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Radical Imagination 7: Advance Peace

May 29, 2020 The Race & Wealth Team on how to close the racial wealth divide through art, media, policy, literacy, and action
The Race and Wealth Podcast Network
Radical Imagination 7: Advance Peace
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The Race and Wealth Podcast Network
Radical Imagination 7: Advance Peace
May 29, 2020
The Race & Wealth Team on how to close the racial wealth divide through art, media, policy, literacy, and action

Imagine an America free of urban gun violence. Host Angela Glover Blackwell speaks with Devone Boggan, CEO of Advance Peace in Richmond, California, a visionary program that offers young men with a history of gun offenses life-changing opportunities to work as community peacemakers. In this episode, the season one finale, we also hear from James Houston, who served 18 years in prison for shooting and killing a man. Houston is now a change agent in Richmond — and proof that investment in people, not in more police, can end the devastating cycle of neighborhood violence.

Show Notes Transcript

Imagine an America free of urban gun violence. Host Angela Glover Blackwell speaks with Devone Boggan, CEO of Advance Peace in Richmond, California, a visionary program that offers young men with a history of gun offenses life-changing opportunities to work as community peacemakers. In this episode, the season one finale, we also hear from James Houston, who served 18 years in prison for shooting and killing a man. Houston is now a change agent in Richmond — and proof that investment in people, not in more police, can end the devastating cycle of neighborhood violence.

Angela Glover Blackwell :

Welcome to the radical imagination podcast where we dive into the stories and solutions that are fueling change. I'm your host Angela Glover Blackwell, and this is the final episode of our first season..

Recording :

"There are shots being fired, and people running, victoms involved". "Shots fired". "Again, we have a report of subject with a gun".

Angela Glover Blackwell :

The radical idea we're going to look at today addresses a big problem in the US especially, gun violence. Every year, more than 100,000 people are shot in the US. And the reality is that gun related homicides often happen in low income communities of color. City authorities will typically respond by hiring more police officers, increasing neighborhood patrolling and then just hoping for the best. What if we tried a different path? For example, Police abolition a topic we tackled in a previous episode, where people are trying to reduce the role of police in certain neighborhoods in test out less harmful alternatives. Take Richmond, California, a city that has struggled with ramped gun violence since the 1930s.

Recording :

"Richmond police say this isn't a random shooting. However, they do not believe the victim was intended target."

Angela Glover Blackwell :

And it's also the place where an organization named "Advanced Peace" has come up with a new approach to disrupt gun related homicides. And it does this by hiring young men with a history of lethal weapon offenses, taking them from being a part of the problem to the forefront of finding solutions. Today, we're joined by Devone Boggan, he's the founder and CEO of advance peace. And he's here to tell us why he thinks that betting on these young men who have been written off by society is the right approach. Devone, welcome to radical imagination.

Devone Boggan :

I'm excited to be here.

Angela Glover Blackwell :

Would you start by telling people what Advanced Peace is, and how it started in Richmond, California.

Devone Boggan :

Advanced Peace reduces a cyclical and retaliatory gun violence in US urban neighborhoods by engaging the individuals who are at the center of gun violence. So Advanced Peace addresses violent actors that traditional law enforcement has struggled to address. So that's the first thing. So my job without a gun without a badge, was to help the city address what seemed to be a very intractable problem, a historic challenge.

Recording :

"It has a fourth homicide in Richmond in just three weeks after a peaceful start to the year".

Devone Boggan :

35-40 homicides a year 30 years. So I think it's important that we lift up the city of Richmond because it was the public system leadership, who said we've got to do something very different. We've put more police on the streets, and that It's not helping us to get to where we want to get to. So we need another instrument. I think the second was this idea of capturing formerly incarcerated individuals who themselves had a common lived experience with those who were at the center of that city's gun violence.

Recording :

"5 Bullets came from a white mazda", "a brother and sister shot to death in Richmond last night." "This potent mix of pain, anger, and teenagers with guns. Here are the streets or hunting grounds, quarter after quarter young men run for their lives."

