For youth: Healing and opportunity

Print More
Area U: The Ubuntu Project works with youth to provide a variety of positive experiences. (Photo: Area U)

A lifelong educator and a Rochester native, Kareem-Ba McCullough’s path to youth violence prevention and intervention never came fully into focus until it was personal.

Several years ago, at the height of a violent crime spike, the brother of a middle school student working with McCullough was killed.

McCullough witnessed the trauma of violence on the student and his family, and remembered the African concept of Ubuntu.

“I am because of who we are,” McCullough roughly translates. “If it wasn’t for the adults in our lives, we wouldn’t be who we are. So by its very nature, it’s about pushing us forward … as a collective community.”

To solve the issue, there had to be an alternative, holistic approach to preventing youth violence, he thought. In 2022, McCullough’s organization, Area U: The Ubuntu Project, became a founding member of the Rochester Peace Collective, an effort that guides investments from local funders into innovative and proven programs that work to prevent violent crimes.

Through alternative therapy methods, transformative travel and employment opportunities, Area U’s wraparound services and approach to preventing youth violence are reflected in other methods that are gathering steam. Efforts by the city of Rochester, Monroe County and other organizations are helping youth gain new experiences and seek employment—using positive experiences to reduce violence. This represents a shift from years past, when opportunities for youth were separate and not part of a collective goal of violence prevention.

Halfway through its first year of operation,  Area U  is, in some ways, a microcosm of the city of Rochester. 

“When we started (Area U), there was a mentality of ‘it takes a village’—community-based, like in the Ubuntu philosophy,” says McCullough. “It’s going to take all of us to prosper and grow.”

Juvenile crimes

Although violent crime fell in comparison to record high years, 2023 was marked by increased attention on youth crime, particularly in the context of motor vehicle thefts.

Among New York counties outside of New York City, Monroe actually holds a distant third place in terms of arrests for individuals under age 18 in motor vehicle crimes. From 2018 to 2022, the area saw 258 juvenile arrests for that category, compared with 610 and 344 for Onondaga and Erie counties, respectively.

Of all Monroe County law enforcement agencies, the Rochester Police Department has made the most juvenile arrests (1,576) over that same time period. Similar to arrests as a whole, ones made for larceny have drastically decreased for youth, from 30 to 5 percent of the total. Motor vehicle thefts have gone from 23 percent of all arrests in 2018 to 37 percent in 2022.

Until recently, the number of shooting victims under 18 years old was declining in Rochester. Since a high of 59 fatal and nonfatal victims in 2005, the level dropped all the way to 14 victims in 2018.

Two years later, that trend reversed direction. In 2020, a year with rising violence across all age groups, young shooting victims totaled 37, only to double to 64 victims the following year.

Although the category has followed the general trend of declining violent crime rates, the number of shooting victims below age 18 still remains higher than the average across two decades.

“I saw a need for kids in the community to have these alternative therapies who were either affected by violence or were involved in it,” says McCullough, “because we know trauma affects everyone: both those who are perpetrated against and those who engage in those aspects.”

Youth engagement 

It’s an issue that fits within one of the stated focuses of Rochester Mayor Malik Evans, who has highlighted youth engagement since taking office in 2022.

“Let today be the day that we provide jobs for any youth that wants one. This will be one of our best violence reduction strategies,” Evans said in his inaugural speech. “Economic opportunity and public safety are linked, and we must say so.”

Today, the language used to describe some long-running programs, like the Summer of Opportunity, represents a shift, linking violence prevention to youth employment. The county government’s efforts have followed suit in assuming that if youth are employed and occupied, they are less likely to resort to violence.

The Office of Violence Prevention has overseen an increase in offerings, including programming aimed at youth. OVP was transferred from the Department of Recreation and Human Services to the mayor’s office when Evans took over.

OVP is searching for a manager, a job for which Victor Saunders has pulled double duty since his original appointment as the mayor’s advisor on violence prevention programs. During his tenure, he has tried to create a sustainable model that can last through administrations.

