Breaking the circle of violence

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I'd been keeping the list for a while without realizing it. It's a list of the dead.

It began barely a year-and-a-half ago, when Carl Farris was gunned down on a Duquesne sidewalk. It starts there, arbitrarily, because I had a tenuous connection to the young man.

The list's next entry occurred last July, when Jehru Donaldson was murdered on the North Side while picking up his girlfriend's nephews for an afternoon Pirates game. Then came Job Corps student Christopher Evans, killed in October near the East Busway.

The newest entry is Jolesa Barber, the 12-year-old who died last Monday when a hail of bullets tore through the front of her older sister's townhouse in the Perry South section of the North Side.

But these aren't just any victims' names. These were kids -- a preteen, two recent high school grads, and a 20-year-old -- who were doing everything right. They were studious, loving, law-abiding and involved -- most of them deeply involved -- in churches and faith-based programs devoted to helping them escape the violence and despair of so many urban neighborhoods.

But they didn't escape.

When I realized that Jolesa was killed less than a mile from the Pittsburgh Project's campus, I called executive director Saleem Ghubril to ask whether he or his scores of volunteers had had any contact with the young girl.

"We knew her and loved her very much," he said quietly.

For five years Jolesa had attended the center's after-school programs and summer camps. The morning of her death, Mr. Ghubril said, she and her sisters had breakfast with her mentor. "It's heart-breaking, to say the least. We feel angry and sad and frustrated."

That was the effect, I knew, of Carl Farris' death on the members of New Hope Church, a North Side congregation that focuses on interracial community building. Those whose lives were so deeply and joyfully entwined with his were devastated when their brightest star was extinguished just before he was to leave for college. So why even try, when the forces of evil destroy what's been so painstakingly built?

"This could be very depressing," Mr. Ghubril agreed. "But it's also very motivating."

Then he gently suggested that my list needed to be broadened.

The 15-year-old accused of killing Jolesa, the 17-year-old twin who'll stand trial for killing Jehru Donaldson, the 15-year-old arrested for murdering Christopher Evans -- these children aren't dead, but their lives may be essentially over.

"We lost them too," Mr. Ghubril said.

Often those toiling in programs like the Pittsburgh Project and Urban Impact, another powerful North Side group, know the youths who pulled the trigger. They've tried to reach these young men and failed. But they're not giving up.

A popular local blogger, "PittGirl," captured the anguish of many Pittsburghers last week when she wrote (at theburghblog.com) of an endlessly spinning circle of violence that defies anyone to "jump in and snap it open."

With gut-wrenching irony, PittGirl's post borrowed the title of a very old gospel song: "Will the Circle Be Unbroken?" It describes a circle, broken on earth by death but someday restored in heaven. Its last verse goes, "One by one their seats were emptied, one by one they went away ..."

Instead of a circle of violence, Saleem Ghubril describes a "cycle of despair." And he envisions it being broken not just one by one, but one on one.

Too many kids graduate without a real education, destined for minimum-wage jobs, he said. And if they're young men who've already fathered children, those wages will be garnished for child support. That's why some reject the regular economy for one that's off the books at best, criminal or gang-related at worst.

While broad efforts like reforming the public school system must continue, he says, "intensively relational" programs like the Pittsburgh Project are necessary, too.

The organization just received its first federal grant to launch YouthBuild, a Department of Labor program. In the Pittsburgh Project's model, 25 to 30 men and women, ages 18 to 24, will get a year's training in construction along with academic and character-building classes. The neighborhood homes they refurbish will be made available to low-income buyers.

Participants will be paid throughout the 12-month course and three-month apprenticeship. The substantial paychecks "buy us leverage to be involved in their lives," Mr. Ghubril said. That means close mentoring, rides to work, even daily wake-up calls.

The cycle of despair has to be broken, and a circle of hope built, one person at a time.

"It's too late for Jolesa," he said, but her tragic death "has to be a call to arms" -- arms, as she knew, that encircle and embrace.


Ruth Ann Dailey can be reached at rdailey@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1733.


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