RICHMOND, Calif. -- Last month, D'vondre Woodwards, a 23-year-old man from North Richmond, decided to go eat a hot dog at Casper's in Central Richmond. As he sat outside the restaurant eating his chili dog, another young man approached him and asked what he was doing "just sitting right there."
"This is our city," Woodwards remembered saying. "I'm not gonna hurry up."
Woodwards knew he was taking a risk by breaking one of Richmond's unwritten laws: Being a young black man from North Richmond, Woodwards is not supposed to hang out in Central Richmond. It's an informal code of the street that is sometimes enforced with bullets.
During the past six years in Richmond, nearly 1,000 shootings have resulted in the deaths of 208 young men -- an average of 35 per year. By comparison, the average number of homicides by firearm in cities comparable in size to Richmond (about 100,000 people) nationwide is just four, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Richmond residents old enough to remember say the city has been drowning in street violence for decades. The 80's and 90's, they say, were some of the worst years, due to the emergence of crack cocaine and the hierarchical crime organizations that sprung up in Richmond neighborhoods as a result of the growing street economy. But some here claim that the turf wars between North and Central Richmond were heightened due to a an incident in 2000 – a car accident involving people from the two different neighborhoods, in which the party responsible for the damages refused to pay. That lone incident supposedly triggered a series of shootings that led to a cycle of retaliatory violence against people based on nothing other than where they were born, a cycle of violence that continues to this day.
Whether truth or urban legend, the fact remains that payback via gun violence in certain parts of Richmond has long been the norm, not the exception.
"Where [the violence began] got lost in all the deaths," said Jonathan Bell, a 24-year-old from Central Richmond. "Where it comes from don't matter no more."
Both Bell and Woodwards grew up in this violent reality, learning that they are supposed to hate each other just because of the neighborhoods they come from.
"You're from the 'hood, so you're guilty by association," explained Woodwards.
Trying a Different Way
"We know that almost all [the violence] involves guns and youth and young adults, and it is concentrated in (certain) neighborhoods, so you know exactly where the problem is," said Frank Zimring, a law professor at UC Berkeley and author of the book American Youth Violence.
But, said Zimring, understanding and fixing the gun violence problem are two separate matters. Law enforcement was the central strategy of the city to combat drug-related violence in the 80s and 90s – many leaders of the neighborhood gangs and "sets" were behind bars by the late 90s – but that didn't stop crime rates and homicides in the city from spiking in the mid 2000s. It was at that time that the City of Richmond decided to look outside of traditional law enforcement for solutions. As a result, in October 2007, the Office of Neighborhood Safety (ONS) was born.
"ONS is an organization that is the product of bold leadership – that's our city manager, that's our counsel, our mayor – that were responsible for the creation of an entity that says there's got to be another approach to having an impact on reducing gun violence in our city," said DeVone Boggan, director of ONS.
The core purpose of ONS is to "eliminate the gun violence" in Richmond, and the program sets itself apart from a strict law enforcement approach by emphasizing prevention and exclusively targeting a small group of young men from Richmond identified as being the most likely to either kill someone or be killed themselves.
"[These young men] use gun violence to resolve conflict, but also to obtain something that they can't get from mainstream society," Boggan said. "The idea that I'm somebody; the idea that I'm significant and I'm a contributor to society; the idea that I'm important."
From the beginning, ONS concentrated its efforts on street outreach focused on the neighborhoods where most of the killings where happening, principally the central parts of the city. Then, in 2009, Boggan attended a meeting with higher-ups from the police department that would result in him narrowing the focus of ONS even further. At the meeting, Boggan was told that just fifteen young men were responsible for a staggering 70 percent of all the shootings and killings in the city that year.
"Fifteen people are creating this narrative for our city?" Boggan remembered asking. From that point forward, Boggan decided that ONS would work directly with only those young men identified as being the most at risk for violence – as either victims or perpetrators.
By June 2010, 21 young men from different neighborhoods in Richmond had joined the new ONS program called Operation Peacemaker Fellows (OPF), each one committing to change their lives and undo the dynamics they'd helped to foster in their neighborhood. In exchange, ONS promised them support and exposure to job and educational opportunities.
