COMMENTARY: What are we willing to do for our at-risk kids?

On a sad, recent day as I was driving with tears in my eyes to Dayton’s Hilltop Apartments to canvas after the murder of 14-year-old James Banks Jr., I couldn’t stop thinking about gun violence as a mental-health disease and firearm injuries as a public-health issue.

In the words of American law professor Lawrence Gostin, "We can and should use the Law as a tool to prevent and control firearm injuries." I ran into nine young people who were frustrated and started venting to me, "Mr. Shack, there's nothing to do and nobody really cares about us! Why are the rec centers closed to us; churches only opened on Sundays; the library kicked us out saying we're too loud and rowdy; nobody wants to mentor us and keep it real; teachers are scared of us and don't understand us; parents are more concerned about their own survival, so gangs become our family.

“No damn jobs after school, either. Community schools are not open after school. Our role models are dope girls and dope boys. We’re having unprotected sex. Smoking a lot of weed and getting drunk helps us cope with problems every day — Daddy’s gone or in jail or prison; police act like they hate us and want to lock us up.

OPINION: What boxing taught me about life.

“Some of us see we are our own worst enemy. Mr. Shack, we scared to death and everybody lies to us — and we know Black lives or even poor lives don’t matter (sarcastically laughing).

“Mr. Shack, where are the leaders and politicians at? Here comes the news … (laughing). We out!”

In the background as the young people were shouting out the problem they kept repeating, "There are not enough programs that work!" So let me keep it real to make it right about "hit-and-miss" programs.

There’s a difference between: 1) an event (annually and usually a fund-raiser); 2) a program (3-5 years, finances run out and program is dissolved); 3) a system (5-8 years, even though institutionalized it loses political or social structure therefore dissolving); and 4) a culture (lifestyle or way of life).

PERSPECTIVE: We have a double standard when it comes to religion and violence.

The goal should be a culture or way of life. If you don’t have a culture you have a cult (disease or mental illness). Culture is the basis for one’s behaviors, attitude, and values; it defines who are you and whose you are. Culture holds people together, culture provides consistency, culture creates communities, culture promotes best practices that are evidence based not just experience based. Examples of the kind of lasting culture I’m talking about are the Bar/Bat-mitzvah, or Rites of Passage Programs.

But the $64,000 question is this: Do we care and are we willing to infuse culture? The $64,000 answer is that we must unify (come together), collaborate (work together), and organize (plan together) to grow fewer violent children and, ultimately, communities.

In every community there is work to be done and it takes all of us to make a difference. Working with Black boys requires we play chess, not checkers, to save them.

Marlon “Shack” Shackelford is Omega Street Advocate Supervisor and a longtime community activist in Dayton.

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