“The only thing we had as an intervention component when we started up again (in 2022) was Pathways to Peace,” says Saunders. “Having the mayor prioritize anti-violence for his administration, I was excited about the prospect of all the things we could do.”

Since then, OVP has grown to include even more for its three-pronged approach of prevention, intervention and suppression. Saunders lists the Advance Peace Fellowships, summer enrichment programs, a re-entry coordinator, Rochester Peace Collective, supporting the Person In Crisis Team, as well as connections with already established grassroots, community-based organizations as ways the office has grown in that time.

Victor Saunders is adviser for violence prevention at the city of Rochester.

“I think all those things, including the work that our law enforcement was able to do, aided us where we are now, as far as the numbers decreasing,” says Saunders. “We are not satisfied, of course, but considering we just completed our second year, we are definitely optimistic in what we can foresee for the future.”

Although McCullough’s program is still young, he sees only further success in the days ahead.

“I’m always reflecting on what worked, what didn’t, and getting perspective from the students themselves and their parents on what they’re thinking,” he says. “We’ve learned so much already about how to do this work and how to make it even better the next time.”

A role for therapy

The 15 young people participating in Area U are from across the city and range in age from 14 to 16. Kids this age generally have a better sense of self than early middle schoolers, but they’re still open to, and sometimes looking for, guidance, McCullough has found. All have also been affected by violence in some way.

The Edgerton R-Center has been an important and supportive partner to Area U’s work, McCullough says. Participants gather there three days a week after school for 30 weeks. Each day’s activity has an element of therapeutic healing to them, even if it is not obvious at first.

For example, Thursdays are usually spent cooking together.

“You’ll see kids in the kitchen cooking, doing prep work. You’ll see a lot of movement, a lot of laughter, a lot of fun, and that’s exactly what it’s supposed to be. We’re trying to make it enjoyable,” McCullough says. “But in the process of cooking, you have to talk, you have to communicate, with the ultimate output being you sit down and break bread.” 

“Having the outlet that takes your mind off of things or relieves you of the day’s stress, that also can be collaborative and empathy building,” he continues. “Well, that’s a form of alternative therapy.”

Tuesday’s activities are usually art-based, with an eventual move toward horticulture when the weather warms. Some days are spent volunteering at R-Center events or on career and employment readiness.

They are all informed and modeled by Wednesdays, however, which are explicitly therapy-based. Those activities are small-group sharing circles facilitated by two therapists.

“There can be a lot of fear and hesitation at first to be a part of new experiences. So it was a process of breaking down barriers to open them up to be exposed to new things,” McCullough recalls of the program’s beginnings.

Since then, the group has grown close, and McCullough already sees students who could serve as good mentors for future generations in Area U.

Saunders also speaks of meetings with the newest cohort of Rochester Advance Peace Fellows as “phenomenal,” but they were met with initial “apprehension.”

The Advance Peace model attempts to interrupt gun violence by providing opportunities to young men involved in lethal firearm offenses. The model has already been used in a number of cities in California, including Fresno, Stockton and Sacramento. Rochester’s first cohort of a dozen men recently graduated from the program.

“(With the Advance Peace model), it can have you and I in it. But previously you and I were on opposite ends of the gun from each other. So you need to change your entire mindset to even be in the same space as me,” says Saunders, reflecting on real life examples over his 16 years in gang intervention. 

“When you see someone acting bad, a lot more times than not, it’s their defense mechanism. It’s what they’ve learned that helps them survive,” he says. “So it takes time. That’s why it’s an 18-month program. The work is deep.”

Other examples of therapeutic approaches include the Teen Empowerment Center, which offers social-emotional services, and Pathways to Peace, whose staff completed cognitive behavior therapy training.

Exposure to education

Another important aspect to Area U’s programming is educational exposure, which takes place as non-mandatory enrichment opportunities on holidays and every weekend.