"We are going to take you by the hand, and we are going to walk you through it as if you were our child," Boggan remembered telling them. "These are your uncles and aunties, and I'm papa."
Today, OPF is in its second year and the group of fellows has grown to 33. Of the 43 young African-American men from Richmond who ONS has worked with since its inception, "42 are alive today, 39 have no gun-related hospitalizations or injuries, 36 have no new gun charges, and 33 have no new gun-violence related arrests," according to a 2011 ONS annual report.
Despite what looks like a success story, ONS is not without its critics in Richmond. One often heard complaint is the amount of city money spent on the project, and specifically the fact that some of it is given directly to the fellows themselves, or used to pay for their trips around California and even to locations outside of the U.S. Boggan answers the critics by pointing out that the program gives a modest stipend of up to $6,000 for each fellow per year, and if the fellow fails to do his part, they don't get the stipend. And if they get in trouble with the police, Boggan said, there is little that ONS can do.
Furthermore, he said, the stipends are only given during the second phase of the program, after fellows have completed what ONS calls a "life map."
The life map is a list of basic needs that the fellow wants to resolve in their near future, like getting a driver's license, gaining trust of a parole officer, or opening a bank account. The life map must also describe plans for a different future, and outline steps the fellow needs to take to get there, like finishing high school, getting a GED or learning a trade that will lead to a job. But for the immediate short term, ONS subsidizes jobs for the fellows, connecting them with participating organizations and covering the cost of their salary for several months.
"This program mixes incentives and threats," said Zimring, who said that it could look to outsiders like ONS is rewarding people for bad behavior. People, he said, might think that ONS is "giving the bad kids the cookies."
"My own position is, try things," Zimring added. "But let's be rigorous in taking the data."
A second criticism that has been leveled against ONS is that they lack a way to adequately document or measure the success of people participating in their program. Councilman Courtland "Corky" Boozé has been outspoken about not having access to data or documents that show exactly how and with whom ONS has worked.
"How many people are 2.8 million dollars taking care of?" Boozé asked. "That is a lot of money. They could never tell me, and to this day I still don't know. How many people are they serving and where are they today."
Bill Lindsay, city manager, said that except for information required by law to be kept confidential, all documentation related to ONS is public record and accessible to anyone.
"If there is information that hasn't been provided [to Councilman Boozé] he should get it because he has the right to access [it]," Lindsay said.
Lindsay also added that ONS is in the process of bringing in an independent consultant to evaluate the work that has been done so far and to help set better measurement criteria and documentation procedures for all of their programs.
"I don't think [the documentation] is entirely missing, but it could be better," Lindsay said. "ONS is relatively new and it is a good time to evaluate what is going on and to set new measurement criteria."
Uncles and Aunties: Neighborhood Change Agents (NCA)
Sam Vaughn knows very well the negative dynamics that exist in Richmond. Vaughn was himself arrested for attempted murder, for which he was convicted and spent 10 years behind bars.
"One of the hardest things to admit is that you lived your whole life based on a lie," Vaughn said. "[They tell you] that you are really not going to accomplish much… [that] if you are black growing up in this community the only way you are going to get out is if you are a rapper or you are an athlete, that's the only way you can succeed."
When Vaughn got out of prison, he started looking for a different kind of life, and his search eventually led him to a job at ONS as a Neighborhood Change Agent (NCA).
Vaughn is one of seven full time employees at ONS that work as either NCA's or street outreach workers. Six out of the seven are originally from Richmond, and five have had problems with law enforcement.
"To be honest, we all were helpers in the [violence happening in Richmond] now; we helped that happen," Vaughn said. "But we all have a desire for Richmond [to be better] because our families still live here. This is our home and if we care about it, we can do something."
The responsibility of an NCA is to find the people in Richmond that are perpetrators of gun violence or those that have been affected by it. Once they're identified, the NCAs work to develop a relationship of trust with them that could result in an ONS fellowship.
