Street Smart Redefined

October 20, 2017

Ex-offenders rewrite the code of the streets.

Johns Hopkins Magazine, June 2008, By Mat Edelson –
*Names in this intervention have been changed to protect identities.

Some days on the streets, words mean nothing. If you’re known as a drug dealer, people think you’re involved when something bad goes down in your neighborhood — no matter what you’ve said to distance yourself from a potential problem. Take Jon-Jon. One night, hanging on the street, he spotted his girlfriend, Nene, wandering down an alley acting suspicious. Jon-Jon called her over, with one thought on his mind. What’s she up to? Nene confessed: She was thinking of helping another friend rob a dealer’s drug stash hidden in the alley.

That’s all I need, thought Jon-Jon, who understood, even if Nene didn’t, that everything she did reflected on him. Jon-Jon bluntly told Nene that what she was planning was foolish. Even though he figured it was just talk — Nene, like so many neighborhood girls, generally stirred up more trouble with their tongues than their actions — Jon-Jon wanted to send Nene a message: He wanted no part of her nonsense, and refused to accept any potential blame if she went through with her plan.

“If anything comes back to me, that’s on you,” Jon-Jon warned his girlfriend. And with that, Jon-Jon walked away from the alley, to another part of the neighborhood. He thought his words would protect him.

They didn’t. Unbeknownst to Jon-Jon, the rip-off went down. Within minutes, that dealer, Snaz, discovered his drugs were gone. Who did it? Snaz canvassed the bystanders. Yeah, they’d seen someone lurking about. Nene.

Snaz put one and one together and figured Jon-Jon was involved. So Snaz made a call. To Jon-Jon. Only Snaz played dumb, asked if he could buy some drugs from Jon-Jon. Nothing unusual there as far as Jon-Jon was concerned. Deals between dealers were always part of the game. The two soon met. Jon-Jon had the drugs in his hand. But instead of handing Jon-Jon money, Snaz grabbed the drugs and ran.

Jon-Jon saw red. In the heat of the moment, it didn’t occur to him that Nene had gone through with her plan, and that Snaz was only seeking to steal back the drugs that had been stolen from him. In Jon-Jon’s mind, he’d been robbed for no reason. And in his world, that leads to only one thought.

I’m ready to kill him.

It was the code of the street. No more, no less. The same code that kept him alive and respected. Only this time Jon-Jon changed the code. He reached for his cell, dialed a number. And stopped a massacre. No one died. Not a shot was fired. These days, in this neighborhood, words sometimes mean everything.

Blocks away from Johns Hopkins’ East Baltimore medical campus, faculty at the Bloomberg School of Public Health are evaluating a new program aimed at stopping shootings and murders plaguing the inner city. Called Safe Streets, the program has a simple premise: Take ex-offenders who have turned their lives around and put them back on the streets. Only this time they’ve been trained as mediators, to use their survival instincts and longtime relationships to sense trouble brewing and intervene before it can escalate. Safe Streets is modeled on a Chicago program known as CeaseFire, begun by infectious disease specialist Gary Slutkin, an MD and public health clinician at the University of Illinois at Chicago. In Africa, Slutkin used outreach workers to combat the epidemic spread of HIV. Many public health officials noted that gun violence waxed and waned with similar epidemic propensities, so Slutkin adapted his outreach models for inner-city shootings, and had spectacular success: Beginning in 2000, shootings dropped an average of 69 percent in 12 different Chicago urban hotspots.

In that moment, the code of street retaliation had been rewritten. Reflecting on the intervention, Jon-Jon says, “That let me know that you can be bigger than the situation.”Now, Daniel Webster, associate director for research at the Bloomberg School’s Center for the Prevention of Youth Violence, is measuring the impact Safe Streets is having on the McElderry Park neighborhood just east of Johns Hopkins’ medical campus. With regards to reducing gun violence, Webster says Safe Streets is the first program he’s seen in Baltimore that uses outreach workers who walk the streets until the wee hours of the morning and whose main focus is “to stop people from shooting each other.” Webster describes the 10 outreach workers, who are full-time employees of Safe Streets, as familiar faces from the neighborhood who understand firsthand the mindset of the dealers and gang members with whom they interact. “Most [street] guys want to maintain a ‘tough guy’ image, but they don’t want to shoot each other,” he says. “Having someone out there who becomes known for finding different ways to address [disagreements], it’s just like a safety valve that wasn’t there before. It becomes recognized as something legitimate.”