Some are simple, such as eating dinner together at an Ethiopian restaurant or bowling. More advantaged youth might consider the experiences routine, but for young people in Area U, they offer rare opportunities to share, empathize and network with other people. 

“As a kid, growing up in Rochester, I remember a lot of times being exposed to things, and that was how I was able to be part of the discussions. So I think about that all the time,” says McCullough.

Kareem-Ba McCullough

“Rochester has a huge population of people from East Africa. Now, if you meet one, you can say, ‘Oh I’ve had your food before.’ If someone is a big climber, you can say, ‘I’ve been zip-lining before,’” he says. “It gives you the opportunity to get off the sidelines in those conversations and be part of it instead.”

Other enrichment events are more in depth, such as overnight camping, a ski trip to Bristol Mountain, or a tour to historically Black colleges and universities. Exposure to experiences outside their neighborhoods and city can help youth think past those boundaries, McCullough believes. He says his own experiences of working in Africa, the Middle East and Asia were instrumental in his development.

Transformational travel is a large part of Rochester’s Advance Peace fellowship as well. Saunders highlights a trip to The Legacy Museum in Alabama as a breakthrough moment for many in the program.

The museum presents the history of Black enslavement in North America and makes connections to the contemporary issue of mass incarceration facing the Black community. The location also has a number of powerful monuments and memorials to people, such as victims of racial terror lynchings.

“It was huge and very eye-opening for individuals. I think it brought guys over the hump who might have been thinking they weren’t really sure (about the program) or how real their transformation would be,” Saunders says.

“When we debriefed from that trip, that brought tears more than anything else. It really gave fellows an opportunity to see what our people had to go through to get to this country and the disregard we had to pick up a firearm and use it against a brother,” he reflects. 

The job factor

McCullough also sees employment as a path toward progress for impacted youth. Area U has job-readiness days for interested students through resume building and mock interview sessions.

Many students at Area U have no job experience, which keeps them from applying. McCullough says he enjoys showing how the program itself has given them experiences, which, while not officially jobs, can be attractive to employers.

“You’ve worked together in a group with your cooking. You’ve volunteered at the R-Center. Those are all valuable experiences that you can use,” he says.

Employment opportunities can keep youth away from negative influences and solve what may have made them take that path in the first place. Saunders is proud of OVP’s re-entry progam coordinator, who works to end recidivism and intergenerational incarceration through employment. The position was created during Saunders’ leadership.

“I’d be hard pressed to think of another city in New York State that hired one,” he remarks.

Large-scale projects that Saunders and other city government officials point to as integral to their efforts are the Summer of Opportunity Program and the RochesterWorks! Summer Youth Employment programs.

The Rochester programs provide six to eight weeks of paid employment for city youth enrolled in middle school or high school, or pursuing their high school equivalency diploma. SOOP focuses specifically on city residents, while SYEP is eligible for any county resident who meets poverty guidelines.

Opportunities have included work through city and county governments as well as local businesses and organizations, including a Horse’s Friend, the Center for Teen Empowerment, The Strong National Museum of Play, Charles Settlement House and the Boys and Girls Club of Rochester.

Applications for SOOP and SYEP typically open in February. Application results are mailed in April. On Saturday, the city will host an employment fair with application assistance for summer programs available on site.

In January, Monroe County announced a $1.7 million investment into the ROC Your Job program, which offers full-year employment to youth. With similar application requirements as the city program, ROC Your Job also intends to focus on lower-income neighborhoods disproportionately affected by gun violence through the Department of Human Services connections and Juvenile Enhanced Diversion Stabilization program.

“Providing a young person with a job gives them a sense of pride and responsibility, helps ease the financial burden of their families, and makes them far less likely to be involved in criminal behaviors,” County Executive Adam Bello said at the time.

The mayor also has begun to link the SOOP and SYEP programs with violence prevention, which marks a shift in focus from previous city leaders.

