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Vaun Mayes is a social justice and civil rights activist in Milwaukee and the co-founder of Program the Parks MKE.
There is a saying that people closest to the problem are often the closest to the solution.
In our community, there is a need for a very specific group of people to be at the forefront in addressing a very specific problem. We have the expertise and experience to deal with the population and their circumstances.
This is the issue of troubled and at-risk youth in Milwaukee who are involved in the criminal element we see day to day — stealing cars, car chases, “base lining” and reckless driving. These are usually accompanied by other crimes, such as illegally possessing weapons, and can even lead to shootings.
This population of youth and families are not reached by standard programs. There are levels to what “troubled or at-risk youth” look like, depending on the program and which organization is leading the work. Many programs accept students who live in challenged communities, but only with a GPA of 2.0 or higher. But what about the population of students with deep-seated traumas and dysfunction at home, which leads to behavioral issues, failure in school, suspensions and dropping out?
In 2016, Gab Taylor and I created Program the Parks, which assessed and addressed youth incidents in Sherman Park by bringing in community leaders, parents, resources and programs. We connected with youth previously left to their own devices, outside of over-policing after being turned away from youth programs.
This led to a dramatic drop in crime, violence and police calls for service in the park and the general area of Sherman Park, as well as decreasing youth participation in fights, driving in stolen cars, stealing, etc.
We provided solutions to the issues that caused problems. For instance, thefts were occurring at businesses surrounding the park because young people had no other access to meals or water. Providing meals, snacks and drinks brought down thefts from local stores.
In 2017, we got access to a building and scaled up our programming. We saw similar success, but we were unable to sustain the space due to lack of financial investment and access to grant funding.
Which brings us to 2021. We continue to see unacceptable levels of youth engaging in crime, violence, reckless driving and stolen cars. These are not new issues, nor is the work needed to solve them.
Others have impacted these issues positively, but in silos. For example, Andre Lee Ellis via We Got This and Victor and Dawn Barnett via Running Rebels have mentored and guided at-risk young people, making a positive impact on their behaviors.
However, I don’t believe we’ve taken enough advantage of each other’s strengths.
In the coming months, I will be leading an effort to plan a community-driven and community-led facility. The details are currently being developed in close collaboration with community members.
It’s time to bring our resources and skills together under one roof. This is how I believe we can achieve the goal we need to see as a city.