Group's agenda to halt youth violence in Homewood

CEA operates Hip-Hop Academy, after-school programs, activities to keep young black men off streets


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A small recording studio on Fleury Way is the home of the Hip-Hop Academy, where Robert Hawkins has created 40 original songs and the beginnings of a career as a sound engineer.

Outside, on the streets of Homewood, the 19-year-old has created mostly trouble, including a pair of pending charges for drug dealing dating to last summer.

The Community Empowerment Association, owner of the studio, is trying to use music to keep Mr. Hawkins -- and dozens of young black males -- off those streets and away from the pull of illegal activity. It's the latest expansion of an anti-violence organization that started 15 years ago at the height of Pittsburgh's gang rivalries and soaring murder rates.

Dain Williams, the director of the CEA's new hip-hop program in Homewood, personally makes sure that Mr. Hawkins participates.

"Every day I go get him and take him under my wing," he said. "Because he's facing a charge doesn't make him a bad person. We all make mistakes."

Such outreach efforts are showing signs of success in the battle against violent crime, some law enforcement officials and community leaders said. After posting a 28 percent increase in its homicide rate last year, Pittsburgh has seen a sharp drop through the first two months of this year.

Today, post-gazette.com is publishing a map of Allegheny County that displays the location of every homicide in 2009, with a red pin marking each spot. A mouse click on the pin brings up a bubble with the victim's name, age, race and cause of death, and links to Post-Gazette stories. Throughout the year, the map will be updated with new homicides and information.

The city and county are on pace to have far fewer pins than last year's map.

According to the Allegheny County medical examiner's office, Pittsburgh has recorded six homicides in 2009. The county has had seven, most recently the slaying of a 16-year old youth who was shot to death yesterday on Maple Avenue in McKeesport.

One city victim, Herkley Fields Jr., was shot in front of a Hill District bar in September and died from his wounds in early January.

Two other deaths came from police-involved shootings: Lamar Smith, an armed man who was shot on Jan. 8 by a SWAT marksman in North Point Breeze after a nine-hour standoff; and Paul Palmer, who was shot on Feb. 3 on the North Side after he pointed a gun at an officer. The Allegheny County district attorney's officeis reviewing those shootings.

But the year's first official homicide didn't occur until Feb. 4, when 58-year-old Darryl Crosby was found stabbed to death in a Hill District apartment. On Feb. 13, Sean Turner, 41, was shot to death on Bentley Drive in the Hill District. Antoine Cooper, 21, was killed in a Feb. 24 shooting in Perry South.

By March 4 of 2008, Pittsburgh already had recorded 11 homicides, on its way to reaching 73, the city's bloodiest year since 1993, with 83 murders.

Now, the city has seen only three, not counting the two men shot by police or the one who died of 2008 injuries. There were none in January.

Police Chief Nate Harper said it's difficult to explain the change, but he gives considerable credit to CEA and other community groups, including One Vision One Life and YouthPlaces.

"We know these groups are out there doing the groundwork," he said.

As often as 10 times a month, Chief Harper calls T. Rashad Byrdsong, CEA's president, to pass along the names of young people who face the temptation of drug corners in Homewood.

The association's outreach coordinators, themselves veterans of the streets, will try to find those young people and bring them to the 5,000-square-foot CEA facility on Fleury Way, home to after-school programs, recreation spaces and the Hip Hop Academy.

"How can we address violence before it starts?" Mr. Byrdsong said last week at CEA's headquarters on North Lexington Avenue. "We don't want to wait until there's a death."

A Vietnam veteran, former Black Panther Party member and longtime community activist, Mr. Byrdsong founded the CEA in 1994. It has grown into an organization with an annual budget of $1.5 million and 40 employees, including the five-member outreach team that searches for at-risk youth.

Much of the funding comes from the Allegheny County Department of Human Services, state agencies and local foundations.

Homewood, CEA's base, was one of the hardest-hit neighborhoods in last year's wave of murders, with nine killings. Only the Hill District, with 12 homicides, suffered more.

Citywide, last year's violence was concentrated in areas of high poverty, and the vast majority of victims were young black males who died from gunshot wounds.

"When you don't address these basic, fundamental problems, there's no sense of hope, there's no sense of future," Mr. Byrdsong said.

CEA's studio, which is about a year old, is a strong draw in Homewood and beyond. As many as 100 young people come through there every week.

A recreation room attached to the studio holds a pool table, an air hockey game, a dart board, video games and a stereo system. Last Wednesday, a dozen kids were hanging out there, with some scribbling rap lyrics on loose sheets of paper.

"This is a safe haven," said Mr. Williams, 32, of the Hip Hop Academy. "They don't have to worry about the nonsense outside."

Anyone can come to the recreation center, but only 12 students, ages 14 to 20, are part of the inaugural academy class. There is a lengthy waiting list for future classes, which run for four months.

The soundproof studio features top-of-the-line equipment, including a 48-track digital recording system and an Akai MPC 2500 drum machine.

"Whenever I step in there, I'm ready," said Mr. Hawkins, who has been coming to CEA-sponsored programs since he was 12.

Now at the end of his teenage years, fuzzy facial hair and a broad-rimmed Penguins cap still give Mr. Hawkins a boyish look. But his lyrics look to the future: "I'm gonna take it to the top for you all to see. The top is where I ought to be."

As a recording of his melodic, tenor voice flowed from studio speakers, Mr. Hawkins sat in front of a pair of flat-screen computer monitors. He repeatedly praised the hip-hop program, and he said he hopes to serve as a model for younger kids, who tell him: "If I see Big Bob doing this, it's the right thing to do."

Mr. Byrdsong is trying to expand the use of music as an anti-violence tool.

On Feb. 28, his organization sponsored a free five-hour rap concert at Dreamz nightclub in the Strip District. More than 400 kids came, he said.

They also took the "Pittsburgh Presidential Pledge" to participate in community service, inspired by President Barack Obama's call for action for young people to be good citizens.

The broader goal is to bring attention to city and county neighborhoods that have been hardest hit by violence for years. In December, CEA released a report on treating street violence as a public health menace, not just a law enforcement issue.

"This has to be a comprehensive approach," Mr. Byrdsong said. "We can't just talk about arresting young people and putting them away."

The report calls for the creation of a Commission for the Prevention of Violence, which would draw support from dozens of community organizations, religious groups and representatives from government and local universities.

Chief Harper has tried to bring together the city's community leaders and anti-violence advocates, hosting two meetings at police headquarters last summer. Participants included Tim Stevens, of the Black Political Empowerment Project, the Rev. Cornell Jones, of One Hood, the NAACP and CEA's Mr. Byrdsong.

Such groups have had trouble coordinating their work in the past, but Mr. Byrdsong said anti-violence efforts aren't fragmented: "There's a lot of work to be done."

Still, the city's geographic and political divisions pose a challenge to sweeping changes, argues Dr. Stephen Thomas, director of the Center for Minority Health in the University of Pittsburgh's Graduate School of Public Health.

"He's a pragmatic revolutionary," Dr. Thomas said of Mr. Byrdsong. "He's trying. It's not easy, not in this town."


Jerome L. Sherman can be reached at jsherman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1183. First Published March 8, 2009 5:00 AM


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