"We are trying to create a space where ONS is a safety stop," said Kevin Muccular, a senior NCA staff person. "There are plenty of young people out there that understand that enough is enough."
Muccular is one of the NCA's that grew up in Richmond but never got involved in gun violence or got in trouble with law enforcement. His mother sent him to a high school outside of Richmond, and he would spend the entire week away from the city. "Back then you had issues with people, and not with areas," he said.
Muccular and Vaughn believe that the hardest part of their jobs is not the rejection, but losing one of their clients or one of the fellows to the streets. Muccular recently lost a client in North Richmond in an April 17 shooting. "I felt helpless in that situation," he said.
When the NCA's are doing outreach on the streets of Richmond, they often encounter young men who say they "aren't ready" to make a drastic change in their life.
"Just because you are ready to change doesn't mean that the people around you are ready to change," Muccular said.
"I'm still stuck in this mud puddle, I'm still getting splashed with everybody else's stuff," said Vaughn, explaining what a young man on the street might be thinking. "I'm working hard but it doesn't mean that the person on the other side cares ... I can still lose my life. So why not be ready for that, instead of thinking that I can maneuver myself out of here?"
"So much has to change for them to feel that this is safe," Vaughn added.
Kim MacDonald is the only NCA that didn't grow up in Richmond. She works mostly with the Prison Reentry Planning Initiative at San Quentin State Prison. MacDonald works with prisoners from Richmond soon to be released, helping to prepare them for their reentry into the community by teaching them violence prevention and life skills.
"If we don't educate and help them while they're incarcerated, who will?" MacDonald said. "These are amazing people that have made mistakes."
According to Boggan, all of the programs that he oversees are making a difference in Richmond -- but they are not enough.
"If you gave me the resources to do what we do for 150 [fellows], violent crime in this city would never be what it is today. I stake my career on it," Boggan said. "I'm not going to say we can eliminate gun violence, but the nature of violent crime in this city would go through significant change."
Both Muccular and Vaughn agree with Boggan.
"We got our fishing pole and we are picking one [young man] at the time," Vaughn said. "We need a net."
Once a Fellow, Always a Fellow
"[Muccular] put me in a lot of positions where I could use my potential," Bell said. "They don't give it to you but they put you in a place where you can earn it or you gotta use what's inside you to be successful."
Bell has been part of the fellowship program for only six months, but he's accomplished a lot.
"Jonathan hit he ground running," said Muccular, who is Bell's mentor.
"I was on probation, I had no license, I ain't worked in like three or four years, I was in a bad spot," Bell remembered. "I had given up on doing stuff the right way. You get better at doing the wrong stuff the right way."
Bell, who credits the program for getting his life back, is finally off probation. He worked for the city on account of an ONS-subsidized job, and now is looking for another job and waiting for the fall semester to start attending College of Alameda.
"The program showed me that there is still a way, that I can be a regular person," said Bell, who now wants only to be a better father to his 6-year-old boy. ONS encourages successful fellows like Bell to become role models for their peers and for the community, even people that have rejected the program in the past.
Woodwards is a senior fellow in the program. He started with the first group and has been part of the program for 18 months. Since then, he's referred a number of people from North Richmond to the program.
"I tell them, if you are serious about doing this, here's [Kevin Muccular's] number," Woodwards said.
Unlike Bell, Woodwards grow up almost by himself, with an absent father and a mother that have problems with substance abuse. "I was selling drugs to feed myself," he said.
Now he is attending Contra Costa College to get his prerequisites for a degree in radiology. "They don't let you slack off or anything," Woodwards said about the fellowship program. "That's a good thing because we don't have that. Must of us, we don't have family members that we respect to let them do that, but we respect [Muccular]."
Woodwards has a 1-year-old son and he says he hopes to be as good a father as Bell, a "cat" he knew from school several years ago, and who he once saw as an enemy.
Today, Woodwards is seeing his life differently.
"I never had the motivation to go to school, but now [I'm] the first one there," Woodward said with a big smile. "It feels good when you get an A on a test. I never had that."