Activist gains insight on Toledo youth's needs amid rampant gun violence

·6 min read

May 8—When Toledo set a homicide record last year with 61 deaths, 28 of the victims were age 24 or younger. So were another seven of the 20 victims killed so far this year.

Equally as heartbreaking, 28 of the 58 known suspects in those deaths also were in the same adolescent-to-young adult age range, a Blade database of city homicide victims and suspects found.

"These kids have different problems than we have. They have to worry about making it to where they're going because they can be shot or killed just walking to the store," said David Ross, a community activist and youth boxing coach helping to spearhead initiatives to end the area's gun violence.

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Much of the shooting, he said, revolves around gang activity: shooting for the gang, defending the gang, retaliating against someone who slighted the gang, or simply being friends with or in proximity to someone in a gang.

It's a vicious cycle that youth can't seem to escape, especially when the gang or one of its members may be their best support system for money, food, housing, stability, companionship, a sense of belonging, protection.

"They're sleeping on the couch at the dude's house who's getting shot up, or the dude's house who is selling dope. Then it goes to, 'Ok, this is my brother, this is my person who I'm willing to live and die for, and that's what you see going on," Mr. Ross said. "[The friend] goes out actively in a gang and gets killed, now this kid has trauma that he don't know how to address, so then ultimately he becomes so trauma-driven that he becomes a shooter also for revenge. That's the cycle you see, right now.

"I ask them, where does this end?" Mr. Ross continued. "And a lot of them feel like it will end with their life. They think, 'He tried to kill me, I tried to kill him. One of us gotta die.' They don't see another way."

How, then, can Toledo show them another way? What services do they want and who will they accept them from to help end the cycle of killing?

"The only way you figure out how to fix that is asking them," Mr. Ross said.

Avis Files, a program director with Pathway, Inc., Mr. Ross and other youth advocates from Lucas County Children Services and the YMCA took to the streets last summer to do just that. They spent weeks walking through low-income neighborhoods offering $5 gift cards to any youth they encountered between the ages of 12 and 24 who was willing to answer a 12-question survey on what living in Toledo was like for them.

The survey asked kids whom they looked to for guidance in achieving their hopes and goals, who they trusted, what resources they want help with, whether they felt heard and supported in the community, how often they're experiencing violence, and how they view police officers.

They talked to 184 youth, 152 of whom consistently answered all of the questions. Most were eager to share.

"They were almost waiting, like, somebody is finally asking us what we want," Ms. Files said.

The youth said they wanted help with finding work, finances, education, housing, and transportation. A majority of respondents said violence was strongly affecting their community, but they didn't seem to want to turn to law enforcement to stop it.

When asked if they felt young people are racially targeted by police, 73 percent said yes, despite roughly 69 percent also reporting they had witnessed or experienced only neutral or positive interactions with officers.

The youth also weren't interested in hearing from the organizations and programs that have been created over the years in an attempt to reach them.

Only 14 respondents said they currently receive support from community providers, and only seven said they trust support from those agencies.

So where then would youth turn?

Mostly to their parents, they say, although relatives, friends, teachers, and coaches also topped the list.

For Ms. Files, it confirmed the importance of two of Pathway's main services, Brothers United or Sisters United, which focus on helping mothers and fathers become better parents by addressing some of the challenges that may keep them from fulfilling that wish, be they substance abuse, poverty, education, or trauma.

Kids are looking to their parents for guidance to avoid feeling forced to resort to dangerous street life, she said, but mothers and fathers can't parent if they're not home because they're working multiple jobs to support their families or having to chase other needs.

The solution then, she and Mr. Ross agree, is to first build up the parents or family relationships — the anchors of what they call "social capital" — and the benefits will trickle down.

"The parents don't know what to do, they come from a place of being given up on also. It's generational. They don't know what structure is," Mr. Ross said. "So right now, [for youth] no other organization replicates the social capital of gangs."

So how can the community better reach and support parents? What other solutions might work? That's where the city needs the community's help.

In April, JoJuan Armour, who the city recently hired as commissioner of a gun-violence reduction initiative, invited residents to participate in a community discussion to address the last year's violence, especially involving youth. A second event is scheduled for May 15 from 2-4 p.m. at Woodward High School, 701 E. Central Ave., to discuss "ideas to move toward a safer Toledo," the city's website says.

Residents may attend this event in person or virtually.

Whatever those solutions are, Mr. Ross and Ms. Files feel they should follow the motto, "Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime."

That means not just finding things for youth to do, like go to the pool or movies, but teaching them something to be, they said.

Don't send them to summer camp to work with a counselor, train them to be the counselor, Ms. Files said. Don't help them find jobs on the internet, hire them. Don't tell them to leave a gang, give them something to replace it and show up to help them along the way.

"It's not build it and they will come," Ms. Files said. "It's build it, be authentic, build your trust, go get them, and then they'll come and they'll keep coming back."

First Published May 8, 2021, 4:00pm

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