One Vision One Life strives to save youths from gang life

by Jill King Greenwood (Pittsburgh Tribune-Review)
November 7, 2009


Six years ago, a former gang member brought together two dozen people like himself to intervene in street disputes and reach out to troubled kids in Allegheny County’s worst neighborhoods.

A nonprofit arm of the county, One Vision One Life has a $1.2 million annual operating budget. Creator Richard Garland and his “community coordinators” are preventing gang violence, police say, and gaining national attention for their work.

“One Vision One Life provides a critical service to our community by utilizing people who have been on the other side and have turned their lives around and are now trying to be part of the solution instead of the problem,” said Marc Cherna, director of the county Department of Human Services, whose department oversees the program. “Richard Garland has the street cred to do this work.”

Last year the group was named a finalist in the “Young Men at Risk: Transforming the Power of a Generation” online competition sponsored by Ashoka’s Changemakers, a Washington nonprofit that brings attention to programs attempting to solve troubling issues.

Last month, One Vision One Life received a $331,025, two-year federal grant. It’s one of 20 awardees in a group of “Comprehensive Data-Driven Approaches to Preventing and Reducing Violent Crime.”

The grant will pay for three current community coordinator positions, allow the hiring of three more and provide some health benefits. The coordinators are men — ex-offenders, former gang members and sometimes just men who grew up in the streets but didn’t end up as convicts — who attempt to quell street disputes and show youths the benefits of leaving the hustling life behind.

“This will ensure the fidelity of our program,” said Garland, 56, a Philadelphia native who spent 12 years in prison for gang-related crimes. “This work is important, because we as African-American males were responsible for tearing down our communities, so it’s up to us to build them back up.”

Garland began by recruiting 25 people for $1,000 a month. After going through about 150 workers, he’s at a staffing level of 27 men.

“Bad guys weeded themselves out real quick,” he said. Some of the men Garland fired were continuing to deal drugs and using the program as a cover to hide from police, he said.

The group analyzed violence in Pittsburgh and charted “hot spots” for crimes and times of day that shootings were most likely to occur — between 2 and 4 p.m., after schools close, and evenings until 2 a.m. The analysis looked at relationships between neighborhoods with feuding gangs, and the group set out to work in the North Side, Hill District, East End and South Side.

An expansion of services includes the West End, Clairton, Stowe and McKees Rocks.

Program Director El Gray, who often shouts through a bullhorn at anti-violence rallies for young men to stop killing each other, said One Vision One Life is audited every year and never had a problem.

The most recent audit, prepared by Downtown firm KFMR and filed in August, shows the organization had $524,646 in assets and $69,620 in liabilities for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2008. Based in the Manor Building, the group is funded by grants, private foundations and money from the county, state and federal governments.

In addition to the street intervention, the group works to provide housing services, addiction treatment, youth programs, community day events, summer job training and referrals for welfare and food stamps, Gray said.

“They have a unique project,” said the Rev. Glenn Grayson of Wesley Center AME Zion Church in the Hill District. “It takes a special personality to get into these communities and impact these lives. It’s all about the relationships and they make huge inroads, particularly when it comes to retaliatory shootings.”

Coming from a place troubled kids and young men can relate to is key to the program’s success, said Eugene Caldwell, 51, one of the group’s community coordinators.

“I spent 28 years in the federal pen,” said Caldwell, who works the Hill District. “I have lived that life. I’m trying to keep other young men from doing the same.”

“You have to be consistent and show them another way,” said Kenneth Jordan, 36, a community coordinator in the South Side. “You have to go to bat for these kids or you’ll lose them. When they call you and want to talk, you have to drop everything and go right then, or you’ve lost them.”

Garland said he helped negotiate a cease-fire among seven gangs operating in the North Side that lasted for some time after the Jan. 28, 2008, shooting death of a 12-year-old girl. A similar agreement followed among gangs in the Hill District, Garland said.

Pittsburgh police Chief Nate Harper said that about 18 months ago, One Vision workers got word that a group from the North Charles Street area of the North Side was about to ambush a rival from Northview Heights.

“They got out there in front of that and talked these guys into putting their guns down and at the end of the day, they stopped that,” Harper said.

The North Side continues to be a hot spot, Garland said, along with Homewood.

An offshoot of One Vision One Life is working with more than 40 girls in the city to quell violence among young women. The Sisterhood Initiative intervenes in violent clashes, encourages girls to stay in school and go to college, and helps young mothers learn to be better parents.

“It’s just as important that we reach out to the girls, because women set the tone of the neighborhood,” said Ayanna Jones, who runs the program. “When men go off to jail, we’re the ones at home with the babies holding up the other end of the sky.”

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