Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Kalamazoo series.
Short-term needs that if addressed could lessen Kalamazoo's urban gun violence this summer were proposed at The Lewis Walker Institute's final meeting, inspired by their community read of Thomas Abt's "Bleeding Out."
It was part of a thorough discussion on youth jobs and career education, help for people who've served time in prison so they don't return to crime, emergency lodging for people fleeing violent situations, and hazard pay for frontline workers.
Some of the conversation was academic, in the language of social workers, of the people in local government, and non-profits who were in the audience.
Then Group Violence Intervention's Michael Wilder and Yafinceio "Big B" Harris grabbed everyone's attention. They let them know that gun violence is real.
"Some people think this stuff's a game, man," Harris says. "We're breathing this."
Harris described a time in his life when, because of a missing half-gram of cocaine, someone killed his cousin.
Former "mortal enemies," now leaders of Group Violence Intervention, Michael Wilder and Yafinceio "Big B" Harris.
He had to get vengeance. Harris spoke about high-speed chases through Kalamazoo, kidnapping the killer's friend to try to find the guy. "I had so many guns.... I was ready to kill everything moving," he says.
Then, he found himself incarcerated. He was released at the age of 30, back on the outside, having to start over. To make a new life for himself he enrolled at Kalamazoo Valley Community College.
There he saw Wilder, also formerly incarcerated, in class.
Wilder says Harris came up to him and said, "Hey, you don't know who I am? It's me, B."
At that moment Wilder was sure that he'd end up shot in KVCC's parking lot after class. "My friend killed his cousin," Wilder says. "So he's supposed to kill me."
Instead, Harris told him, "Hey, I like you... Let's get this education."
Wilder says, now "My kids call him uncle, his kids call me uncle."
Harris puts his hand on Wilder's shoulder, says, "We represent what it's like for sustainability. We represent what it's like to have reconciliation, man. Start over, and keep goin'."
They managed to break the cycle of violence, and now with Group Violence Intervention, they work to deescalate conflicts and divert youth from a violent life.
How to stop the violence?
Nonprofits -- Group Violence Intervention, Urban Alliance (UA), Interfaith Strategy for Advocacy and Action in the Community (ISAAC) -- the city and local police have been working to stop the violence. Even so, during the summers of 2020 and 2021 a lot of gunshots were heard and too much blood was shed in Kalamazoo's core neighborhoods. The Department of Public Safety reports that 90 people were shot in Kalamazoo in 2021, including 14 who died, exceeding the previous high of 87 shootings in 2020. This coming summer could be worse.
Urban Alliance Connections Coordinator Alejandro Rodriguez speaks on efforts to divert Kalamazoo youth from violence.
Around eight weeks ago the Walker Institute began their community read of "Bleeding Out,"
an influential book on pinpointing urban violence and finding remedies in both areas of law enforcement and social services.
The institute brought in local nonprofits, city and county officials, and the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety into the discussions.
Walker Institute director Luchara Wallace says there was an urgency behind the question, "What are we going to do this coming summer? What are some short-term recommendations we can offer our community and our leaders?"
The author Abt's framing for "Bleeding Out" is that there should be an awareness of the big issues that cause urban violence, but before they can be dealt with, the violence must be curtailed.
So short-term solutions are needed. "In the process of developing a long-term plan, we can at least get something done," Wallace says.
More funding for YOU
Kalamazoo RESA's YOU has two youth employment/education summer programs, MyCITY
, for city residents age 14 to 21, and Bridging Opportunities
, for youth who've been in trouble with the law.
YOU director Paige Daniels and director of MyCITY Molly Fitz Henry spoke on the programs.
MyCITY provides "more than just a summer job," Daniels says. The goal is to build experience and employability skills, give youth a chance to explore career options, and learn financial literacy.
Youth are paid wages, and YOU staff are employed to be career coaches and mentors. Overall, $2,000-$2,500 go into each participant. With current funding, they're able to serve approximately 250 youth.
Group Violence Intervention Coordinator Michael Wilder. "The police gave me this bullet-proof vest, that's how hazardous our job is."
The Walker Institute has worked to identify over 40 "youth of focus." These are youth age 14 to 17 who have had multiple recent contacts with the law, and who live in crime hot spots in Kalamazoo.
YOU funding through Foundation for Excellence is only meant for youth in the city, but some of the youth of focus live outside the city. To reach them, they'd need to "get creative," Daniels says.
Charlae Davis, ISAAC
executive director, asked if youth would be placed with mentors who looked like them or had similar backgrounds.
