Changing Norms and Finding Alternatives – Bringing an End to Gun Violence through Stand Against Violence East Harlem (SAVE)


Changing Norms and Finding Alternatives – Bringing an End to Gun Violence through Stand Against Violence East Harlem (SAVE) — June Message from Dr. Jocelynne Rainey, GOSO President & CEO

During the month of June, we’re raising awareness about gun violence – one of the most insidious racial justice issues affecting Black and Brown communities. Did you know that Black Americans are twice as likely as white Americans to die as a result of gun violence? Black people are also 14xs more likely than white people to be wounded by guns. 

About SAVE East Harlem

Our team at GOSO’s SAVE program knows first hand about the continued threat of gun violence.  SAVE East Harlem is a crisis management center that helps high-risk individuals (both male and female) who live in a number of East Harlem’s housing developments. As SAVE director, Omar Jackson, explains, “A high risk individual may be someone who has been shot, someone in a gang, someone coming home from prison, someone who has shot someone, or somebody that has a large influence on other individuals in the community.”

Everyday, the men and women of SAVE selflessly put themselves on the frontlines to help save countless lives. As Omar puts it, “Our objective as violence interrupters is to ensure individuals who are facing  life-or-death situations get home tonight, and live to see another day.”

Below is just a glimpse into our SAVE team and the work they perform.

“I’m trying to be part of the solution” ~ Perspectives from Omar Jackson, Director, SAVE

I was born in East Harlem and I’ve been with SAVE in East Harlem since its inception in February 2016.  This work is very personal to me because. I was once one of the people tearing down the community and today I’m trying to be part of the solution. 

SAVE follows the Cure Violence model, which treats violence for what it is – a disease. This means we take a three-step approach with respect to addressing violence: detect, interrupt, and change community norms.

While we focus a lot on community outreach, there’s really nothing we won’t do to help change the mentality that feeds the violence in our community. 

The work we do is risky.   We may get a call in the middle of the night because a participant is on the verge of making a really bad decision. But we understand how so many of us have been conditioned to see violence as the norm.  

In our community, there are so many forms of violence, from neglect in public schools and a lack of nutrition to domestic abuse and gun violence, and everything in between. Quite frankly, we live in a community that is under siege.  

Under circumstances like this, we’ve learned to define success in our own terms. In our work, it’s easy to get down on ourselves.  We can’t be everywhere or do everything.  But a success for us is a day without shooting.

“Walking the walk” – Perspectives from Javon Alexander, Program Manager, SAVE

I first came to SAVE in 2016 as a violence interrupter. Today, I’m a program manager for the Johnson, Jefferson, and Wagner housing developments. My focus is simple – to keep young men from dying. Our work focuses less on the issue of recidivism, which is also an important problem to address. But perhaps the most urgent challenge facing primarily young men in East Harlem is living to see another day.

In doing our work, we’re trying to change the community norms around gun violence. We were the young men tearing down the community. But now our mission is to uplift the community.  And it’s amazing to see how the community has embraced us and our work. For instance, one young man was so inspired by our efforts to change community norms and present people with alternatives to violence, you could literally see the spark of hope in his eyes. He began talking to me about the importance of being involved in local politics and community leadership roles. Now bear in mind, these are not the types of conversations young guys typically have. But when we come out in uniforms, in solidarity, and in unity, people see we’re a team that’s motivated to make a change in the housing developments – and they get inspired too. Usually, when people get jobs, they usually leave their communities. But they see us working in the communities. 

What’s more, we have access to training programs and internship opportunities. It’s one thing to tell someone to stop what they’re doing, and then don’t offer them any options. Instead, we’re talking the talk and walking the walk.

“Credibility matters” – Perspectives from James “Pat” Grace, Field Supervisor, SAVE

As a supervisor, I look out after the team. We’re never off – our work is 24 hours a day,  7-days a week. When our participants call us at 2:00 a.m., we have to be at the precinct by 2:30 a.m. For instance, there was a recent shooting between the Johnson and Lehman housing developments, and we helped keep a guy safe when he was the target. This is a daily occurrence, and we don’t have bulletproof vests. We’re on the frontlines and doing the work that doesn’t make the headlines. 

When we work with the community, we try to reach them where they are. We’re canvassing and working to bring them into the program. Part of our strategy is risk reduction. This means we’ll create short-term and long-term goals. We start with short-term goals, so they can easily reach them and not get discouraged. These small accomplishments make a difference, and go a long way in helping to change the mindset. 

As the months go along, we introduce them to new ways of thinking and provide them with the resources to find other alternatives. Over the years, one of the things I’ve come to realize is that this violence is really the culmination of lack of resources, lack of education, and lack of opportunity. Our goal is to provide our program participants with the tools they need to end the cycle of violence. This means we also have to model the alternatives, and show them how things can be.

It’s all about credibility. I can’t say I’m credible. The community has to say I’m credible. We have to show consistency and keep our promises. You have to realize that many of the people in our community come from broken homes, so consistency is important. Granted, there may be some obstacles, and change for our participants doesn’t happen overnight.  But we’re here to fall back on whenever they need us.

“I’m blessed to do this work” – Perspectives from Nicole Myers-Hudgins, Program Manager, SAVE

I came to SAVE almost four years ago, and I’ve been working with the Cure Violence model for 10 years. Today, I’m the employment specialist for SAVE, focusing on internships, job readiness skills, resume building, financial literacy workshops, and more. One thing I love about my work is how motivated our participants are when it comes to internships. When we say, “You need to be somewhere,” they are there. When it comes to job readiness, our participants are totally open to new opportunities.  You wouldn’t believe it, but one young man learned how to do facials. Usually, young men don’t want to do this kind of work because of how it might appear to others. But he was totally motivated and open to trying something new. 

And I’m so appreciative of the support we received over the past year. During the COVID-19 pandemic, many businesses have suffered. But our programs have survived because of the Black and Brown-owned businesses that were committed to giving back. We had 19 internship opportunities, and every single company was able to follow through. I know I speak for everyone involved with SAVE when I say that I’m just so blessed to be able to give back to the community.

The impact of SAVE

I’m sure by now it is apparent how crucial SAVE is for communities like East Harlem, which urgently need innovative alternatives to mass incarceration. CURE Violence Programs like SAVE work because the credible messengers like our staff understand the needs of the community, because they are the community. The healing work that SAVE is doing in the community is not only helping to prevent violence, but helping people to thrive and see new possibilities for their lives.