By Asia Nail
Sojourner’s Truth Reporter
Many of us in the black community remember grandma saying, “It takes a village to raise a child.” This African proverb describes an entire community interacting with its children in a manner that those children grow in a safe and healthy environment. Unfortunately, modern society has become far removed from the childhood many of us enjoyed in the past.
As part of the City of Toledo’s comprehensive approach to address the root causes of firearm offenses as a public health crisis, Toledo native and former professional athlete, JoJuan Armour, has been steadily reducing local gun-related incidents at the helm of the Mayor’s Initiative to Reduce Gun Violence.
Phase one of the initiative began in 2021 focusing on the Junction/Englewood Area where the city saw a reduction to only three gun related homicides, down from a yearly increase of nine the prior year.
The concept of being a village is one the African-American community used to pride itself on when there was a steady focus on family and community.
Kids today are lonely, isolated, stressed out and lack the same social/emotional skills older generations learned from extended family and other community support.
The programming and strategic collaborations the Initiative to Reduce Gun Violence employs gets back to the basics of traditional family values and community involvement. “Through our Initiative there are a number of different projects,” says Armour.
One of these projects is the Safe Grounds project, housing the Our Community Volunteers program, which focuses on collaborative efforts within neighborhoods and schools to reduce hidden illegal guns.
They started their community volunteers this summer to address issues at parks and pools. Every time the Community Volunteers were present there was a noticeable decrease in negative behavior.
Armour and his team have identified individuals with a passion to help who are able to come together from different cultures and walks of life. “The Motorcycle club, the Greek Community at the University of Toledo and The Corvette Club have all been a big help with the youth just to name a few,” shares Armour.
These individuals have identified a passion to help and are able to come together with a common passion. These small groups are able to expose the youth to new concepts and ideas. Armour explains, “It is important for our young people to see people that live in their neighborhoods, that attend their schools and that look like them, engage in personal hobbies that are positive and productive. It just breeds an encouraging atmosphere.”
Human nature hinders individuals from violent acts when there is a positive influx of people with a positive goal. The Safe Grounds project has decreased local parks and pools’ violent incidents to zero any time the volunteer team was at the park providing instruction.
“Our Safe Grounds project searches for illegal firearms but the goal is not solely to find guns,” says Armour, “but to also show kids, parents and educators that we are determined to provide safe environments for everyone in Toledo.”
Unfortunately, TPS security did not initially pick up the Safe Grounds program in August as originally targeted, however Armour was happy to report they did start early January this year.
“We are looking for volunteers to participate in the Safe Grounds project. We are happy to report it is being well received by the public,” he explains.
Parents thank Armour and his team incessantly because kids are happy and their teachers are showing appreciation too. “We are showing there is a big effort that doesn’t require money, just time,” says Armour.
The programs housed by the Initiative to Reduce Gun Violence increase adult participation in the Toledo community by identifying those individuals that want to help but just don’t know how.
Historically and systematically the black community has gone through different stages of separate and unequal. As a marginalized group we don’t trust the government, we don’t trust the police, and we don’t trust medical intervention because we feel like they have not been fair to our population, Armour believes. “Sadly we don’t even trust each other in many instances, so it’s tricky to navigate this stronghold,” he adds.
Unfortunately, within this distrust it forms a breeding ground for the black community’s own negligence. Distrust and stigma can truly hurt us,” explains Armour. “We need to learn to build discernment. I think our programs do a great job of that.”
Many organizations and groups in the Junction area are helping to mediate conflict within their circles of influence. “These reduced numbers are not just a reflection of the work we have done within our initiative, but rather a reflection of what everyone in our Junction-Englewood community is doing,” shares Armour. “It is a testament to when organizations collaboratively come together we can create positive change.”
The Mayor’s Initiative to Reduce Gun Violence is going great lengths to build relationships outside of the black community society. They had a Peace March where individuals from every walk of life participated. “Those people marching themselves may not be directly impacted by gun violence but many understand that the black community is impacted at a higher rate than any of our counterparts,” says Armour.
Without positive community engagement, it is hard to get the underserved community members to buy in. Historically marginalized communities have eliminated themselves from processes (like voting) that essentially dictate how resources are allocated within their community.
It was important to Armour that the Initiative to Reduce Gun Violence had programs with educational value. After much searching he found the 7 Mindsets Social Emotional Learning curriculum. “We started with small scale programming so we could perform at a high quality, meet our metrics and have some accomplishments,” say Armour. “When our people saw the value in it, we were able to roll it out on a larger scale.”
Armour was determined to identify a curriculum that was flexible enough to benefit youth from pre-k to high school. Armour vetted about 30 curriculums before choosing The 7 Mindsets. This learning curriculum is highly recommended by Castle, which is the Collaborative for Academic Social Emotional Learning located in Chicago.
The 7 Mindsets are designed to promote self-awareness, self management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making. The Mindsets are: Everything is Possible, Passion First, We are Connected, 100% Accountable, Attitude of Gratitude, Live to Give and The Time is Now.
Fifty one out of 61 Toledo homicides in 2021 during the Pandemic were the result of gun violence. Each incident started with an argument. “It is not inherent that people know how to de-escalate or identify triggers, that is why our programming is so important,” shares Armour.
Due to the effectiveness of their summer projects and the community’s understanding of the value, they now have these small projects incorporated in a number of local schools such as Robinson, McTigue and Washington Local.
They had about 15 programs last summer incorporating approximately 250 local youth. “It was an amazing experience for everyone involved and is a true testament to how effective collaboratives work,” says Armour. Programming includes basketball camp, painting and dance to name a few. Volunteers were able to outline at least an hour a day to incorporate the 7 mindset curriculum, giving the kids a chance to experience it firsthand.
Three entities partnered together with the Mayor’s Initiative to Reduce Gun Violence: Harbor’s Yes Program (headed by Rachel Hannon), Interfaith Ministerial Alliance (IMA), and the Wayman Palmer YMCA.
Every weekday morning 7-10 students would come to the Wayman Palmer YMCA and get training on The 7 Mindsets at their 12th grade level.
After the kids had breakfast and class instruction, the faith-based community would use their buses to pick up the students and take them to their summer job site where they would get paid through the Yes program for the older youth to provide direct instruction to the younger kids. “It was awesome. Kids learn from kids better than they learn from adults. Younger kids love to engage older kids by impressing them. We got to see the older kids model the behavior we want to see in younger students,” explains Armour.
The Mayor’s Initiative to Reduce Gun Violence is preparing to go into the LaGrange Corridor by February 2022, to roll out their programming in East Toledo over the summer months.
Kids modeling other kids’ behavior is quite possibly the largest influence on younger populations – both positive and negative alike. So how do we change the trajectory of negative behaviors? “We put positive options in front of kids, like other kids modeling helpful decision making with positive attitudes of relationship building and empathy towards each other,” recommends Armour.
Armour sends his sincerest regards to those teachers that volunteered this summer, crediting them as the reason they were able to get The 7 Mindset programming into Toledo Public Schools. “We did not work in silos withholding information from the community, instead we are completely transparent. This is proving to be the biggest trust building component to our success,” explains Armour.
The Our Community Volunteers program is an integral part of the success of the Initiative to Reduce Gun Violence. They are requesting community volunteers to contact the City of Toledo in a collaborative effort within neighborhoods and school grounds to reduce hidden illegal firearms.
Please follow the City of Toledo and TPS’s social media channels for more updates.
Every child needs a champion. Or two. Or three. Or more. Every family also needs help sometimes. We can all contribute to reducing gun violence in Toledo by ensuring our children grow up to be well-rounded adults influenced and nurtured by many positive sources like those in the Initiative to Reduce Gun Violence. Volunteer to help today.