An organisation can have an innovative and well-designed programme to tackle gang activity, but who they choose to deliver that work will determine how effective it is. From my time in New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and DC, I have seen that the most successful programmes have one common factor: credible messengers working on the ground with young people.
What is a credible messenger?
A credible messenger is someone who is able to connect and work with a target group, authentically and credibly due to their background or experience. Often, this happens naturally. Those of us who have worked in the VAWG sector know that the thing driving a large proportion of us to work in this field, is first-hand experience. Having someone who can speak passionately and authentically to vulnerable young people is fundamental in order to change behaviours.
In Baltimore, the Violence Interuptors had, in another life been violence facilitators. Garnel, the site manager for Safe Streets East, had been in prison for 20 years, for a number of different gang related charges.
Now, he is a leader in the very same community, working with young people to stop them going down a similar path. His colleague Dante had a similar story, and with family and friends who still participate in criminal activity, these men have strong will power and conviction to change their lives and the lives of others. Their experience guides them to support young people in their community.
Jason, an outreach worker at GRASP, told me how important his lived experience is, in order build trust with the young people he works with. The outreach workers at GRASP, look and sound similar to the young people receiving support, but they also show them an alternative path to the one they are on, by living it. The men and women working at GRASP are living examples of making good, safe decisions and turning away from gang and street life.
The first step for an intervention service is getting people engaged in the programme. Recruiting credible messengers like Dante, Jason or Garnel will create links into communities that other services normally struggle to reach.