Veshawn’s Story: Increasing the Peace with Service

In New York City, the leading cause of death of 15 to 24 year olds in is homicide by firearm. Violent crime rates in Bridgeport, CT are four times the national average. In Chicago, police reported 2,500 shootings in 2014 alone.

Like most Chicagoans, Veshawn Young knows the raw statistics about urban violence. But the 18-year-old from Chicago’s West Garfield Park neighborhood has also personally seen how violence impacts families and communities. Veshawn has lost an uncle to gunfire. Another of his uncles was shot leaving a party in the neighborhood. He witnesses fights near his home and at school almost every week.

Instead of getting discouraged or falling into the cycle of violence himself, Veshawn is using this up-close and personal view of violence in the community – and it’s underlying causes – to put an end to it.

“Someone from the outside comes into the neighborhood and tries to change things and stop violence, but they don’t know what it’s like here,” Veshawn says about ending the violence on Chicago’s west side. “I know that I can have a big impact on violence because I live in this community. I see what is happening.”

Veshawn’s belief that change has to start from within the community is exactly what fuels buildOn’s Increase the Peace anti-violence program. This new program, which was inspired by discussions with men incarcerated at New York’s Sing Sing Correctional Facility, is aimed at preventing youth violence and shutting down the “pipeline to prison” in which 63% of prison inmates are high school dropouts. 

Youth from buildOn’s Service Learning Programs have been selected to participate in this 10-week pilot program that focuses on anti-violence education, advocacy and service. Students like Veshawn from violence-plagued neighborhoods in Chicago, New York and Bridgeport, Connecticut, are evaluating the causes of violence, looking at how it relates to high school dropout and incarceration rates, and exploring how it impacts themselves and their communities. These students are developing projects that focus on solutions to violence and engaging other community members in advocacy and service.

Veshawn has seen the way buildOn service has brought his community together, and he’s confident Increase the Peace can also have the same positive effect.

“Service made me see that giving back is great for the people you’re giving to; it’s great for the people doing the giving; and it’s great for the people that watch you give back and are inspired,” he says.

Veshawn is using this lesson about the contagious power of service and advocacy to motivate others to help prevent violence. He is currently interviewing community members for a film about youth violence, and he wants to eventually share the film with the wider community. He and his classmates in the buildOn program at Orr Academy High School are planning a block party to bring people together and build dialogue between community members and police.

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buildOn students from the Bronx and Brooklyn lead their community members in a peaceful march against gun violence.

Other buildOn students like Veshawn are already starting to make an impact in other cities. These students are organizing anti-violence rallies. They’re working with former gang members to memorialize victims of gun violence. Some mentor elementary school students whose family members are in gangs or jail. Others are inviting their peers who are at risk of engaging in violence to join buildOn.

Although buildOn’s Increase the Peace program is just beginning, Veshawn is feeling empowered about healing his community from within. He doesn’t know for sure what the future holds for his neighborhood and for himself, but he knows this – he’s determined to not be another statistic:

“It would make me a statistic if high school is the end for me, even if I graduated. If I drop out of school. If I stand on the corner and sell drugs. If I hurt people or I’m involved with violence,” Veshawn says. “I would be a statistic if I became someone who could have had a better way.”

buildOn’s Service Learning Programs fill a critical gap at under-resourced schools where budget cuts have eliminated extracurricular activities. Students who don’t have a place to go when the school day ends, who feel helpless to change their communities, and who dropout of high school are at a greater risk of committing violent crime and becoming victims of violence themselves. But buildOn gives urban youth an alternative that empowers them to improve themselves and their communities. By integrating anti-violence initiatives into our programs, buildOn is empowering students to become even stronger change agents and tackle even the biggest challenges in their communities. We’re looking forward to sharing more of the Increase the Peace program’s impact and student stories in the future. 

Photographs by Lauren Major and Jim An.