Dealing with the cause of Wilmington violence through “The People’s Report”

 (Gene Ashley/WHYY)

(Gene Ashley/WHYY)

Wilmington may be Delaware’s largest city, but it’s geographically small when compared to neighboring cities like Philadelphia that are riddled with crime.  Yet Wilmington faces the same issue. A University of Delaware researcher may have the answer in a new report.

To get to the root of the problem, Dr. Yasser Payne of the University of Delaware decided to train a group of men and women who were either caught up in life on the streets or criminal justice system. He had them collect data from residents in two Wilmington poverty stricken neighborhoods. The study is called the Participatory Action Research project. It has been called an intervention experience, designed to direct some of those data collectors to better opportunities.

“I think by me being a part of the problem, now I wanted to be a part of the solution,” said Dennis Watson, one of 15 men and women who hit the streets to observe and interview residents.

Now, after collecting more than 520 surveys from the street corners of Wilmington’s Southbridge and Eastside neighborhoods, Watson has a different perspective on life.

“I spent most of my years, my youth, my adolescence, all the way up to my young adulthood incarcerated due to poor decision making,” said Watson.

But thanks to the PAR project, Watson, who grew up in Southbridge, now wants to mentor at-risk youth. The PAR project proves to be more than a research experience, but about activism as well, requiring action in local communities.

“If we’re going to help guys who are caught up in the streets, guys caught up in prisons, then we’re going to actually have to come up with a robust program that provides new and fresh opportunity with livable wages,” said Payne.

A different kind of survey

Payne says using data collectors who come from these neighborhoods, researchers were able to get information that would often be unavailable.

“You’re not going to tell someone outside of your community that both of your parents are on drugs and that you’re the breadwinner in the house and that you’re only 18,19, 20 years old,” said data collector Pat Gibbs.

It’s that kind of information that Gibbs, a former loan shark and hustler, was able to get people to open up about.  What he learned even motivated him to get his life back on track and self publish two books.

Structural violence

“You have a community or neighborhoods that are under siege by the structural systems, so you have communities that are sustained in poverty or structural violence, and for us and what we found in the study is that structural violence is predicting the violence in the city,” said Payne.

However, decreasing such structural violence is challenging, especially when one major thing in the community is missing according to Payne, and that is jobs.

“Often times, particularly older guys, understand the risks that are associated with the streets: jail, physical injury, and/or death. They’re not actually blind to those consequences, given their situation in that context, those consequences are seen as worth it,” said Payne.

It’s “worth it” because there aren’t enough jobs in the community, especially not for people with some type of criminal background, said Payne.  He believes minimum wage jobs like the ones often found at fast food restaurants and factories aren’t working.  More often than not, more money can be made on the streets than in a minimum wage job, that’s why Payne suggests the community needs to come together to find a solution.

“I think it is possible to develop a partnership between civic and political leadership and black youth and young adults caught up in the criminal justice system in Wilmington. I think Wilmington is small enough where all of those forces can converge,” said Payne.

Report recommendations

In the report, there are 17 recommendations under multiple target areas, including structural opportunity, physical violence, and street outreach.

“Now they understand the communities in ways the experts don’t, so that puts them in a unique position that allows them to have a certain level of power or cache, and our thing is let’s just build on that momentum,” said Payne.

For PAR data collectors like Watson, the project is a stepping stone.  “I think the influence that Yasser gave me was more so the push I needed, because I could’ve got out of jail and with the things I learned in there still went for the negative,” said Watson who’s currently working on starting a non-profit organization to help at-risk youth.

The next steps

Most of the PAR team members changed their lives completely and are doing well since the research project ended. At least one is enrolled as an undergrad student at the University of Delaware, while another PAR member is working on a doctorate in criminal justice at UD. One former data collector is in graduate school at Wilmington University. Also, a former felon was hired for a university job, and another former felon was hired at another of the state’s largest employers.  Those hirings are all examples of the project’s success by showing people what opportunities are available to them.  More importantly, the project convinces employers that a felony conviction isn’t the sum total of who someone is or what they’re capable of.

Payne said no research in the state’s history has the kind of data that was collected during this project that began in 2010.  The report will be released online on on September 16th.

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