Opinion: We can all help curb youth violence

ATLANTA FORWARD: VOICES AGAINST VIOLENCE: Children are only as good as their opportunities.
A funeral is held for 12-year-old Zyion Charles at First Iconium Baptist Church in Atlanta on Saturday, December 10, 2022. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

A funeral is held for 12-year-old Zyion Charles at First Iconium Baptist Church in Atlanta on Saturday, December 10, 2022. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Youth violence is a pervasive disease creeping through our city. In the past few weeks, a 15-year-old was shot at a party in Clayton County, and just a week before, we lost a 12- and 15-year-old to gun violence on the 17th Street bridge. But for every child we do hear or read about, there are more tragedies that don’t make the news.

In 2022, 71 children under the age of 18 were shot in metro Atlanta. At least 37 died. One is too many; 37 is staggering. We are losing talented kids from our urban cores to this violence.

I know from experience. I’m a product of an inner city. Thirty-two of my friends were murdered by 2007, and after that I quit counting. I’ve been doing this work for 15 years, and it is not easy to help a mom pick out a suit for her dead son. It’s not easy to navigate gangs that are territorial and protective, to learn who to talk to and how to operate within a situation that isn’t always optimal.

Derrick Townsend

Credit: contributed

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Credit: contributed

After spending decades working in community programming, I joined Atlanta nonprofit CHRIS 180 to lead its Teen Violence Reduction Program earlier this year. Our goal is to focus on youth ages 12 to 17 and reach them before they join a gang, become involved in violent crime, are incarcerated or killed on one of our streets.

Our program is about prevention and intervention, a critical piece of the puzzle. We know 31 percent of the crimes in Neighborhood Planning Unit (NPU) V, which includes Adair Park, Mechanicsville and Peoplestown, are committed by teens ages 12 to 17. For NPU-L, including English Avenue and Vine City, the same population accounts for 42 percent of crimes.

As we know, children are only as good as their opportunities, and it is up to all of us to get them the resources and services that they -- and their families -- need to help them get on a different path. We have great organizations doing great work around metro Atlanta. But we need to collaborate more. We need to help parents and communities understand the resources that are available and be available when they reach out.

This work should not be limited to nonprofits and government agencies. We need for individuals in our communities, businesses and corporations to get more involved. If we break down barriers and set aside our fears we can make a difference and do what’s necessary.

Sometimes we think it doesn’t affect us if it’s not our children, but that’s just not true. We are losing talented teens all around our area to this violence — the same kids who could very well shape a different and positive future in our communities, if they just have the chance. We must all be intentional and unapologetic about saving our communities and the lives of its future leaders.

It will take each one of us. Everyone has a role.

If you are reading this, you can reach out to organizations and schools. You can get involved. It is as simple as becoming active in the PTO or PTA, at your place of worship, volunteering at your local YMCA, or Boys and Girls Club or other nonprofit. And when you’re there, talk to the young people to see what they want, and what kinds of programs interest them. Ask them about their hopes and dreams. You might be surprised by what you hear.

I can’t stress enough that it takes each of us to make a change. We are seeing children die far too often. We have to make safety in our community a priority. Together, we hold the power to protect our children, ourselves and our community.

When we do our jobs we are providing opportunities for kids who couldn’t see another way before. And we’re saving lives along the way.

Learn more about CHRIS 180′s Teen Violence Reduction Program and join us. We honor the lived experiences of victims and survivors of violence. We partner with organizations to change social norms and strive to break the cycle of violence by developing programs that promote healthy and safe communities. Visit our website, call us, or volunteer in our program. We look forward to making a difference shoulder-to-shoulder with the community.

Derrick Townsend is a program manager at Atlanta nonprofit CHRIS 180. He leads the Teen Violence Reduction Program focused on youth ages 12 to 17 and has 15 years’ experience working with at-promise youth.