Black Lives MatterNews & Opinion

New Alternatives to Violence Team Launches on West Boulevard

'A marathon, not a sprint'

A sign placed on a fence along West Boulevard reads "Love Your Neighbor. Stop the Violence. -Jesus"
The West Boulevard corridor is the site of the latest Alternatives to Violence program. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

Following signs of success from the city’s first Alternatives to Violence program on Beatties Ford Road, the city of Charlotte has officially rolled out its second team of violence interrupters, this time along the West Boulevard corridor. 

Its goal is to minimize gun violence in the area by offering alternative solutions to police intervention.

“We’re just having basic conversations with individuals before it escalates to a situation that might make the news or might have law enforcement involved,” said Fred Fogg, national director for Youth Advocate Programs, which oversees the Alternatives to Violence programs on Beatties Ford Road and West Boulevard. “These peace processes are happening in our communities to prevent violence from taking place and to reduce the number of incidents that we see.”

The new team of five violence interrupters, most of whom are from the neighborhoods surrounding West Boulevard, emphasize that patience is key when it comes to launching the program in a new area and the work is just beginning. 

Donnell Gardner, who leads the new team and grew up on West Boulevard, says the coming year will be about making themselves visible in the community, establishing relationships and building rapport.

Gardner is joined by Dayja Garrett, Tyesha Littlejohn, James Love and Yulonda Johnson.

How does it work?

Gardner’s team always starts its day with a briefing. 

“We check the temperature of everybody and make sure they’re mentally ready to come out into the community,” Gardner said, emphasizing that the team’s safety comes first and it’s important to communicate any issues they might see arise throughout the coming day.

Once the briefing is over, the team hits the ground running. Members sometimes visit various businesses and pass out educational material, but most of all they try to have conversations and simply let the community know that they are around, Gardner said.

The Beatties Ford team did around 1,500 hours of this type of canvassing during its first year of operations, according to an Urban Institute report (more on that below).

“A lot of times we have to open up ourselves, we have to open up our own book,” Gardner said. “Black communities have been inflicted with so much trauma that the trust factor is hard.”

In addition to these conversations, the team works to meet the needs of the people around them, Gardner said. This can look like giving someone a couple of dollars for gas or the bus or helping them to get the food they need for their household. 

If ATV can meet the needs of the community along West Boulevard, it will help to build trust in the community and to show them the team cares about their well-being, Gardner said.

Because the West Boulevard team is just starting, the team is still working to build trust in the community and there aren’t a lot of measurable factors of success just yet, Fogg said. 

Many of the conversations the team is having take place out of the public eye, he added. 

What is the goal?

Gardner has one goal and one objective, he told Queen City Nerve: “Our goal is to decrease the violence,” he said, “but our objective is to get inside this community, build these relationships, and use whatever resources we have access to to meet the needs of the people.”

Often when people discuss alternatives to violence, they are thinking of large-scale, complicated solutions when a realistic resolution can be much more simple, Gardner said. 

What matters is the small things the community has walked away from, he insisted, like the “it takes a village” mentality that leads people to know and care for their neighbors. To get back to this, his team is trying to build a community where neighbors know each other, relationships are valued, and as a result, people seek alternatives to resolving conflict before picking up a gun.

A bush on the roadside near West Boulevard is decked out with Christmas decorations
What was once a memorial to gunshot victims on at the intersection of West Boulevard and Remount Road has recently evolved into a Christmas decoration. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

Malcolm Graham, Charlotte City Council rep for District 2, which includes the Beatties Ford Road corridor, said he’s optimistic about what the program means for reducing violence using hyper-local solutions. 

“Having ATV on the corridor has given us eyes and ears and feet and boots on the ground doing some of the preventative work and teaching that is necessary,” Graham said.

While the outcome on West Boulevard can’t be measured yet, Graham has faith that ATV’s success on Beatties Ford Road will transfer to West Boulevard once trust is established in the community.

“It’s a marathon, it’s not a sprint,” he said. 

How we got here

Charlotte is host to the third Alternatives to Violence program nationwide, following Chicago and Baltimore. The program was launched after Charlotte City Council invited Chicago-based violence interruption program Cure Violence to the city to assess how it might work with people on the ground to put a stop to a rise in murders.

The original Beatties Ford Road ATV team, announced in August 2021, had to be replaced due to apparent inconsistencies with paperwork, so the city did not track results until the new team, launched in early 2022 and led by Leondra Garrett, had been on the ground for a full year.

During a presentation to Charlotte City Council in March 2023, the city’s assistant director in the office of equity, mobility and immigration integration Federico Rios reviewed the results of a UNC Charlotte Urban Institute report on the program’s first-year results. 

The ATV team on Beatties Ford logged 4,629 hours between February 2022 and February 2023, Rios said, engaging 883 individuals, completing 26 violence interruption mediations and seeing 65 goals achieved by at-risk individuals (usually related to education). 

He added that there were significantly less homicides using firearms along the corridor compared to similar neighborhoods over the previous year. 

According to Fogg, there was a 41% drop in homicides along the corridor where the ATV team operated during its first year in operation.

A Black woman and Black man stand arm-in-arm under a pop-up tent on a street corner
Leondra Garrett (left) and Earl Owens set up shop along Beatties Ford Road in 2022. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

Rios said they found no significant change in other crimes they measured — aggravated assault with and without a gun, non-fatal gunshot injuries and other violent crimes — but emphasized that the Cure Violence model upon which ATV is based does not recommend over-analyzing first-year results.

In fall 2022, the city accepted $2 million in funding appropriated by US Rep. Alma Adams’ office to extend the program into the West Boulevard/Remount Road and Nations Ford/East Arrowood Road corridors.

The city has tapped Urban League of Central Carolinas to oversee the Nations Ford team.

According to Rios’ March report to city council, staff is purposeful in trying to create a team of grassroots folks familiar with the neighborhoods in a given corridor. 

Learn more: New County Department Prepares Violence Prevention Plan

Whether or not ATV expands to other corridors where it’s needed is up to the continued success of the team’s work in Beatties Ford Road and West Boulevard — as well as on funding, Graham said.

“We will continue to collaborate with Congresswoman Adams and others in the community about what we’re trying to do,” Graham said, “and measure results that we’ve been able to get from Beatties Ford Road and West Boulevard and see if there’s a possibility to expand it to other areas of the city that identify within the Corridors of Opportunity.”

Ryan Pitkin contributed reporting to this story. 

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