Stop The Violence

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KRCG-TV’s Columbia Bureau Chief Mark Slavit recently sat down with Lorenzo Lawson, executive director of the Youth Empowerment Zone, an organization that helps young people gain and retain employment. Lawson is also an inner-city minister and on the board of directors of P.R.I.D.E. Mid-Missouri, a group that seeks to maximize Columbia’s healthy community potential.

How big is the youth violence problem in Columbia?

It’s a huge problem, and not just in Columbia — it’s nationwide. I’m from Columbia. I have never seen this type of vicious violence. We’re talking about teenagers killing teenagers. It seems like it’s a trend that’s rising.

Have you identified the cause of this vicious violence?

It’s multilayered. There’s not just one cause. But if I could point out one main culprit, it would be poverty. Poverty comes from a single-parent household without a role model or a male father figure in the house. These factors cause kids to drop out of school and end up in juvenile detention or even prison.

You are working with a movement called Silence the Violence. Are you making any progress toward reducing youth violence in Columbia?

The movement brings awareness to the problem and is also a unified front to find solutions to the problem. It’s going to take multiple facets of the community to come together to work on solving this problem. We need all of the major stakeholders. We need the city, the university, the school system, the police department and the entire community. We are making plans for what we are going to implement to help combat violence this summer and beyond.

What is the relationship between the Columbia Police Department and Columbia’s youth?

It could be improved. At this particular time, I think it’s a severed relationship. Our young people — and a lot of the old people — do not have a lot of respect for our law officers. It has a lot to do with the bad officers, just like in any entity. There are some bad and there are some good.

Police Chief Ken Burton is doing an excellent job with trying to bring community policing to Columbia. He has some of his officers on bicycles so that they can have better interaction with the community. This allows people to be more comfortable and get to know folks instead of seeing them as a profile. Profiling has done a lot of damage with the relationship between the police and our youth.

Is there a way to repair that relationship?

We are working on a solution. We need everybody in the community to come up with solutions. I believe in the old African proverb “it takes a village to raise a child.” It also takes a whole community to keep young people safe and get them on the right track.

Is there too much talking and not enough action?

This is more than lip service. We are going to have to provide for these young people. Whenever they decide they don’t want to sell dope anymore, then we are going to have to provide jobs and opportunities. It’s going to take the business community, the educational community, the city, the county and all of us coming together to make sure these young people have some positive alternatives to the negative things they are doing.

What predictions do you have for this summer?

If we don’t do something this summer, it’s going to be bloody. We are going to have to show young people that we care about them enough to take a stand.

Do you see more organizations and volunteers getting involved with your movement this summer?

It’s been proven that mentors and role models can make a huge difference, especially for young people coming from a single-parent home without a father. If a father is not in the household, a lot of these negative symptoms are prominent in the life of children as they grow up. If a young person gets a mentor or role model in their life, it can make a huge difference.

That’s what we do at the Youth Empowerment Zone. We try to hook them up with good mentors on the job and in the community. Our role models show young people a different way to live their lifestyles. Those things play a huge part in trying to reverse this cycle.

How far does youth violence stretch across racial boundaries?

We have a diverse amount of people supporting our movement including the United Way, the city of Columbia and local churches of all kinds. These people stepped up to the plate. We are going to lean on that type of support. We are going to need it as we go forward.

My plea to the community is that this is not a one-shot thing. We have to continue with this. If we drop the ball now, we haven’t done anything.
Learn more about P.R.I.D.E. (Positive Regional Impact Diversified Enterprise) at www.pridemo.org.

This series of one-on-one interviews with compelling local newsmakers is a cooperative effort of Inside Columbia magazine and our media partner, KRCG-TV13.

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