By Shane Sims
I will begin by stating the obvious (to many): Athens youth are in a crisis.
Over the past few months there have been a spate of shootings and killings. The victims as well as alleged perpetrators have been young African American males in their teens and twenties. As heart breaking as this has been, the reality is that surges in violence amongst groups and demographics are predictable. Human behavior is for the most part like programming a computer; the output is dictated by the input. This phenomenon is what makes social science possible.
While this may be somewhat oversimplifying it, it is not by much.
The things that we experience (or do not) affect how we think; how we think affects how we feel; and, how we feel is what moves us in one direction or another. This reality became clear to me years ago when I began facilitating a motivational group as part of the Faith and Character Based Program while at Costal State Prison in Savannah, Georgia. A key requirement of the group was having the willingness to be transparent and to speak your truth openly and honestly. This requirement often led to some very vulnerable sharing and in-depth conversations. A recurring topic of discussion was prison machismo – it’s causes and consequences. Within that hour block, I heard some of the seemingly toughest guys admit that they did not want to be “tough guys”, but it was all that they knew. This was the case especially among the young African American Men.
Over the two years that I facilitated the group, I witnessed countless numbers of them explain the environments that they grew up in. It wasn’t the fatherless households or constant violence that resonated the most with me – although it contrasted drastically with my own. It was the lack of positive experiences to counter it all. There were no stories of evenings spent at the Boys Club, dodge ball competitions at the community recreation departments, mentor programs, or Cub and Boy Scouts. All of these were places and things that breathed life back into our hearts young hearts during my childhood and offered us diverse experiences that allowed us to see a world beyond the misery that often surrounded us. Many of the young men that shared their experiences in the group had no idea that they even existed. I had been in prison for several years already by the time I begin facilitating the group. So, I was not there to witness the gradual removal of them from communities of color. But what I was able to witness was the effects. Dysfunction within the home coupled with lack of positive external experiences created hurt, battered, and bruised young men with little to no coping skills. When you are not equipped to deal with the stressors of life, violence towards others – or, even, ourselves – can easily become the go-to when the primitive “fight or flight” response is triggered. And the violent response is predictable.
The surge in violence among our youth in Athens was predictable – and, indeed, predicted by several community activists and groups advocating for social reform, including myself. The reallocation of resources and gradual shift in priorities have left our youth with little to nothing to do to counter - or at least escape - the misery of poverty and all its manifestations. When the pressure of life weighs down on them, the fight or flight kicks in. We are what we have been able to eat. All the negative experiences absorbed from their lived experiences and environments are producing predictable results: the ranks of the gangs are growing, and, proportionately, the violence.
If we as a community really want to address the rise in violence among our youth (and they are ALL our youth), then we must work harder to address the causes and stop blaming the effects. We must work and expend the resources necessary to change the living conditions of our youth. However, because social reform is a process, we would do well to focus on the low hanging fruit: reinvest on funding and shoring up organizations like the Boys and Girls Club, community recreation centers, and programs that target the 18-26 age group that often fall through the cracks when it comes to availability of programs. We must also support progressive agendas, such as that articulated by our District Attorney, Deborah Gonzalez, that are person-centered and focus on these types of changes, even if they are not perfect.
The alternative is resorting to more punitive measures, which would be like trying to use a bucket of gas to douse a fire or doing nothing at all. Either input will guarantee the same output, if not worse.
Shane Sims was born and lives in Athens. In 1996 he was sentenced to life in prison for an armed robbery in which an accomplice fatally shot a store clerk. Before being paroled 20 years later he served time in Telfair, Coastal, and Jackson state prisons. Among other things, Sims currently is executive director of People Living in Recovery, co-founder and co-director of Modern Pathways to Recovery, serves on the board of The Athens Reentry Collaborative, is chairman of the nonprofit agency Feed My Sheep, and is chaplain for the Athens-Clarke County Police Department