We Cannot Convict Our Way to Safer Communities
I recently had the opportunity to see President and CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone Geoffrey Canada speak in front of a gathering of community leaders and those who work in the social service sector. You may recognize Mr. Canada from his very vocal role in the documentary Waiting for Superman. Through his organization, he strives to increase high school and college graduation rates in areas where kids are typically stamped as ‘at-risk’ and written off as they slip through the cracks. This passionate and smart speaker engaged the group through personal stories, while making the connection to what’s really happening in our Milwaukee schools.
I found one of Mr. Canada’s ideas especially striking. He said, “We cannot convict our way to safer communities.” A murmur of agreement and positive head shaking wove its way through the crowd. Profound ideas often sound simple at first. This quote truly got to me, and I know I wasn’t the only one.
Start Early, Try Everything
The idea is to get these kids engaged while their young. By intervening and providing resources, we can point them down a positive life path, while preventing the dehumanization and demoralization that is incarceration. Though a local Milwaukee program that functions like the Harlem Children’s Zone, our main objective would be to throw absolutely everything at these kids until something sticks. Show them sports, education, arts, music, even karaoke. Expose them to as much as possible and eventually something will click - that kid is going to like something and it’s going to become their motivation to learn, to experience a better life and to succeed.
Reset the Norm, Change Lives
Mr. Canada set the bar for the children is his neighborhood: everyone goes to college - that’s the new norm. By providing programs for kids and adults alike, all the way through their lives and experiences, he created a tighter support net – and it’s turned entire communities around.
What if we do this in just one community in Milwaukee - even a community that sees kids committing heinous crimes like murder? What if we could intervene for five years, then study the resulting impact on that one community? We could analyze everything from property values to changes in academic performance and proficiency testing.
The success rates for the Harlem Children’s Zone projects are really quite amazing and should be equally inspiring to our city, as there’s so much potential and so much work to be done in this area. These programs don’t just apply to kids either; they influence and rebuild entire communities, improving the lives of adults as well.
Think about it this way…
If the cost of throwing every opportunity at one kid for one year is $100,000, and the cost to incarcerate that same kid for one year also costs $100,000 – which path benefits us more as a society? Not to mention, the more the same person is incarcerated, the less and less likely they’re going to contribute back to the local economy, generate revenue or contribute to the general well-being of their community.
So why are we trying to convict our way to safer communities?