The Safe Streets program has two offices in Baltimore. In Safe Streets East’s second floor office on Monument Street, Jon-Jon talks movingly about the moment he reached for that safety valve. He’s sitting next to the man he called, Tard Carter. To Jon-Jon, Carter is more than an outreach worker; he’s a big brother, someone who has been watching his back for years, long before Safe Streets began operating full time last July. Carter, 31, says Jon-Jon reminds him of his younger self: Street smart and street successful. Intelligent. Intense. Quiet. Respected. Jon-Jon, 18, doesn’t deal for kicks but to eat: He has to support four siblings, his mother, and a niece. A boy forced to become a man, the man, way before his time. The same way Carter and most of his fellow mediators had to hit the streets to hustle as youngsters.

Carter, who served time on possession of drugs, says that he always wanted to find a way to help, even when he was hustling. In Safe Streets, he has. Carter had passed on to Jon-Jon some of his Safe Streets training in objective thinking. Part of that training involves looking only at the facts of a situation, as opposed to adding hostile assumptions that can lead to dangerous conclusions. “[Carter] taught me how to look at things from different points of view,” says Jon-Jon. “Don’t go with the first instinct. Ask, ‘Why is this happening? What’s going on?'”

It was that kind of thinking that caused Jon-Jon to pause after Snaz snatched his drugs. Instead of striking out violently, Jon-Jon used his cell to reach Carter. Within minutes, Carter arrived on the scene and intervened not once but twice in the next half-hour to prevent violence. Using his street contacts, Carter made a few calls and was able to bring Jon-Jon and Snaz together in an alley, away from prying eyes and ears. Carter got them to agree, in his words, to “settle their beef.” Yet moments later, things escalated again when Jon-Jon’s family marched up and got involved, demanding that Snaz pay Jon-Jon the money he was owed for the drugs. This time, with dozens of people suddenly milling about, Carter was the only thing keeping the powder keg and the match apart. He was a lone voice of respected reason, using every bit of savvy and intuition at his disposal to buy precious seconds. Finally, one of Snaz’s friends jumped up and yelled, “Look! I’ll give you the money!” That man then walked over to Jon-Jon’s mother and paid her for the drugs, defusing the situation.

In a sense, in that moment, the code of street retaliation had been rewritten, which may be the essence of Safe Streets’ mission. Reflecting later on Carter’s intervention and the successful outcome, Jon-Jon says, “That let me know that you can be bigger than the situation. It made me realize you don’t have to care how nobody looks at you. At the end of the day, I had more than he took. I was still living.”

Jon-Jon looks at his mentor and friend Tard Carter and thinks of what might have been.

“If I hadn’t called him,” says Jon-Jon of the incident, “it would still be going on.”

According to Hopkins’ Webster, preliminary indications are that the Safe Streets program, which is administered through the Living Classrooms Foundation and the Baltimore City Health Department’s Office of Youth Violence Prevention, is having an impact. In the three years prior to the arrival of Safe Streets East, Post 221 (the term post is a police designation, in this case a roughly 12-square-block area bounded by Patterson Park Avenue and Monument, Fayette, and Linwood streets) saw 25 shootings, including 10 last year. Nine of those shootings resulted in homicides. Post 221 was, in police parlance, a “hot” area. After Safe Streets opened its doors full time last July, things cooled off. Shootings plummeted: There was a five-month stretch with no shootings and no homicides, according to police records. “I’ll guess that in recent history we’re not going to find that length of non-shooting,” says Webster, who adds, “I’m particularly impressed at how quickly the outreach workers were able to go out and mediate conflicts. I thought it would take longer to gain trust.”

Safe Streets was so successful that a second post in neighboring Elwood Park was added full time in February. Overall, after nine months of operation in Post 221, there have been six shootings, no deaths, and more than two dozen mediations. But while it’s easy to see Safe Streets’ numbers as an end point, the streetside mediations are actually the beginning of a dialogue that’s equal parts passion, commitment, redemption, and opportunity. Its nine full-time and two part-time paid outreach workers offer a way out to the dealers and their soldiers. The conversation pretty much comes down to “What do you need?” Whether it’s a G.E.D., a job, drug addiction counseling, or a host of other services, these outreach workers are also trained as case managers, which accounts for about half their work. The training and overall coordination for Safe Streets come through public health officials at Chicago’s CeaseFire and Baltimore’s Office of Youth Violence Protection, where LaShawn McIver, SPH ’05, directs the Safe Streets Program. “This is a challenging model to implement,” says McIver, noting the 40 hours of initial training and the many follow-up workshops that Safe Streets staff attend. “A lot of community-based organizations want the money to bring the program in, but if it’s not done exactly how the model is laid out, there’s a lot of room for things to go astray.”

Having the proper outreach staffing (i.e., case workers who are respected by those committing the violence) and case-management training is vital, McIver says. That’s because the client relationship is intense, calling for four face-to-face visits a month and numerous facilitations, such as providing transportation to meet with a parole officer or access city services. Nor is recruiting easy; given widespread suspicion of anything that reeks of an official “program,” it often takes weeks or months to convince young men to stop in. “We’re trying to foster a situation where they can come in as clients on their time,” says Safe Streets East program director Leon Faruq. “We identify people. Sometimes, a young boy, he’s trying to still prove himself. Over time, we engage him in a respectful way. What you want to say is something to express your concern. You always want to connect. He’s not a client yet, but he begins to soften, become more and more receptive.”

Part of that receptivity is that Safe Streets is a public health program, not a police project. “There are a good number of neighborhoods around Baltimore that unfortunately have little trust in the police and criminal justice system,” says Webster, adding that public health programs have better reputations in the inner city. There are no identifying records in Safe Streets’ case files; the staff zealously guards the anonymity of clients. “As soon as you’re attached to the police, nobody is going to come here. We’re not going to get the killers,” says Safe Streets East violence prevention coordinator Jerrod Lewis, 35. “We might get people cutting school, but they’re not killing anybody. We would not get the people we want. The program would be ineffective.”

But perhaps the greatest lure is the workers themselves. In a neighborhood bereft of hope, they are recognized as something almost no one sees around here, and certainly not on the streets: a future.

For many of his 27 years in prison on a murder rap, Faruq dreamed of being able to show young men that there was something on the other side of 21 besides a grave. Much of his initial work dealt with helping prisoners re-enter society, but he was also looking for a way to inculcate a new hope into the streets. With three degrees, earned in prison, to his credit, Faruq understood the power that education had to help people reconstruct their lives and raise them above their circumstances. In Safe Streets, Faruq found a program that matched his mindset, a place that offered both new skills and new thinking. “It’s a mission for me,” he quietly admits. “I see it as a revolution. The frontier of the mind.”

Faruq’s team does just that, using the outreach training to augment team members’ natural communication and survival skills. “We gravitated to Leon because we already knew the streets, been in the streets, lived the streets,” says Micah Mitchell, a former dealer who rose through the ranks before doing time. “At one point in time we loved the streets. What he did was put structure to the passion we had for the streets. We also had a passion for change: This program brought out the capabilities we didn’t realize we had.”

While Faruq doesn’t expect his outreach workers to suddenly become saints, neither will he tolerate sinners that reflect poorly on Safe Streets’ mission. He says if an outreach worker is convicted of a crime that shows they’ve gone back to the street “lifestyle” — that is, drug dealing or gun possession — they’re gone. So far that hasn’t happened (Faruq says one worker was fired for not performing his job), which could be a testimony to both the respect Faruq commands as well as the intense vetting procedure and background check each outreach worker undergoes.

At 27, Micah Mitchell is one of the youngest members of the Safe Streets team. Most, like Carter, are in their 30s. Their age alone makes them something unique, and it’s what makes these men such powerful messengers of peace. They represent a new role model in the neighborhood, men whose skills and souls are valued, men who are gainfully employed as agents of change.

“I was wild when I was young, 21. I was in a fog,” says outreach worker Jermaine Lewis, 34, Jerrod’s brother. “These kids see us, they see what’s on the other side of that fog. They say, ‘I really can come out of this madness without having to kill. While keeping my respect.'”

