“I have gone to too many funerals.”
In one simple, stark sentence, Hanifa Shabazz, president of Wilmington City Council, bundles up not just her own, but a whole city’s fear, sorrow and frustration. Too many people—most of them black teenagers and young men—have died violently on the streets of Wilmington.
The hand-printed signs, the prayer vigils and the tears of mothers at their sons’ funerals did not stop the shootings. Neither did promises from police, nor speeches from politicians.
For Shabazz, this was more than her city crying for help. It was personal. This wave of violence touched her own family. It took the children and young men from her friends and neighbors as well.
Something had to be done.
Years ago, Shabazz, then a member of City Council and searching for an answer, issued a call to engage 500 black men “to take care of their families and protect their neighborhoods.” They did not answer, she says.
The violence went on.
Shabazz remembers the mounting frustration of all this “craziness.” Delawareans routinely peppered conversations, official and personal, with phrases like “epidemic of violence.” Then it dawned on Shabazz that “epidemic” might be the right word. Shooting deaths spread like a contagious disease.
As Wilmington City Council president, Hanifa Shabazz hopes to lead a return to the strong neighborhoods she grew up with.// photo by Joe Del Tufo
She remembered the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2009 intervention into the teen suicide outbreak in Sussex County. The approach—treating suicides as related, with one teen’s death influencing another’s—led to a series of public health interventions. Teachers and counselors learned to spot trouble signs. Parents looked for behaviors linked to suicidal actions. Even the teens were involved; they were urged to open up and say something. Above all, the mission was to listen and to act.
In 2013, Shabazz proposed City Council call for the CDC study the shootings as a public health menace. The next year, the Delaware Department of Health and Social Services officially requested the CDC study. The federal health officials came to town that same year. Their survey was, as Shabazz put it, “the first ever of its kind.”
The survey showed that violence was indeed spreading like a contagion. The CDC researched data and found links, even early warning signs that a strata of city boys were heading toward violent trouble as they grew older. The CDC and Delaware health officials called for an advisory council of “key community stakeholders” to develop programs to reach the at-risk children. Advisory councils do not appear out of nowhere; their program proposals do not come fully implemented. Yet slowly, even agonizingly in Shabazz’s eyes, the program came together. Money, as always, remained difficult to find.
But Shabazz persisted. The state and city formed the Wilmington Community Advisory Council. It began forming partnerships with churches, businesses, schools and community groups. The goal is to help youth and their families get “connected, respected and protected.” The summer of 2018 was a good start. Thousands of at-risk youngsters took part in programs, classes and things like extended hours at community centers. Teachers are learning to understand the children they teach.
Underneath all of this is an attempt to get the adult world inside and outside of the child’s neighborhood to understand the pressure on the child.
Shabazz believes it is imperative to understand that pressure.
As she sees it, poverty, violence and, for many surrounding adults, hopelessness press down on each child. Globalization and automation took away many of the low-skill manufacturing jobs that provided previous generations a chance to move up. Mix in the easy availability of guns and the quick, but dirty money to be found in drugs, and stability crumbles even more.
To add to all of this, Shabazz says, is the added trauma of slavery, a legacy that still lingers. Add too, generations of inadequate education, poor schooling in a rapidly changing world—a world that imposes a harsh discipline on workers who lack the skills to keep up.
Finally came a reform that, in Shabazz’s view, laid another hardship on already vulnerable children.
They are bused to far away schools, and put in the care of teachers who do not understand their culture, let alone what the child may be going through at home, on the streets where they live, and even on that long, early-morning bus ride to class.
“The child may be acting out,” Shabazz says, “but he is treated as being bad. His actions are treated as threatening.”
Then there is the child’s inability to take part in the community of school. After-class activities are out. The school experience goes by one clock, one with time for band practice, dramatics and science teams—activities that funnel and guide a kid’s natural afternoon enthusiasm. The bused child’s experience goes by another clock. This one has no time for a community of actively engaged classmates. This clock runs on bus schedules, traffic alerts and long drives that cramp a child’s energy and enforce a daily dose of idleness.
In addition, art and music have been taken away. This leaves many black and brown children with no outlet. What kind of school system is it that puts boundaries on kids’ dreams?
Shabazz shakes her head when she thinks about what this does to the neighborhood. Kids do not go to school with their friends down the block. The classroom is far away. Parents do not get to know the teachers. And students do not get to see their friends from class once they mount the bus and go in opposite directions.
Once, she recalls, whole neighborhoods rooted for the same football team in the fall. “We were all on the same side.” That is not there now.
It was not like that when she grew up on the East Side. Shabazz remembers taking art and music classes in school. She played in the Howard marching band in junior high.
“I was ADHD,” Shabazz recalls. Art, music and other activities saved her. “If I went to one of those schools today, I’d be in trouble.”
She remembers learning to see and hear new worlds of the imagination—all of it in a classroom a few blocks from her home. She learned to play the flute and the piano. This fed her love of music, a passion that burns to this day. That connection is what she wants for today’s kids.
Where will today’s children get all of that? When Shabazz came home from school, grandmothers and aunties were on the steps of the houses they passed. Get out of line and your own mother heard about it. Today, the aunties never had that experience themselves. They were bused to school and never learned how that informal city system worked.
Little things, perhaps. But think of what the absence of these invisible ties does to the neighborhood, Shabazz suggests. They really did hold neighborhoods together.
Now few things are there to take the place of their place. Without them, a contagion of violence is inevitable.
Look around, she says, and you can see and feel the urgency.
But some refused to see and feel.
“Children are dying and all they can ask is, ‘How are we going to pay for it?’” she laments. “When the poor white children in Sussex County were committing suicide, the money was found. When the poor black children in Wilmington are committing homicide, they just asked about who will pay the bill.”
But the cause pushed Shabazz and others forward. They, in turn, pushed for the needed reform. The Wilmington Advisory Council is now in place. The members are spreading the idea to non-governmental organizations—health facilities, non-profits, faith and peace organizations. “The support is widespread.”
The next stop is the neighborhoods.
Shabazz is not through. She is president of City Council now and is often in the headlines, sometimes for issues she’d rather not be associated with. Earlier this year she was criticized for the way her office handed out grants. Later she was criticized for making inquiries about a city-issued parking ticket she received.
“It is a distraction,” she says, chalking much of the controversy to misunderstandings all around. “It makes you take your focus and life energy from the work with the children. That’s where my faith comes in. I’m fighting for the children. The progress we made with the Wilmington Advisory Council is like the connecting tissues of all the great resources we have here in Wilmington.”
She is looking forward to changes in policy in education, corrections and public health so “that there is a wholesome environment for our children.”
Then, maybe, the funerals will stop.