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Peace of mind

Mai-Anh Hoang | 12/18/2008, 7:23 a.m.

As Hub activists preach nonviolence, a 7-year-old girl urges them to forgive, but not forget 

Hundreds of buttons, each bearing the image and name of a deceased young person, lay on a banner with a white dove in the center. The banner travels throughout Boston as a memorial to youth lost to street violence.

Twenty people have been murdered in Boston this year, according to the most recent Boston Police Department statistics. In some of the homicides, kids have been both the victims and the killers. A disproportionate number of the murders — 12 of the 20 — took place in Dorchester.

This Sunday, Mother’s Day, hundreds of walkers are expected to converge at Townfield Park in Dorchester’s Fields Corner to participate in the 3.6-mile Mother’s Walk for Peace. The walk is one of a number of events taking place in May intended to highlight the problem of street violence in Boston’s inner-city communities during what is being called “Peace Month.”

Clementina Chéry, director and founder of the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute, coordinates the annual Walk for Peace, a charity event to help survivors of violence and homicide. Chéry has been putting her outrage to work helping families rebuild their lives since her son, in whose memory she named the institute, died in the crossfire of gang violence in December 1993.

Chéry and Stanley Pollack, executive director of The Center for Teen Empowerment, were among many activists, elected officials and community groups that joined last Wednesday for a press conference launching the month-long series of events.

“Every month should be Peace Month here in Boston,” said City Councilor-at-Large Michael F. Flaherty at the press conference. “But May is an ideal time to talk about how we are going to use youth empowerment and youth participation to fight gangs and youth violence.”

It is also a time, added state Sen. Dianne Wilkerson, for adults in communities beset by violence to consider their own part in the tragedy.

“We have failed our children,” said Wilkerson. “We are in a society where we are paying more every year to incarcerate people than we are to lift them up and educate them … Something is terribly wrong, and kids didn’t do this.”

Wilkerson spoke to an audience that included Kai Leigh Harriott, a 7-year-old girl who in 2003 was shot and paralyzed by a stray bullet. Anthony Warren, the man who shot her, recorded a videotaped apology to Harriott from the Old Colony Correctional Center in Bridgewater. It was played at last Wednesday’s press conference.

“To be blessed by the opportunity to be forgiven by a beautiful person like Kai Leigh, it made me want to change,” said Warren in the video. “It made me not want to be colder and harder. It made me want to look at myself; take a look at my duties and responsibilities as a black man in my community … I want to thank Kai Leigh. I want to thank her mother. I want to apologize to my community.”

Such apologies can help heal old wounds. But in Wilkerson’s eyes, words must be accompanied by action.

Calling for reform

A number of hot-button issues related to Peace Month’s emphasis on culling street violence — among them the highly controversial Criminal Offender Record Information (CORI) law, calls for education reform and a focus on the need for more youth jobs — came to the fore at the press conference, as speakers advocated for long-term solutions.

Many indicted the CORI law as a system that exacerbates street violence by keeping people with prior criminal records from finding good work and stable housing. Under the law, agencies have access to criminal records that go back decades, and because the records include charges as well as convictions, even a charge that didn’t result in a conviction will be in the system.

Fixing CORI, however, is just one step. Pollack argued that it is impossible to sustain a peaceful community without schools that work and without youth jobs.

“Our system is on the verge of collapse,” he said. “We had 1,970 [students] drop out of Boston public schools last year,” and he said he believes there is a direct correlation between dropping out of school and being involved in crime.

Since the passage of the Massachusetts Education Reform Act in 1993, Boston has seen some of the highest high school dropout rates in the state. For the 2005-06 academic year, the dropout rate for Boston’s district schools was 9.9 percent, about three times the statewide average and the city’s highest in 15 years.

“That is reform that is not working,” said Pollack.

At last Wednesday’s press conference, City Councilor Charles C. Yancey continued to champion his decade-long goal of building a new high school in Mattapan, saying he deplored the fact that many of Mattapan’s students attended schools with substandard facilities and without cafeterias, auditoriums, science labs or music resources.

Peace starts at home

This is the 12th year of the Mother’s Walk for Peace. But in terms of street violence, organizer Chéry said, “Not one thing has changed.”

Chéry continues to press for solutions that address the needs of children, families and communities. She denounced the practice of blaming teenagers for the problem of youth violence or the existence gangs.

As a mother who lost her son to violence, she added, “I am the angriest woman God put on this earth. But you see, my anger doesn’t control me. I have learned to control my anger.” Like 7-year-old Kai Leigh Harriott, Chéry said, more people must learn how to forgive and become advocates for peace.

After watching Warren’s videotaped apology, Harriott pushed her wheelchair to the front of the room. Facing the audience, she said, “I want to say to him thank you for making the apology video, because you can inspire so many other people by telling them, ‘Don’t carry around guns and don’t do bad things.’”

Wearing a button that read “Peace is Possible,” Kai Leigh Harriott kicked off Peace Month. And as quietly she came in, she wheeled herself out, with hordes of adults following her.