The East Side Boys and the Selby Siders

This post from Steve Nelson, Amicus Communications Director . . .

We’ve all seen the stories in the media about gang violence – teenagers dying and neighborhoods watching their sense of safety and security dissolve in gunfire.  Amicus Adult Transitions Director Russel Balenger has seen it in his own family. The difference is that now, through Amicus, he’s doing something about it.

Three of Russel’s grandchildren have been involved in gangs and one has been shot twice in resulting violence. The reports he hears are tales of conflicts between the “East Side Boys” and “Selby Siders,” and even “Selby Siders” fighting amongst themselves. Russel talks of parents and grandparents feeling helpless and victimized by the violence involving their children. Even worse, after negative interactions with police, the relatives sometimes feel as if they themselves are being treated as criminals after lifetimes spent leading law-abiding lives.

To help rebuild neighborhood and family connections and reduce violence, Russel and several other Amicus staff are starting and supporting the Peace Circle Initiative. The group has been meeting every Monday evening at Unity Church Unitarian in St. Paul since March, 2010. Discussions have revolved around themes such as “spreading the virus of connection” among the community, gang members and law enforcement, “show up to succeed” “know the kids,” “change the idea that no one cares,” “help parents to not write off their kids,” “support people becoming who they want to be,” “be courageous,” and others.

The initiative has developed as its mission statement: “We are a grassroots organization of peacemakers committed to breaking the cycle of inner city youth violence.”

Russel said that among the group’s first priorities is to strengthen connections between parents and law enforcement, adding that many parents distrust police officers, who have sometimes entered their homes in search of unrelated gang members.

“Let’s be partners in this,” he said. “Parents want to help. They don’t want their kids locked up. They need to be able to feel they can talk to law enforcement instead of run from them.  The whole point is to put parents and relatives in a positive situation in which they could turn to each other for support. It’s an effort to become a community again – as it should be.”

He said that Amicus is uniquely positioned to help in this area because of the agency’s experience with inmates and ex-offenders.

“We’re able to do with it more effectively because we don’t have the fear factor,” Russel said. “People look at gang members and say they’re criminals. We see them as human beings who have made a mistake.”

Attendance at the Peace Circle Initiative is growing–watch for follow-up posts on this topic.