“The relationships between public safety, economic development and youth development are crystallized by our expansion of the Summer of Opportunity program and Summer Youth Enrichment Program,” Evans said at a 2023 budget presentation. “Public safety remains our No. 1 priority. If you don’t have safety, both real and perceived, you cannot have anything else.”

Research would support Evans’ and Bello’s efforts to link employment with violence prevention. For example, a 2014 University of Pennsylvania study showed Chicago’s SYEP program reduced violent arrests by 43 percent among participants.

Further, a 2023 report from gun safety organization Everytown noted that the average cost borne by taxpayers was $1 million per gun homicide in New York, while the average in employment programs was $3,300 per youth. Rochester budget data suggests that SOOP and SYEP averaged about $1,100 per youth for available years.

The report found that the most effective programs at lowering violence targeted areas disproportionately affected by the issues, similar to the approach of the ROC Your Job program.

Taking the long view

Everytown’s report noted that a multifaceted approach was required to make lasting progress. While Rochester’s summer employment programs have been in place for nearly 20 years, youth crime remains a mixed picture at best.

“Summer youth employment is not a magic wand that can wave away the multiple, often compounding, challenges youth at risk of being involved with violence may face,” the report reads. “Those problems—such as homelessness or housing instability, trouble with reading or simple math resulting from under-resourced schools, lack of access to culturally competent mental health care, and various forms of childhood trauma—are years in the making.”

The recently announced ROC Your Job will have a capacity of 260 young people. Last year, SOOP and SYEP programs together had 696 summer participants.

On average, from 2015 to 2019, more than 700 youth found employment. Applications for the summer programs continue to increase, leading to another challenge: not enough jobs for all applicants.

Saunders is aware that there remain gaps in solving the issue of violence in Rochester. Crime and violence are extreme measures that shock a community when they occur and, though short-term, they can make the issue of violence look insurmountable.

“I’m a grandfather in this community. I have two young grandchildren, 2 and 3 years old. Anything that I’m working on on behalf of the community, I want to see come to fruition by the time they’re preteen age,” Saunders says.

An indisputable fact, he continues, is that long-term change takes time. Still, he believes change can and does happen at an individual level every day.

McCullough concurs. While the number of youth at Area U might seem like a tiny number in comparison to the challenges facing the city, it is only a part of the solution. There are still barriers to youth access that need to be addressed, transportation key among them.

“If anything, I think our size means there should be (Area Us) all across the city in every R-Center,” he says. “We need more people and more organizations working with our youth. We need to meet them where they are.”

In some cases, literally.

“If I need to, I go pick up a student myself,” McCullough says, “because that’s how we should be serving them if we really want to make an impact.”

Jacob Schermerhorn is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer and data journalist. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected]

2 thoughts on “For youth: Healing and opportunity

  1. I thought about not commenting but….here I am. First of all if you are going to show kids in action, picturing two kids on front of a climbing wall, and at least one with a phone in his hand, is at the very least a poor choice of staging. Maybe both of them in action half way up the wall might have been better. And one taking a picture with the phone of the action. That said, if kids that require therapy and other rescue programs today would have received that while on their youth journey we would not be at this stage. We don’t pay attention to those kids who stray during their upbringing. Then when they become a bother, a problem, run off the rails and get involved with crime…NOW we provide the services known as “rescue programs” which cost ten times the amount that would have been spent if they had received the required attention in their K-12 journey. If we would only do it right in the first place, we would not have to do it at a far greater cost and effort later in life. We can’t seem to find the funding to do it right in the first place, but somehow we have the funding for the rescue effort. Do a survey of kids that experience problems and then address them during their K-12 journey. They can actually provide you with a prevention effort by listening to their story via a survey.

  2. Great article describing some programs targeting to diminishing youth violence and building on youth strengths.

    This article is a good example of solution focused journalism which describes positive efforts to deal with problems.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *