When I reflect the events involving gun violence in our communities, I think about the environments and the culture in which we live, learn, work and play. We should think about the places where we can become more effective in changing cultures: in homes, schools and community-based organizations. We need to institute cultures that foster and measure connectedness, build caring attitudes, positive behaviors, mutual respect, acceptance and empathy into the standards in which we operate.
And, in the area I’m most passionate about, how can we nurture the mind, body and soul of our young people? While the old adage holds true — that it takes a village — the village has become isolated. Within our communities, we must look at collective approaches that establish a culture model that takes into account all major stakeholders.
As a child growing up in Overtown, my story begins with memories of a tightly knit community with a rich history, generational family ties and its share of socio-economic turmoil — which often resulted in crime and violence, broken families and young people not reaching their full potential. Years later, I realize that there is one common denominator — poverty. It is a global issue that plagues progress and preserves financial, mental and social hardships.
While I may not be able to resolve the issues of poverty, I — we — can, as community leaders, curtail acts of violence by providing an opportunity to be meaningfully engaged, socially accepted, unconditionally supported and constructively held accountable. Here are some ideas to get us started:
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Youth organizations and nonprofits
We can lead with integrity, purpose and personal commitment, and engage a competent, compassionate and highly motivated staff. As executive director of the Overtown Youth Center (OYC), I lead with a culture of care.
That culture encourages students to share thoughts and feelings that they often suppress. Young adults seek support as they try to navigate the complexities of life. Families find comfort and refuge in our team, requesting staff to be by their side during critical times. The result: 90 percent of our youth are graduating from high school, 85 percent of alumni are positive, contributing citizens within their communities and 60 percent of parents engage in family empowerment activities.
Here are some basic belief systems that we can encourage and train all program facilitators to share:
1. All kids in our program will succeed because we care and they have the capability.
2. Treat every child like they are our own.
3. Every staff member needs a daily opportunity to tap into the emotions of our youth.
We can reframe schools to think about students as customers, where teachers and administrators are there to serve and leaders value their feedback, allowing students to inform the education experience. It is also imperative for schools to establish/re-evaluate their culture of care. This may include a task force, creating consistent customer-service practices, evaluating the school-day experience from beginning to end and considering children’s feedback, spoken or unspoken.
Here are some questions to help school leaders assess if they have created a culture of care, concern and customer service:
▪ What does it feel like to walk into school? Are students being greeted by people who care? How do students feel when they leave the building?
▪ Does class start with the teacher showing kindness or just showing the objective of the day’s lesson? Is a culture of thoughtfulness exhibited throughout the building, on the field, in each classroom, in the cafeteria and on buses?
▪ How does it feel to walk into the principal’s or a counselor’s office? Are students comfortable? Does it feel punitive rather than supportive and understanding?
Gun violence is a symptom of a missed opportunity — an opportunity to change the way someone was treated or not treated, misdiagnosed or undiagnosed, cared for or not cared for, educated or uneducated, looked at but perhaps overlooked.
No matter the situation, the environments and cultures in which we operate can work to combat acts of violence. Let’s strive to foster a culture of care that promotes kindness, connectedness and mindfulness; a culture of acceptance that embraces differences and diversity; a culture of consistency and equity; one of pause and patience; and most importantly, a culture of support.
Today, I challenge every home, school, business and nonprofit, to evaluate its culture of care in an attempt to address issues beyond gun control.
Tina Brown is the executive director of Overtown Youth Center.