Devone Boggan :

So we decided to hire formerly incarcerated individuals from the city of Richmond, as city government employees full time fully vested. Not only were we looking for formerly incarcerated individuals from the city of Richmond, but we were looking for formerly incarcerated individuals who had gun charges in their backgrounds to become what we call Neighborhoods Change Agents to be deployed in those neighborhoods where gun violence was most prevalent to begin to engage those individuals who were thought to be most responsible for that gun violence. So that's the second thing that we were able to accomplish. And then the third thing, we would only focus on those individuals who law enforcement had the greatest difficulty addressing. Individuals who were suspected to be actively involved in gun violence, who had yet to face a legal or criminal consequence for those acts of gun violence. So our thesis wasn't is unless and until law enforcement can stop those who shoot from shooting. Those same individual should be motivated, they should be inspired. They should be empowered to change their behaviors on their own

Recording :

"In exchange for turning away from dangerous behavior, the men about 40 of them right now. Aged 16 to 20 Five join the fellowship, they draw up a life map where they set positive goals for the future. They get daily contact and counseling help finding jobs and money. Bogan says the funding comes from private donors over an 18 month period that money becomes an incentive for the men to choose better behavior mess up, and they will get nothing."

Angela Glover Blackwell :

Wow. I mean, first, we're talking about neighborhood safety. And then we're talking about people formerly incarcerated with guns, being Neighborhood Change Agents, and then focusing on people who are engaged in gun violence on the street, but not yet in the system. And this is not about police going out and doing anything.

Devone Boggan :

That's correct. And what most folks don't know or recognize, Angela is that in urban communities where gun violence is most prevalent, the prosecution rates are oftentimes less than 30%. So for example, take Chicago which everyone likes to talk about, by the way, it's not the most dangerous city in the country. But everyone talks about Chicago's had 1400 murders by firearm over the last two years. Less than 25% of the individuals suspected of those acts of gun violence will ever see a day of time for those suspected acts. So we know that law enforcement and incarceration isn't working. So why not try something different that keeps these individuals from crossing that line? .

Angela Glover Blackwell :

So tell us about the results in Richmond.

Devone Boggan :

In Richmond, we had 84 fellows through four 18 month, fellowship cohorts. 84 individuals who were thought to be the most lethal young men in the city of Richmond, who were also thought to be those most likely to become victims of gunfire. That's another piece I'd like to lift up. So of those 84 fellows today, 94% of them are alive and I love when I hear, alumnus of our fellowship, say hang out with the Office of neighborhood safety or advance peace, and you're going to stay alive. Now they use very different language when they describe it, this probably not appropriate for this podcast but 83% of these individuals who were thought to be dead within a six month period of us beginning our fellowship engagement with them, have not been injured by a firearm today. And here's the biggest smallest number of 77% of our fellows since becoming a fellow are not thought to be in new firearm related activity. That has translated into a 72% reduction in firearm activity in the city of Richmond that has now been sustained for five years. And the greater impact is how those fellows that are alive are now providing a healthier model for folks who have great close proximity to them in those very communities because we didn't move them out, they still live in the city of Richmond.

Angela Glover Blackwell :

This is so inspiring to hear what you've done, and especially to hear the results that are associated with it. I want you to pull back for a moment. You have shown that we can make a difference without police. What are the implications for policing?

Devone Boggan :

Thats a great question, Angela. The idea of the concept of public safety being expanded beyond policing and incarceration to include these kinds of interventions and community empowerment is a heavy lift and a work in progress. I think I would be remiss not to be honest with you here today and with your audience to tell you that one of our greatest critics, when we show up in a city is the policing unions in those cities. That's going to be very challenging for law enforcement, because at some point, we've got to begin to think about how we retrain and redirect those resources. And that's frightening for folks in that law enforcement space. I have seen how these young men and the issues that they are participating and it creates disruption and distruction are used to raise large amounts of resources. You look at any municipal budget of a city who's struggling with gun violence issues, and I guarantee you you're going to find the 50 60% of that budget is public safety. Most governments would have said, Oh, no, oh, heck, no, we can't bring these guys into city government. In fact, law enforcement. Law enforcement had a huge challenge with the folks I decided, because these were folks that for a veteran police officer, he or she had chased these guys in their heyday. So they were really challenged. by it, but we were able to convince them that these guys themselves had their own transformational process and could demonstrate that they could work successfully

Angela Glover Blackwell :

And Devone, that has been part of the criticism that people have leveled at you

Recording :

"Advanced Peace takes violent criminals, sorry, violent "alleged" criminals and offers them 365 day a year counseling, job training, mentoring. And one other thing." "Criminals are paid not to commit crime. I'm serious."

Angela Glover Blackwell :

What people accuse you of doing is paying people not to shoot. How do you respond to that?

Devone Boggan :

I tell you what, when you think about the cost of gun violence on a city for every homicide, a conservative cost is a million dollars and a further conservative cost is about $400,000. Mother Jones Magazine did an expose a in July 2015, I believe on the cost of gun violence. And they said that we had spent $229 billion chasing gun violence in the year 2012. That was the last year the CDC did a study on the cost of gun violence. And that comes out to be about $400,000 every time someone is shot. So when you consider the cost every time someone is shot, and then you hear the criticism of paying criminals, albeit that's not what we do. But if $9,000 over an 18 month period, kept people who shoot from shooting, I think it's a phenomenal investment. Right? That's my response. The second response I have, what we're doing is much deeper. We often talk about getting these guys jobs, or connecting these guys to services. Well understand, the jobs are not ready for these guys. And these guys aren't ready for the jobs and that goes for the social and human services aspects of things to even where services are available and abundant. More often than not, they are not ready for this population. By the way, I don't talk about this a lot, but my family is a victim of gun violence. Eight months after I took the job in the city of Richmond, I lost my youngest brother to gun fire in the city of Lansing, Michigan. And when I went home to bury my brother, I came back really thinking that you know what, maybe this isn't for me. I mean, it was a blow. I didn't see that coming. And it was a fellow, someone that I had hired at our office to help me understand gun violence, someone who was directly involved in it, who said to me, welcome to my world. And I don't get to leave. That has always stuck with me. So I think being able to never forget, whose voice you're carrying, whose message you're carrying, and making sure that's genuine, authentic and real at all times at all costs.

Angela Glover Blackwell :

One of the things that you really bring to this work is seeing people in their wholeness. Talk about that,

Devone Boggan :

As I look at these young men, and see myself, see my brothers, see my team, these young men are us, and they want what we want. They want safety, they want security, they want to make a contribution. They just haven't had anyone to provide them with a model, or even the support of what a healthy contribution looks like. They want to be loved. They want to be cared for, they want to be embraced. They want everything that we want, I think going in I knew, but it became crystal clear. As I worked with these young men every single day. And they were committed. They were committed to trying something different in spite of them continually negotiating a barrage of warlike environments they were having to navigate and negotiate

Angela Glover Blackwell :

Devone, thank you for speaking with us. Thank you. Devon Bogan is the founder and CEO of Advanced Peace and a former neighborhood safety director with the City of Richmond, California. Coming up on radical imagination, we speak with James Houston. He was 16 years old when he was convicted of second degree murder. After 18 years in prison, he is now a Neighborhood Change Agent and a senior adviser to Advance Peace. Stay with us. More when we come back. And we're back. James Houston was convicted of second degree murder at 21 after intervening in a domestic dispute that ended up with him shooting and killing a man. He served 18 years in prison and he is now Lead Neighborhood Change Agent for the city of Richmond Office of neighborhood safety. James, welcome to radical imagination. Thank you, Angela. I am curious what it was like for you growing up. What is some of your clearest memories of that?

James Houston :

Actually, I was born in Decatur, Illinois. My mother and father were together at that time. At six years old, I seen my mother being abused by my father. And I remember my brother who was five years old, he was the one who went up to my father and bit him on the leg. My father picked him up and throw him over a table onto a couch. And for me, that fight, flight or freeze, and I froze. From that moment on, I kind of felt like a coward. Shortly after that, my mother picked us up and moved us to California. And I felt that I had something to prove. Like I was the oldest, I had to make a name for our family out there because what was going on in the streets in Richmond?

Angela Glover Blackwell :

What was going on on the streets of Richmond,

James Houston :

There was a lot of fights a lot of drugs. I remember imitating the drug dealers. They never taught me how but I watched from a distance. And I felt like as the oldest it was my responsibility to kind of contribute to the family.

Angela Glover Blackwell :

When you were growing up in Richmond looking at who was on the streets and who seemed to have status on the streets, did you have anybody to turn to, to talk to to bounce ideas off of as you were developing yourself?

James Houston :

I had one person and it was my great uncle. I didn't appreciate him at that point. I felt that he was, he was I would say about 50s. And so I felt like he couldn't relate. But he did a lot to try to bring me under his wing. He started me off at eight years old and Pop Warner football. When I started working summer jobs, he would give me a ride field trip for school. He he was the one who made the lunches for us, but I never seen him as somebody I could look up to because I felt like he didn't understand.

Angela Glover Blackwell :

You were 21 years old in 1996. That right? And that's when the incident happened that suddenly changed your life. Could you walk us through that?

James Houston :

I was in the streets selling drugs. I had been shot at before I was carrying a gun. I had no conflict resolution skills. I was angry young man. I was frustrated because I had a son who was 10 months. I didn't know how to be a father all I knew at the time. was money, get more money. I didn't know the power of being there in his life and the impact that was and how more important that was. So I'm coming home from the store, I started drinking a lot more. I seen my neighbor who was a friend of mines mother in a conflict with our boyfriend, who I also knew and I had actually sold drugs to, like call me over there because I knew the type of person I was. I went over there I confronted him. I said, Give our money back. He said, No, I put on my gun to kind of intimidating with the gun. He reached for a pullback and shot him.

Angela Glover Blackwell :

You had the gun. Why did you have a gun?

James Houston :

For me, protection. And also, with that gun, I felt powerful. I felt like somebody. Somebody you was gonna listen to.

Angela Glover Blackwell :

And when you say they knew the kind of guy you were... what are you talking about when you say that?

James Houston :

Even though I did a lot of negative things in the community, in my way, I felt like I was the type of person that would look out for you if you needed me in a violent situation. Even talking to my family, most of the things that I was there for them for was violent situations. I had never let go of that feeling of being a coward. I was always constantly trying to make up for that moment. And so when that situation came with my neighbor, I had to realize, you know, because when I first committed a crime, I never thought that I would get that much time 18 a life sentence. I felt like I should be rewarded. Like I did some good. And over time as I looked at it, and got to know myself and know my own story, because I ran from it so much so long. I realized that it wasn't about conflict going on neither one of them it was about that little boy at six years old, trying to prove that he wasn't a coward.

Angela Glover Blackwell :

What was life like in prison? What did you reflect on when you were there? And how did that experience change you?

James Houston :

When I first started my prison sentence, I would say approximately the first seven years, I was pretty much the same guy was on the streets. I was incarcerated in Susanville. And there was no programs. And so all I did was hang on a yard and pretty much continue the same things that I did when I was on the streets. Fortunately, I was transferred to San Quentin State Prison where there were a plethora of programs for me to participate in. And it was the first time I ever had another man, see me and my potential. I remember I was working on death row sweeping. I want to go you know, work in education, go to school, go to college, and the hours conflicted. And I talked to someone who became a friend. And he talked to some people and got me shifted from that job to another job where I can go to take college courses. I never had a man really give me something and not want nothing in return. No usually selling drugs, they was trying to work you to get, you know, some extra drugs or some free drugs. But for someone who just genuinely wants to see the best in you, it sparked something in me. So I started following these men and seeing are you real? Is this this really you? And it turned out they were.

Angela Glover Blackwell :

So what was it like on that day when you got out?

James Houston :

It was a great day. Once again my uncle still was there. He had bought me a suit to come home in. I got out early enough to go pick my son up from school because he never knew me on this side of the wall. And just being reunited with family and I guess the scary part for me was that the prison time just seemed like it was a overnight dream. That time hadn't really happened.

Angela Glover Blackwell :

What was the hardest part about being back in community in society?

James Houston :

For me, I think the hardest part was understanding that I was 40 years old, and hadn't, you know, built up anything financially for my future. And one thing for my son that at that point, you know, this was his last year of high school, and there was a lot of things I wish I could do, but I, I couldn't.

Angela Glover Blackwell :

And so how did you connect with the Advance Peace?

James Houston :

Actually, I connected with Advance Peace in prison. I was incarcerated. I was the chairman of a group called the Richmond project where we was trying to make a difference from inside and Devon, one day he popped up in my cell and we had a conversation. He started coming to our meetings. And at some point, I remember him saying that if you ever get out because I was still had a life sentence at the time, and I'm doing something in Richmond, you got a job.

Angela Glover Blackwell :

You've written about how important it is to relate to young men who have turned to guns. That they feel isolated, frustrated, searching for purpose. Could you describe more about your own reflections? And how that's helped you to be able to work with other people who are following that path that you had been on?

James Houston :

For me is if you feel so great about yourself or know your worth, why would you involve yourself in some of the things many of our young men involve themselves in? Nobody has invested in them so they feel like nothing. And many of them are doing the same thing I did. Crying out in their own way for attention. As a young man, I can't come to you in a neighborhood and say I'm hurting, the shame. For me, I don't have shame. I have guilt for what I've done. But I use that guilt to motivate me to work with these young men.

Angela Glover Blackwell :

So what does it mean to be a Neighborhood Change Agent? Walk me through what you do day to day and what kind of activities you're involved in.

James Houston :

So day to day we have our meetings, but each day we go out to the neighborhood, building those relationships, sharing our stories, we can see when they go on to someone, something's bothering them, because it's not just the superficial type, engagement.

Angela Glover Blackwell :

Tell us about the kind of situation you might deal with? What sorts of things come up and how are you able to guide or intervene or help these young men see a different way?

James Houston :

Well, it depends on different types of conflict. So some conflicts may be internal, and those are usually easier to navigate. So if a young man is having a problem with another young man from his own community, we kind of like share our experiences. What I've learned over time is, I don't care who you with. I tell them myself, If I would have been in that cell doing time with my mother, we'd have conflict. And it's okay to have conflict. It's just all about how you deal with it. External conflict, we usually rely on some of our relationships with the young people. Say I have a young man that I'm more close to, and we see something arising with another man who's from a different side of town, it may be me to go talk to the one that I'm having a better relationship with. And then another Change Agent will go talk to the other young man. And we've talked about, try to see where I started from, at some point, try to bring them together, if not a phone call, and then bring them together.

Angela Glover Blackwell :

And how is that going? How are your conversations going with these young men? Do you find that once they open up that you really are able to go into some different directions in terms of conversation and action?

James Houston :

I definitely feel that it helps a lot because as a young man, you feel like nobody else's story is as bad as mine. Nobody's been through what I've been through. And for somebody to share and relate, and you'd be able to say, that was me. I felt that I've been through that. But we don't talk about that. We only are healthy is our worst secrets. Because we stuck in our shame. This is I'm wrong. Not that something happened to me that was wrong. That shouldn't happen. And it's lessons and gifts even in that, but we choose to hold because we feel like that's not the manly thing to do.

Angela Glover Blackwell :

What do you see needs to happen in this country to change the prevalence of gun violence and what are you learning from your activities that reinforces your beliefs?

James Houston :

We have to change our view of our young people. We have to stop seeing them where they are now. Seeing their potential, and making those investments in their future. Because a lot of what's created in these communities has been going on for a long time. These young people stepped into a lot of these conflicts. They weren't the ones who started it. And so once we really invest in seeing that we play a part in what a lot of our young people experiences, I think we will better be equipped to address and resolve a lot of the conflict, but it can't be just a conflict arises. Let's throw more police at the conflict or the problem.

Angela Glover Blackwell :

What I hear you say and is that society's inability to see the potential in these young people, hides the potential from them, they can't see it. And we both have to start seeing it and reacted to it and treating these young people as the jewels that they are.

James Houston :

They are. We stop looking at them a certain way where they feel like I'm not wanted then they view themselves with changes as well. I feel like I'm one of the young people. I feel like all that I've been through, now it has some type of value. I feel like it's a way to honor my victims. This is what I was meant to do. I hate the crime that I committed to get me to this place, but I'm grateful that I'm able to do this work.

Angela Glover Blackwell :

James, I'm grateful that you're doing the work and I pick up talking to you that there's real power and strength that you have found that you're putting out. I think of it as a superpower. What's your superpower?

James Houston :

If I would name a superpower, I would say, my passion. Because I know in this work dealing with young people, they know when somebody genuinely cares, you can't fake it. You have to really be from the heart. They see through you.

Angela Glover Blackwell :

James, thank you for speaking with us.

James Houston :

Thank you, Angela.

Angela Glover Blackwell :

James Houston is a Lead Neighborhood Change Agent for the city of Richmond Office of neighborhood safety. He is also a senior adviser to Advance Peace. Solving the problems of police violence and mass incarceration can seem overwhelming. But visionary solutions are bubbling up across the country. Advance Peace shows what's possible when communities stop relying on the tools and hostile assumptions of law enforcement and focus instead on the outcomes we want to achieve, peace, safety, healing. Communities where everyone is valued and treated with respect and where all people especially youth have opportunities to make positive contributions. Reflecting on Devon Bogan's work, I'm struck by how often and unjustly young people of color are held up as the problem when it comes to community safety. Bogan shatters that destructive narrative. In fact, youth are our greatest asset. And the key to building humane, dignified and effective systems for Public Safety and Justice. James Houston is an example of what we throw away when we assume that some people are dispensable. And seeing the contribution that he can make by giving back to his community in terms of helping other young people turn their lives around. Everybody has a contribution to make. Radical imagination was produced by Futoro studios for policy link. The Futoro studios team includes Marlon Bishop Andreas Caballero, rook, Sandra greedy, Jeannie Montalvo and Stephanie lebeau. The policy link team includes Rachel Ganga, Linda Johnson, Jacob glucosamine and Milly Hawk Daniel theme music was composed by Taka uses our and Alex the Gora. I'm your host Angela Glover Blackwell. Join us again next time. And in the meantime, you can find us online at radical imagination.us and remember to subscribe and share it