ON-Lion Letter
"Perhaps nowhere does the American character shine so distinctively as in the way individuals take on seemingly intractable problems," begins Cathie Gandel's October list of "10 Service Groups That Are Making a Difference" in U.S. News & World Report.  "Some of the most innovative service programs," she writes, "are particularly noteworthy because their creators refused to be daunted by the breadth of the challenge, the absence of any model to guide them, or even a lack of expertise."
 
Describing one of the 10 groups, she writes, "When a 12-year-old boy was killed in gang crossfire at a Washington, D.C., housing project in 1997, Robert Woodson saw a chance to test principles he'd spent almost a lifetime developing -- first in the civil rights movement, then as a community advocate and founder of the nonprofit Center for Neighborhood Enterprise [CNE] in D.C. 'I'd learned that for change to be effective it had to come from inside out and the bottom up,' he says.

"Woodson helped broker a truce between rival gangs, then introduced jobs, training, and education," Gandel continues.  "The neighborhood was transformed by gang leaders who became 'crew chiefs' and who, because of their 'street cred,' could influence younger kids, now in a positive way.

"Woodson named the initiative the Violence-Free Zone [VFZ], and it became one of the CNE's core programs," she goes on.  "A community organizer asked Woodson to start a VFZ in a Dallas school, and the program later added 35 other schools in Baltimore, Richmond, Dallas, Atlanta, and Milwaukee.  CNE helps manage the sites and provides training, technical assistance, administrative and financial oversight, and links to potential funding sources.  The program depends on youth advisers who are chosen from the neighborhood, thoroughly vetted for criminal records, drug abuse, and other issues, and trained with the help of CNE materials.  These advisers then act as monitors, mediators, mentors, and role models to other kids.

"A Baylor University study of Milwaukee high schools found that the Violence-Free Zone participants had an 11 percent decrease in violent incidents and a 4 percent increase in GPAs, compared to a 15 percent increase in violent incidents in non-VFZ schools and no improvement in GPAs.  'Once the youth have something positive to say "yes" to, it becomes easier to say "no" to the negative activities that promote violence,' says Victor Barnett, executive director of the Running Rebels Community Organization, which oversees the program in four of the schools."

Woodson is a Bradley Prize recipient and The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, supports CNE, Milwaukee's VFZ, and the Running Rebels Community Organization.
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