If these men are the face of the future to the youngsters they know, it is a badge they wear both proudly and humbly. “We become a shining light because it’s like ‘they came from where we are now,’ says Mitchell, who admits that his new role “makes me feel overwhelmed inside. I’m a product of poverty that is now making a revolutionizing change in poverty.”

The procession of 40 staff, neighbors, and supporters is marching into the sunset on McElderry Street, chanting in response to Safe Streets’ Jerrod Lewis, who is on bullhorn.

“WHAT DO WE WANT?” he asks the throng.

“STOP THE SHOOTING!” they answer.



Over and over the voices bounce off the rowhouses as the crowd makes its way over to North Curley Street, up to Monument, across to Robinson, and back down to McElderry, the scene of a shooting just a few days earlier.

These street rallies — “shooting response” is the technical term — are part of Safe Streets’ program for getting its message heard. This includes reaching out to local clergy, engaging area businesses for support, holding celebratory barbecues marking “no shooting” milestones, even using large billboard ads. “We’re going to put baby pictures on billboards that say ‘Don’t shoot. I want to grow up,'” says Lewis. “We’re treating these murders and shootings like an epidemic. Like the ‘stop smoking cigarettes’ campaign. They made it uncool to smoke. It’s going to be real uncool to commit an act or harm another person by shooting.”

In a neighborhood bereft of hope, Safe Streets outreach workers are recognized as something almost no one sees around here, and certainly not on the streets: a future.In a city where, according to McIver, “if you’re between 14 and 25, homicide is the number one cause of death,” Safe Streets leaders are aware that they need the backing of an often-frightened community to support their efforts. From a public health perspective, Webster says the effort’s community outreach initiatives have tangible effects on creating and sustaining peace. He claims programs like Safe Streets have a tendency to affect cycles of violence, most notably upswings. “Gun violence spreads in a similar way as a contagious disease, but peace also spreads and operates in a similar way,” notes Webster. “Each day that goes by where there’s not a shooting, people feel less fearful. They see their neighbors as less threatening. The whole level of tension goes down, the likelihood of shootings goes down.”

Judging by the response to the march, the community is ready. As neighbors hear the racket of Lewis’ bullhorn, they rush to their doors and second-story windows, fearing the worst. Then they catch a glimpse of the bright orange “Safe Streets” signs, the vibe of the crowd, and the anxiety melts from their faces, replaced by vigorous nods of approval. “Safe Streets?” asks one woman. “Praise the Lord!” A knot of young men hanging out on their stoop turns positively sheepish and quiets down as the march passes by.

Clearly, this program and these people are being noticed by area residents desperate for peace. “To me, it’s as if the neighborhood feels as if somebody finally listened, and that life is being cared for in a way that it hasn’t been cared for before,” says Pastor Karen Brau, who has served in the neighborhood since 1996 at Amazing Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church. “That [sense of caring] has a long-term powerful quality.”

Brau’s not the only one to notice. City Hall has set aside $1 million to potentially expand Safe Streets beyond East Baltimore. (Another program is just starting in the Southwest.) McIver says her office is looking for an additional $1 million from public and private sources. James Piper Bond, president and CEO of Living Classrooms, which acts as the employer and auditor of the Safe Streets crew and program, says his group is also looking for additional private funding to help the program grow.

The Safe Streets East team, including program director Leon Faruq (standing at left on top of the stairs) and Living Classrooms Foundation president and CEO James Piper Bond (kneeling).

In the meantime, the buzz keeps building. “I get phone calls on a weekly basis from community groups that want to see it in their area. The word is definitely getting out,” says McIver, who is awaiting the program’s first statistical report from Webster’s office, due in December. “There’s a lot riding on the success of the sites we have now.”

Still, the fact that the neighborhood has responded so quickly suggests that the violent code so endemic to this area may be ready to crack, broken from within by some of the very people who had lived by that code for so long. Now that they’ve witnessed their own transformation, the question is how well they can pass on their enlightenment to the next generation still stuck in the streets, trying to shed the mindset of failure.

A quick fix for a bleeding city? No. It’s slow work: one neighborhood, one street, one mediation at a time. But, as Jermaine Lewis told one of his clients, he’s in it for the long haul. “I told him something my mother always told me: ‘Success is falling seven times and getting up eight. Falling nine times and getting up 10.’ As long as you’re in the fight, I’m good.”

Mat Edelson is a freelance writer based in Baltimore.