"You're going to be dealing with everything else that comes along with them, the trauma, any baggage that's going on at home, and racism, any sexism -- they can't take that off when they come through the work door," Davis says. "They're probably coming in with trauma, especially those who've already had those contacts with law enforcement."
Davis suggested that Kalamazoo's Black and Brown Therapy Collective
could be enlisted as a resource of therapists of color to work with youth in trauma.
Paige says that YOU is "intentional about hiring a diverse staff;" also that they make sure to seek the advice of community experts.
Change of Status
"In prison, you're given a number, but when you return to society, how do you change your status?" Chris Pompey, Executive Director of Urban Alliance, says.
ISAAC Executive Director Charlae Davis describes the trauma work needed to help people escape direct threats of violence.
There's a need for youth mentoring, "but it's just as important to have adult mentoring," he says. Especially for the formerly incarcerated.
There is a "ripple effect" that can happen when someone is released from prison and returns to the neighborhood, he says. Urban Alliance's new Change of Status initiative hopes to make that effect a positive, to address "both the immediate needs and the systemic issues in individuals connected to gun violence in our community."
Pompey described how easy it is for one to fall back into the life that got them into prison in the first place. Many have no home to go to and end up on the street or couch-surfing. They owe restitution. They're coping with life-long trauma, drug, and alcohol abuse.
"We have to give them something when they're coming home. To get a little bit of their dignity back," Pompey says. "You say you're going to work with me, I don't even have a cellphone. I don't even have money to get anything to eat... and you may say, well, go get a job. It's really not that easy."
Change of Status is working with Group Violence Intervention -- "GVI builds the connection, builds the relationship, which makes it a little easier when they bring them to Urban Alliance and hand them off."
Urban Alliance has services to offer, but they have to be able to deal with crisis situations. "We have to almost operate as an ambulatory service, meaning we have to have a rapid response. They're not thinking of tomorrow, it's a crisis right now. How are we going to help this young man today? He's not coming back tomorrow. He's going to return right back into his environment and continue to do the same things before he went to prison."
The Wallace Institute's effort is focused on short-term solutions to stop gun violence from happening this summer. "For a lot of the individuals that we work with, and the population we serve, short-term is kind of what they're used to," Pompey says. "We're working on the long game, the endgame. They're already used to the short-term, and that's called the dope game."
Through selling or using drugs, "I get an immediate feeling of success. Dropped out of high school because I don't want the long-term goal, I'm not looking at the endgame. I need it right now."
That's what's waiting on the outside for the incarcerated. Urban Alliance wants to provide a strong alternative, through partnerships with the KDPS, city government, and ISAAC -- "It takes a village," he says.
Pompey knows what it was like to return to society to rebuild himself. "One thing that's missing a lot of times -- I know it was missing in my life -- is a community."
Developing trusting relationships
Urban Alliance Outreach Manager James Harris and Director of Recovery and Supportive Services Floyd Matthews spoke on how Urban Alliance is working to bring individuals in for help.
"You have to develop trusting relationships," Harris says, "relevant relationships, because at times you can't move a person from here to there unless you identify with what they're going through."
Most of Urban Alliance's boots-on-the-ground staff had formerly been involved with crime, incarcerated, and/or abused drugs and alcohol. "I love the staff that we have because they understand, because they've been there and done that," Harris says.
Matthews says that, "We're kind of like an emergency room." They realize a person may have issues "we cannot see, and maybe are not being communicated... So we learn to speak the language of the person."
There are taboo words in the urban community, like "therapists, counseling, mental health," he says. They mean "crazy -- I'm not crazy!"
Instead, Urban Alliance staff learn to speak in ways their population can identify with, simply tell them, "Hey, I'd like you to talk to someone about this."
They work to "get familiar with who you are, how you got to that point, and then regenerate you," Matthews says.
Urban Alliance Connections Coordinator Alejandro Rodriguez spoke on efforts to divert youth from crime.
He said the day before a young man told him, "this summer's not going to be hot because of the weather...." Guns are pulled because "it's summertime, now they're outside on the block.... Now the person they've been looking for is outside in broad daylight."
The need to divert youth from violence, right now, is crucial, he says. With Urban Alliance Rodriguez is developing an "advisory team" of kids 11 to 16, to get a sense of what life is like on the sidewalks of area neighborhoods. "If we don't hear them out, we're going to always miss the target."
Rodriguez is helping to organize youth events for June through August, leading up to a "Youth Academy" in September.
