from Cure the Streets DC last year, Pinkett, hailing from Barry Farm and Robinson Place, said he’s taken advantage of employment opportunities and other resources. He also recounted attending public events outside of Cure the Street’s office on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue below The Washington Informer office.

On May 1, Pinkett’s journey continued as he and other young men discussed the conditions in their communities and brainstormed strategies to help them stay focused amid negative peer pressure.

During the 90-minute session, participants answered questions about conflicts and safe problem-solving tactics before breaking in groups, each one focused on topics discussed earlier in the evening.

Pinkett said the experience reaffirmed his decision to walk alone as he pursues academic success.

“I don’t hang with a group of people,” said Pinkett, 18. “I just want to get my high school diploma and study technology. When I look all around, someone is dying. We are beefing over shoes and girls, so I just stay to myself and out of the way.”

As of Monday, nearly 60 people, a significant number of whom were teenagers and young adults, were homicide victims in the District. The Metropolitan Police Department recently announced the arrest of a 29-year-old man in connection with a murder of a 57-year-old road worker on Southern Avenue in April. During that month, D.C. police recovered more than 180 handguns and arrested 11 youth in illegal weapon possession cases.

In response to violence engulfing pockets of the District, ONSE opened its doors in 2017 under which part and full-time violence interrupters enter neighborhoods and establish relationships with community members as part of an effort to settle, and in many cases prevent, squabbles between warring groups.

Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) recently allocated $2.5 million for the expansion of the ONSE’s program.

Another event scheduled for the late summer will bring together male middle school students on their way to Ballou Senior High School next fall.

Duane Cunningham, an intervention specialist at ONSE, said more preventative measures must be taken to allow young men the opportunity to know each other in safe spaces.

“The youth at the first event had beef, but [here] we’re preventing a beef,” Cunningham said. “For this event, they bring at least two of their buddies. When they go to Ballou, they all usually come this way on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue to fight.

“This [plan] comes from experience,” he said. “We saw how we fixed a big problem [last time], and duplicated it so we can change things before he problem came up [again].”

Sam P.K. Collins has more than a decade of experience as a journalist, columnist and organizer. Sam, a millennial and former editor of WI Bridge, covers education, police brutality, politics, and other...

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