Violence-free Zones

  • Prosperity
  • 1997

In the 1980s, Sister Falakah Fattah and her husband, David, used the House of Umoja, a neighborhood group they founded, to help Philadelphia’s gangs negotiate truces and reduce violence. Robert Woodson of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise (CNE), an “intermediary” that helps local nonprofits, documented the principles involved and prepared manuals, training programs, and other resources that could be used to set up similar “violence-free zones” in other strife-torn neighborhoods. The key to the system is to find young adults who grew up locally and overcame the same challenges that still face students in troubled neighborhoods. CNE puts these “youth advisers” through background checks (no abuse or sexual crimes) and drug, alcohol, and health testing, then trains them in identifying, mediating, and solving various types of conflicts. Once trained, the advisers are hired by local nonprofits and spend their days at schools focusing on the most troublesome students. The same students who lead disruption can, with coaching by advisers they respect, learn to turn their leadership skills in more productive directions.

In 1997, CNE and local sponsor the Alliance of Concerned Men, along with advisers they trained, negotiated a peace agreement in Washington, D.C., between two warring groups at the Benning Terrace public-housing development, where dozens of youths had been killed. The murders ended completely. Other locales where violence-free zones have been funded by private donors like the Bradley and Marcus Foundations and public agencies include Milwaukee, Atlanta, Baltimore, Dallas, Richmond, and Prince George’s County in Maryland. Tracking studies done at Baylor University and elsewhere have found clear drops in attacks, increases in school attendance, and other positive effects from these interventions.