During the past few days, there have been questions raised about a $500,000 federal grant Hartford received to provide mentoring services to some of its most vulnerable youth. Because the application for the grant cited a June 4 police memorandum that used a broad definition of gangs to say the city has 4,000 street gang members, people are asking: Does Hartford have a huge gang problem? The answer is no.
As in every urban center in the country, there are gangs in Hartford. There are gangs in New Haven, Bridgeport and many other cities in our state and country, and those municipalities also competitively applied for federal grants.
But Hartford has nowhere near the level of gang violence we saw in the 1990s, and the steps we are taking now are designed to ensure that things never get that bad again.
A widely accepted definition for gangs created by Joan Moore, a professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Wisconsin, was used in constructing the grant. "Gangs are unsupervised peer groups who are socialized by the streets rather than by conventional institutions. They define themselves as a gang or 'set' or some such term, and have the capacity to reproduce themselves, usually within a specific neighborhood," according to Moore.
By this definition, most American cities, even suburbs, have some gang activity. That does not mean they are lawless, dangerous places. It is wrong to seize upon this term to sensationalize the challenges facing our city. But it is important to meet those challenges head on.
When we apply this definition, we must acknowledge that many of our urban youth are at risk and vulnerable to negative influences because of the lack of positive adult role models in their lives. The purpose of this grant is to put in place good, solid opportunities for children so that they do not fall prey to negative temptations or other dangers.
The news coverage of this issue conjures images out of a Hollywood movie, with young thugs decked out in colors, ruling neighborhoods with brutality and terror. This simply is not the case. The federal grant funds a program that matches mentors with at-risk youth. This is not sexy, but it is real and it is important.
Somewhere we lost sight of the fact our children and youth are at stake here, and that they desperately need prevention programs. Although progress has been made in educational achievement, crime prevention, community safety and increased youth development programs, more remains to be done. The energy now focused on investigating, critiquing and pointing fingers could be better spent supporting and attending to our most at-risk youth. I trust that something positive will result from the stories of the past week and that we will see renewed energy and commitment to supporting our youth.
With this grant, we hope to recruit more than 300 people who will have a positive influence, one-on-one, and save our youth from the streets and, ultimately, from prison. Instead of focusing on how Hartford came to have this program, we should be focusing on how to get many more like it.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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