Preventing Gun Violence One Conversation at a Time

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By Kelly Kass

It’s 11:30 on a Tuesday morning. Ta’Isha Gist is alerted about a shooting that has occurred in Hempstead. She begins to assemble her team of outreach workers to canvas the neighborhood and prevent any retaliatory incidents from occurring.

Ta’Isha is the program manager of SNUG, a gun violence reduction program at Family & Children’s Association (FCA) in Hempstead, New York. The program, launched in 2015 by the Mineola-based nonprofit, currently serves 14 youth (ages 14-25) and is funded through a grant from the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS).

SNUG is based on the successful Cure Violence Health Model that was developed in Chicago in the 1990s. The initiative integrates public education campaigns through collaborative partnerships with the Hempstead Police Department, Nassau County District Attorney’s office, community organizations, school districts, area residents and local businesses, all with the same goal: to disrupt the cycle of gun violence in the community.

“The police department helped us to identify three hot zones in the Village of Hempstead so we can participate in the shooting response to change behaviors and community norms surrounding gun violence,” explains Donna Raphael, MA, Senior Director of Advocacy & Community Relations, FCA.

SNUG’s outreach workers, known as “credible messengers,” typically respond to shootings within 72 hours, canvassing streets, homes, stores and hospitals to perform mediations and provide a peaceful solution to conflicts.

Individuals with a high risk for violence are identified by FCA’s team of two to five outreach workers, each offering a unique perspective because more than once, they found themselves in the same place as the youth they’re trying to help.

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Ta’isha Gist, Program Manager, SNUG, FCA; Donna Raphael, Senior Director of Advocacy & Community Relations, FCA

Ta’Isha was one of those kids. At 13, she was admitted to a detention center where she lived until she was 17. After receiving her GED, she wound up staying on her grandmother’s couch until a brush with the law found her incarcerated for gang violence at the age of 19. She was released from prison seven years later.

Ta’Isha shares her journey with each young person she encounters, demonstrating the ability to turn her life around and seek professional development. “SNUG gave me a purpose,” she says. Prior to becoming its Program Manager, Ta’Isha was an outreach worker and supervisor. She continues to hit the street to guide young people toward a more positive path, while training new outreach workers to do the same.

“When I go out there, I try to see myself,” she says. “I look for nonverbal cues and body language, and try to get as close to people’s home lives as possible.”

According to Ta’Isha, the household is the primary factor contributing to gun violence. “It starts with emotional abuse and how parents talk to their children,” she points out. “If things go wrong for their parents and they start drinking, kids think that’s the way to handle their problems, too.” Troubling signs parents and teachers should look out for in youth include challenging authority and dressing in an inappropriate manner.

As an outreach worker, Ta’Isha made daily visits to bodegas in poverty-stricken Hempstead, a stone’s throw from affluent communities like Garden City. She listened for conversations about violence so she could intercede and prevent incidents from occurring. “I kept showing my face till kids got to know me and trust me,” she remembers.

She helped guide one young man, “L.B.,” on a path to survival. During their first encounter, he asked Ta’Isha for money to buy food. Instead, she bought him something to eat and shook his hand. His face lit up the next time he saw her and a rapport was quickly formed.

When Ta’Isha noticed L.B. smoking marijuana, she discouraged him from using, but before long, he was on to K2 (synthetic marijuana). The drug’s negative side effects, along with pressure to join his brother’s gang wars, took their toll on L.B. With Ta’Isha’s encouragement, he was able to kick his K2 habit. He chose to fight for his life, not endanger it.

L.B. wound up getting a basketball scholarship and now has two jobs to support himself. “It was a two-and-a-half-year process,” Ta’Isha remembers. “If you don’t give up on a person and show that you believe in them, you will see results,” she points out.

SNUG often links participants to FCA support services, such as case management, mental health services, anger management programs, youth group workshops and financial literacy programs. Recreational outings are also provided. “We identify ways to encourage young people to put down their weapons and gravitate toward self-sufficiency,” Donna says.

The agency holds midnight barbecues throughout the summer, a time of year known for an increase in gun violence. “Many kids are out at 11 o’clock at night or later. We try to meet them where they are to divert them from potentially dangerous activities,” Donna explains.

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FCA SNUG Outreach Workers Jamaine Berry and Therhy Williams

FCA also organizes trips to sporting events, amusement parks and local restaurants. On community chess days, youth are taught chess by expert players in the community. A nearby gym offers discounted memberships to SNUG participants. Open until 12:00 a.m., the gym helps to steer young people away from the streets and into the fitness complex.

This year, Donna hopes to secure funding for a summer camp experience for SNUG participants. She also plans to partner with local churches to raise awareness about SNUG at community events, including one this Mother’s Day. “Our youth will learn about the importance of giving back by volunteering their time at the event,” Donna says. She and her staff will also perform outreach at back-to-school events in the fall.

“It’s about coming together as a community to make sure another kid does not get shot,” Ta’Isha says. “Children don’t come out of the womb a killer. They are a product of their environment. We need to have important conversations and talk to them about making the right decisions. SNUG does what most people are too busy to do.”

Judging by the numbers, the program appears to be working. SNUG helped to reduce gun violence in the Village of Hempstead by 64 percent in 2016; in 2017, the total number of shootings dropped from 23 to 11. According to Jeffery Clark, Director for NYS SNUG Outreach for DCJS, “This SNUG report demonstrates some of the impact SNUG has in an area. The reductions in shootings, victims and homicides are clearly more significant in the SNUG target areas.”

Perhaps the most satisfying metrics are testimonials from grateful SNUG participants. “Ta’Isha made me into the person I am today. She helps me through a lot,” remarks one individual.

Another program participant says, “I never knew I was loved by so many people, and that makes me feel amazed. Now I know, no matter what the issue is, I can depend on SNUG to be here for me.”

For L.B., the power of SNUG continues to hit home. He credits the program and Ta’Isha’s mentoring for “sculpting” him into the man he is today: “Without SNUG, I could potentially be in prison or dead.”

For more information on SNUG, visit www.familyandchildrens.org/programs-services/family-education-support/snug.

Kelly Kass is the senior writer at Marketing Works.

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