James Clark, vice president of community outreach at Better Family Life, has received national recognition for his efforts in reducing violent crime. Clark was one of 16 people to receive a Project Safe Neighborhood award this month from acting U.S. Attorney General Matthew Whitaker. The award was for outstanding community involvement, for the organization’s gun violence de-escalation program.
The program has made a name for itself by successfully preventing and ending disputes between people that could have ended in gun violence without it. Clark spoke with St. Louis Public Radio’s Marissanne Lewis-Thompson about receiving the award and how his efforts are changing the region. The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Marissanne Lewis-Thompson: What did it mean to you to win the award?
James Clark: It's very humbling. And I was very excited that our programs, the things that we're doing right here in St. Louis, are now charted and have the trajectory to be replicated.
Lewis-Thompson: The award is a sign that something is going right. Even the city’s homicide rate has dropped by 13 percent of what it was last year. How have you and your organization, Better Family Life, played a role in making that happen?
Clark: We are demonstrating that the most important occupation in social service moving forward is that of the outreach worker. Trained, uniformed, disciplined, enlightened men and women who are able to go into the neighborhoods and engage individuals and families because they understand the mental and they understand the social dynamics at play in our more challenged neighborhoods. So we dispatch outreach workers and we're able to touch the men and women who are more likely to be involved in conflicts. It's from that lens that we were able to develop the St. Louis metropolitan area gun violence de-escalation centers.
Lewis-Thompson: And this is an original program that came from Better Family Life?
Clark: Yes, and we didn't seek this model. We started a yard sign campaign three years ago. And the yard signs simply read, “We Must Stop Killing Each Other.”
Lewis-Thompson: The black and white signs?
Clark: Yes. We think that that's a very important message and it plays on a subconscious mind. When the yard signs started going up, people started calling. “Hey, there's a conflict between Mike and Ronald. I see your yard signs out there, man. Those guys are going to wind up shooting each other.”
And in some instances we would have the person come in and sit down. And we would stop our day. Get the information and then we would de-escalate the conflict. After about five of those, I sat down with our staff and we said, “What have we learned from this experience?”
And it was clear that we learned third-party people in the community who know of a conflict, they are willing to come forward. They are anxious to come forward, because they're holding onto information about a conflict that they know is going to result in somebody getting shot.
(Better Family Life launched the St. Louis metropolitan area gun violence de-escalation centers in 2016. The centers are spread out in four churches in St. Louis and St. Louis County. Their doors are open every Tuesday from 5-7 p.m.)
Clark: Three people show up. Four people show up. One person shows up. And we would document the conflict. We also had licensed clinical therapists there to help document the conflict. Then we began to reach out to the adversaries. No adversary wanted to continue with the conflict. None of them did. So we wrote the model. Now we have two full-time, fully funded gun violence de-escalation centers. We have a 24-hour hotline that is answered by a person 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. And it is saving lives.
Lewis-Thompson: Better Family Life has also established the St. Louis metropolitan area amnesty program to help people throughout the city and county find ways to address their legal problems without penalties. Before the amnesty program people could not get jobs because they had warrants on their records. And so far about 4,200 people have taken advantage of it. How does it work?
Clark: [We started it] after about two years of seeing people go from being very excited about being able to make $12 to $15 an hour, to have their hopes thrashed, not because they did a heinous violent act, but because they missed a court date, or because they had a traffic ticket that went warrant. And so, we looked at it. And we said we need an amnesty program where people who have outstanding misdemeanor warrants can come and we will work with them to get the warrant lifted and get them another court date. Now, they are still responsible for fines and court costs and all of that. The amnesty program gives them a non-threatening way to re-engage the courts without having to be arrested and post a bond.
Follow Marissanne on Twitter: @marissanne2011