DeVone Boggan believes in peace, love and understanding as a solution to urban gun violence — and data shows he may be onto something.
Daily check-ins. Wisdom from elders. A support system of people who help you articulate your goals and want to see you succeed.
Those might sound like perks of being in a loving family, but DeVone Boggan, founder of Advance Peace, a nonprofit dedicated to ending gun violence, is tapping into them to help a more surprising demographic: urban gun violence offenders.
More than 117,000 people die of gun violence in the U.S. each year, and many of those casualties take place in impoverished and underserved communities of color.
A misconception is that we can arrest our way out of it, says Boggan. “The data clearly tells us traditional approaches aren’t working, and the human and financial costs associated with this failure are abhorrent and unacceptable.”
Is the problem also the solution?
In late 2007, Boggan was working in Richmond, Calif., as the city’s first neighborhood safety director. He witnessed daily bloodshed on the streets.
“I knew what I was seeing was not normal or necessary,” he says. “I knew we had to find answers and do something different and I committed myself to that struggle and discovery. “
At the time, the city of just over 100,000 residents was dogged by such high levels of gun violence that per capita, it was more dangerous than Chicago, Boggan says.
Yet data from 2009 showed that just28 men were thought to be responsible for 70 percent of the city’s gun violence that year — and none of them had been successfully arrested or prosecuted for the crimes they were suspected of committing.
“At the time, the city of just over 100,000 residents was dogged by such high levels of gun violence that per capita, it was more dangerous than Chicago.
“That was mind-boggling,” says Boggan. “All those guys walking around free to commit more gun violence, even with intensified law enforcement attention.”
So if more police in the neighborhood weren’t helping, what would?
The solution Boggan came up with was decidedly out of the box: What if they attempted to end the cycle of violence by helping offenders? What if, instead of putting more resources into locking them up, they attempted to put these young men’s lives on a completely different, and peaceful, trajectory?
“It wasn’t a popular concept for the community or law enforcement,” Boggan admits. “These are guys [the police] had been chasing and been unsuccessful at prosecuting. In their eyes, they don’t deserve opportunity. They’ve done too much destruction, destroyed the city, ruined families. I get it, but I felt that unless and until police can remove those who continue to shoot from the streets, we need to instruct, inspire, motivate and support these individuals to change their destructive behaviors on their own.”
By the time street outreach workers — aka “Neighborhood Change Agents” — reached out to the 28 men, three had already become victims of gun violence. Boggan got a message to the remaining 25, all in their teens and twenties: Come to City Hall. This isn’t a police sting, you won’t be arrested, but you should come and hear about a lifestyle alternative you may be interested in.
21 joined the fledgling “Peacemaker Fellowship.”
For 18 months, they were contacted multiple times each day by someone from the program. They weren’t just asked, “Hey, how are you?” but were engaged in discussion about their personal and professional goals, conflict negotiation, substance abuse, parenting, spirituality and finances.
They were also connected to available resources and support opportunities. “And not only referred, but ‘We’re going to take you by the hand and walk you into those organizations, and make sure they do for you what they do for everyone else,’” says Boggan.
After six months of progress, fellows became eligible for an allowance of up to $1,000 each month “to help stabilize their chaotic lifestyle and celebrate their success,” Boggan explains. There was also the opportunity for “transformative travel” — trips outside Richmond to visit college campuses, participate in community service programs … and meet with parents who’d lost a child to gun violence.
“The point is to broaden their horizons, but also give them time to breathe without having to be so hyper-alert to what’s going on around them,” Boggan says. “We want them to like how that feels.”
Part of the deal: When going outside the state or country, fellows had to agree to travel with their enemies, sitting next to each other on airplanes or eating together at restaurants.
“They don’t come home all ‘Kumbaya,’” says Boggan, “but it’s a beautiful exchange to witness.”
A human solution
Thanks to Boggan’s program, Richmond saw a staggering 66 percent decrease in gun violence between 2010 and 2017. Of the 84 fellows who completed a fellowship during that time, 94 percent are still alive and 77 percent are not suspected of perpetrating further gun violence.
The city of Richmond continues to facilitate the Peacemaker Fellowship. Through Advance Peace, Boggan now replicates the program for other cities like Sacramento, Calif., and Stockton, Calif. Next year, it will expand to 39 cities across the country.
“These guys are human beings. We have to see them as part of a solution.
While the tendency might be to resent gun violence offenders, “these guys are human beings,” Boggan says. “We have to see them as part of a solution. If they don’t make healthier decisions, we’ll continue to see more of the same.”
For people who feel helpless because of crime in their community, Boggan has a message: Don’t lose hope.
“We know what works to stop gun violence in urban neighborhoods,” he says. “Impacted communities must become more informed and action-oriented.”
It’s also important to advocate for local policymakers to adopt interventions like Advance Peace that not only support neighborhood empowerment but also save lives, says Boggan. “Unless and until police can remove them from the streets, those at the center of firearm hostilities should be influenced toward ending their violent behavior themselves. Advance Peace equips the urban communities most impacted by gun violence with the emotional intelligence necessary to thrive in peace.”
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