Are you serious about youth violence?

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When my colleague kindly invited me to participate in the National Forum on Youth Violence Prevention, my first impression was that we were talking about something beyond a usual summit. And this impression was confirmed once I was there.
Tens of roundtables, hundreds of testimonies and more than 400 community leaders, policy-makers, advocates, and researchers came together for a common purpose: to become serious about youth violence prevention.
The Forum started in 2010 under the direction of President Obama as a response to the tragic situation that many youth living in the United States are constantly facing. Since then, federal agencies, local governments and community-based organizations meet each year to discuss their challenges, share their possible improvements and continue building comprehensive solutions to stop youth and gang violence.
The numbers are quite shocking: an average of 16 young people murdered every day in the country, homicide is the third leading cause of youth’s death and more than 700,000 people between 10 and 24 years old are treated in emergency rooms for injuries related to physical assault. The profile of victims and perpetrators’ is sadly quite predictable: African American and other males from different minorities, especially youth and young adults.
Although the crime rate is not as high as in some Latin American countries, there are several similarities related to who is most affected by violence (both as victims and as perpetrators) and the type of interventions that might be most effective to prevent the loss of young lives.
Conscious of these common challenges and the importance of creating regional synergies, this year the Forum, in collaboration with the World Bank’s Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) Citizen Security Team, hosted for the first time an international panel. Cities’ mayors and representatives from state departments in Brazil, Colombia, Honduras and Mexico came together to present innovative interventions and foster regional alliances to stop youth violence.
The man on the moon strategy
The first day of the Forum, I was talking with a colleague from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) about what might be the most effective approach to prevent this form of violence and he shared an inspiring story that a NASA Museum guide told him. 
“How did we manage to send the man on the moon?” he asked the guide.
Surprisingly the guide came back with a very simple answer: Dear friend, he said, we managed to send the man on the moon with technology less sophisticated than our mobile phones. What made this happen was the joint efforts among different sectors and expertise: Sleep specialists were investigating how human sleep works outside the terrestrial planet, nutritionists researched what a man should eat when travelling through the space and physicists how a man could survive in a space lacking gravity.
I was fascinated by the story, but I could not understand the link with youth violence until I started diving into the Forum and realized that the “man on the moon strategy” was the same approach that we were applying in the Forum.
Members of the forum share the understanding that youth violence is a complex and multifaceted social problem that calls all sectors and society’s members to join in a common effort. Multi-disciplinarily and multiple-sectors engagement is a key element and coordination among federal agencies and city-wide partnerships are essential to support local efforts and build effective coalition.
Rodrigo Guerrero, Mayor of Cali and precursor in the LAC Region in the application of the public health method to violence prevention, is an exemplary case of the “man on the moon approach”. The strategy he developed through a successful combination of policy and interventions related to restriction of firearms, alcohol control, improvement of police performance, public spaces recuperation and early childhood and youth programs lead to the lowest homicide rate in Cali in the last 20 years.
The Mayor of the City of Oakland, California, brought an indicative experience to the discussion explaining that, although her city implemented a variety of data driven strategies and evidence-based programs to reduce youth violence in the last decade, the effectiveness of these strategies was being called into question until a local coalition had been built to align and coordinate all efforts.
Children and youth playing in a public space in Cali, Colombia.

Building bridges between countries
In Latin America, there are many challenges and similar strategies to put an end to youth violence. Renato Lima, Vice President of the Brazilian Forum for Public Safety, presented the results of the Brazilian Public Safety Yearbook, and explained how race plays an important role in defining victims and perpetrators of violence among youth in Brazil: Afro descendants are 30.5% more likely to be a victim of homicide and 18.4 % more likely to be imprisoned than the rest of the population. The City of Teresinha, in Piauí, pointed out that the challenge of addressing violence against Afro-Brazilian Youth can benefit from the American experience.
Building bridges between countries often lead to fruitful outcomes, such as in the case of Mexico and the City of Seattle. After getting to know Foro Shakespeare, one of the interventions that the Mexican Government is implementing, teaching inmates about drama under its comprehensive National Program to Prevent Youth Crime and Violence, the City of Seattle decided to replicate the same experience.  
The role of youth leaders
After talking about local strategies and international interventions, someone could point out: we are talking about youth violence but what about the youth?
Youth were at the center of every discussion during the Forum and were represented by youth leaders who talked about their meaningful role in youth violence prevention.
When asked why she was involved in youth violence prevention, one of the youth leaders replied that she didn’t have a choice. “The persons that are criminalized, killed, murdered”, she explained “are our brothers, friends, fathers and uncles, so there is no other choice for me than to be here. This is where I have to be.” Another youth leader explained that he was there because a lot of his friends committed suicide. He made clear that youth’s engagement in preventing youth violence is needed “…because if this fear won’t end there won’t be any hope for the future.”
The Mayor of Tela, in Honduras, the country that has the highest homicide rate in the world, explained how youth’s and community’s engagement have been instrumental in starting moving from a culture of fear and hate to a culture of values and peace. There are two critical elements in his strategy: build trust and foster solidarity. Solidarity to improve families and communities’ healthy social bound that keeps youth out of the street and trust to foster the relation between the population and the government, where transparency plays a critical role.
A young police officer explained that his dream was to become either an athlete or a rapper but that exposure to violence lead him to be a police officer. His story helped understand how peer to peer collaboration is a powerful instrument to engage more youth in this effort. For him, the first step to get youth out of the streets is to build a relationship, a personal connection with them. He also called for more jobs, housing and education in communities to reduce the risk of youth’s engagement in criminal activities and violence.
Street scene in El Salvador.

Call to Action
A strong call to action came from William Bell, President of the Casey Family Programs. “Are we serious about it?” he repeatedly asked. 
Dr. Bell called to a deeper inner reflection to change the “street”, using the word “street” as synonym of the deep racial division still raging in the United States. “We have been changing kids…” he said “…but are we serious about changing the streets?” he asked. As Loretta Lynch, the U.S. Attorney General, stated during the opening remarks, children and youth’s destinies should not be decided by a zip code.
Youth violence and racial division are not inevitable and a choice is still possible. The alternative, explained Dr. Bell, is the realization of common opportunities, which require national commitment = every single person needs to have a new understanding and a new will to build families and communities of hope.
This is the moment. There is no moment given to us other than the present! So let’s put men and women on the moon and be serious about youth violence.

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