"Yafincieo ('Big B' Harris) always says, 'we gotta educate to elevate,'" he says. Rodriguez wants to help kids with reading, writing, and public speaking. By achieving goals and proving they're attending their regular schools, they could earn points to be used as cash to buy school supplies, clothes, and shoes at Urban Alliance.
This will all require funding. But for him, it's not about the money. "We do life with these people." If Rodriguez gets a call at 2 a.m. from a teen who slipped up and got drunk or high at a party, his response is, "I'm on my way... My job title doesn't say I have to go get you, but... as brother Floyd (Matthews) says, it trickles down."
ISAAC Executive Director Charlae Davis says that when shootings happen, often people must leave their homes for their own safety.
ISAAC has people doing this work. It requires secrecy and care. There is likely someone out looking for intended targets, "their safety is at stake," she says.
They need money for a decent motel, a new apartment, for a temporary or long-term move, for an escape to another part of the county or to another state. "It is not easy," Davis says.
She's seen when things didn't work out, seen faces when "the hope drains out of the heart."
Davis calls for a partnership with the city to do this work. And that those doing the work need "hazard pay." The work can be dangerous, plus there is always an element of mental distress. She says, again, the Kalamazoo Black and Brown Therapy Collective could be brought in to reduce the trauma of both violence victims and the people trying to help them
'We've been doing it wrong'
Wilder spoke next, highlighting how dangerous it could be to directly work with people who may be armed.
He knocked on his chest. "The police gave me this bullet-proof vest, that's how hazardous our job is," he says. "I'm a convicted felon, wearing a bullet-proof vest, legally. Wow! If my friends could see me! The police just gave me a bullet-proof vest!"
His wife insisted that the KDPS get Wilder the vest, since he's "boots-on-the-ground," in the middle of the night sometimes, trying to defuse violent conflicts.
"I come from shooters, you know what I'm saying? I've been to prison a couple times, and society says I'm a career criminal, been to prison three times.... If you go to prison, got out, and came back, there's obviously something wrong with you."
Yet Wilder turned his life around and is dedicating it to helping others do the same. Ten years ago Gun Violence Intervention began as Peace During War, which Wilder co-founded with Yafinceo Harris.
They started by talking to kids in juvenile facilities. In 2016, Kalamazoo police approached Wilder to tell him, "We've been doing it wrong," Wilder says.
Officer David Boysen
now Deputy Chief, approached him to start Gun Violence Intervention to find an alternative to mass arrests.
The usual police method had been, "we jump out on young black men with crack in their pocket and send them to prison." Wilder says when police arrested him they noted they'd arrested another man with the same name in the past -- Wilder's father.
Generations were repeating the cycle of crime and imprisonment. "Something's wrong!"
Much of the meeting was about nonprofits' need for funding in the area of violence diversion.
Wilder asked Vice Mayor Don Cooney, in the audience, for a Gun Violence Intervention public hotline, publicized by a billboard with him and his team on it. They can't get a billboard, "but there's marijuana billboards all over Kalamazoo. Some of them say, 'We deliver!' Comin' from an ex-drug dealer, let me tell you something, it almost turns my stomach!"
He jokes, "I'm gonna get my spray paint" and make his own billboard. "We thugs, don't forget!"
Earlier in the meeting, Cooney pointed out that the city has funds for this work, "but we haven't specified how that's going to go out." There is a process underway, "to identify where funding is needed, and how do we create a pool where people can go look for those funds."
Cooney clarified that there will be "a pool of money out there for the summer, to start with."
Commissioner Esteven Juarez -- himself a former gang member
in the Edison Neighborhood, later a member of UA, GVI, ISAAC and now the City Commission -- says that the city needs to consider "the youth who aren't being served" when targeting funds.
(The following week, in the City Commission meeting of April 18
, the commission unanimously approved the allocation of $1 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds for a Youth Development fund, overseen by KYDNet. Some would go to "reach youth within the city that are not able to participate in summer programming or athletics," such as the establishment of a Kalamazoo Police Athletic League.)
The Walker institute's namesake Lewis Walker
spoke at the end of the meeting.
He says he's been an observer for the meetings, not a participant, but that he hopes Kalamazoo can create an anti-violence model that other cities can use.
"We have to rescue our people here in Kalamazoo," Walker says. Turning to Wilder, he adds, "Mike, we have to rescue our people, we have to save lives.... We have work to do, but it is God's work"
In her concluding remarks, Wallace says the short-term solutions were in the hands of "the decision-makers in the house." What was needed was "an office, a position, a series of people, in non-violence and (violence) prevention."
There will be a second phase, where the focus will be on finding long-term solutions. The Walker Institute is handing that off to the Kalamazoo Community Foundation