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East Harlem Kids Brainstorm Solutions to Gang Violence

By Jeff Mays | March 11, 2011 6:54am | Updated on March 11, 2011 7:24am

By Jeff Mays

DNAinfo Reporter/Producer

HARLEM — Anthony Holiday moved from Brooklyn to East Harlem because he feared for his safety after a confrontation with a street gang.

But when the 18-year-old arrived in Harlem, he found a similar problem with gangs waiting for him.

"I'm seeing teen violence and gangs all over my community," said Holiday, who was one of more than 200 East Harlem young people who sounded off on gang violence Thursday night at a meeting organized by Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito and the El Barrio/East Harlem Youth Violence Task Force.

"I want to work for a collective solution to end the violence in my community and rebuild the community," Holiday added.

The goal of the meeting was to hear from kids — the group most affected by gang violence — about ways to halt the problem in their community.

'We are not here to talk at you but to listen," Mark-Viverito told the students, parents, teachers and community leaders who attended the meeting. "We all have to be involved in our community to make it safe."

The gang problem in Harlem has grown rapidly over the last few years. In 2007, there were only about 20 crews. Today, there are about 40 spread across upper Manhattan, and gangs have recruited more than 1,000 members.

The increase in the number of gangs or crews has led to shootings over territory and affiliation with young people saying they don't feel safe walking through their own neighborhoods.

"The things we tried in the past haven't worked. That's why we are coming to you for your thoughts and feelings" said community activist Sean 'Dino' Johnson.

The students brainstormed about the reasons youth violence and gangs are plaguing their community and then broke into smaller groups to discuss solutions. They blamed bullying, easy access to guns, and poor role models as some of the contributing factors to supporting gang behavior, and asked for increase in after-school programs, mentoring programs and stronger parental control as possible ways to combat it.

The Rev. Vernon Williams of Perfect Peace Ministry said kids should challenge "community fear" which sometimes means addressing the  negative behavior of the "friend sitting next to you."

Renaissance Charter High School for Innovation principal and co-founder Nicholas Tishuk said schools need to provide more safe spaces "to help young people create their own solutions."

"It's the young people in this community that can make a difference," added Nina Saxon, a board member of East Harlem YouthBuild, a nonprofit agency that works with local youth.

One participant said that while the gathering was encouraging, it was not reaching the kids who are actively involved or most at risk for gang activity.

"These are the good kids," he said.

Johnny Rivera, director of community and government affairs for Harlem RBI, a nonprofit organization that runs baseball clinics with local youth, said the violence affects kids whether they're "good" or not. He cited the fear among some of the kids involved in his after school program who were too afraid to come to Thursday night's meeting.

"There was a fear of walking out of here and being roughed up for speaking out against gangs," said Rivera.

Mark-Viverito said it's going to take the entire community to solve the gang problem. The meeting is one in a line of several that she plans to hold.

Previous meetings have focused on issues facing kids in public housing — leading to a meeting between residents of James Weldon Johnson Houses and the New York City Housing about a long-promised recreation center.

"These conversations are about engaging young people in the solution. We all live in the same community. We all know what's going on. We have to work collectively to address this challenge," said Mark-Viverito.

Marlon Silva, 12, a sixth-grader at P.S. 171 and a Harlem RBI participant said he was encouraged by the meeting.

"Everyone sees what's going on but no one is talking about it," said Silva. "I see people in a gang who think they can do whatever they want but they don't see that they are hurting people. They don't think they can change but they can."