In recent weeks, a devastating incident occurred on the Eastside of St. Paul where several teens allegedly beat a passerby until he was unconscious. This is a circumstance that no person should have to endure. One of the notable pieces of information that has surfaced is the fact that the passerby was white and the teens were African American. Although some within the broader community argue that the attack was based on race, the reality is that in light of the circumstances under which the attack occurred, the victim could arguably have been any individual who was within the vicinity of the young people in question. Actually, a similar severe beating of an innocent Black man, Edwin Daniel, by five young Somali men occurred on the Eastside just a few years prior to this most recent incident.
The factors that contribute to these types of horrific episodes, including shootings by young people against other young people, may revolve around underlying issues at the intersection of race and poverty that are pervasive on the East Side of St. Paul. It is a reality that poor people of color are concentrated in one of the least-resourced areas of the City and are isolated and marginalized from mainstream society. Indeed the East Side of St. Paul has one of the highest rates of poverty in the state, with nearly 30% of residents living below the poverty line. Opportunities for gainful employment for adults and children are scarce and there is limited business activity in the area. The East Side has also been hit particularly hard by the foreclosure crisis, which impacts community stability. Beyond that, many residents have been impacted by the criminal and juvenile justice systems. These ingredients are a recipe for disaster in any community that is seeking to offer a decent quality of life for the people who live there.
In recent years, the East Side has become overly concentrated with the poorest of the poor, without the corresponding investment of resources into community economic development to boot. Experiencing marginalization, coupled with limited access to upward mobility, sucks the hope out of a community and makes way for the development and perpetuation of a subculture that may be more likely to engage in survival crimes and other unsavory activities that can further destabilize poor communities. For example, in communities in which jobs are scarce, it is easy for young people to become involved in low level drug activity as a means of supporting oneself and one’s family. In circumstances in which schools are failing, which is not uncommon in under-resourced communities, young people may be more prone to drop out of school and find alternative pathways to survive. And when young people do not feel as though they are a welcome part of the community, they may find “solace” in cliques or gangs who help to fill a void of love and acceptance.
For several years, my family and I would make the drive from the Northwest suburbs to the East Side of St. Paul to attend church right in the heart of the community. It was eye-opening and heartbreaking to see so many families and children living in extreme poverty and with limited access to resources. The church that I attended was near Wilder Recreation Center. On many occasions, dozens of children and teens, mostly African American, would be congregated in the park or the front doors near the recreation center. It was evident that these young people were looking for ways to positively interact with each other and to find meaningful, yet fun ways to pass the time. Notably there were very few structured activities in which the young people could engage in the community. In fact, the recreation center was only open four days a week, for roughly two hours a day in the evenings. On staff, there would typically be just one adult present and one or two youth employees to engage the multitude of children who came out to the recreation center every day that it was open. The extent of the space that the children were able to utilize was a gym— a space that was shared by all of the children ranging in age from 4 to 18. Given the limited staff support, there were very few age-appropriate activities for the children to engage and no homework help was available.
Not surprisingly, the lack of constructive opportunities for the youths lead to many young people walking the streets at night after the recreation center closed and hanging out on corners or bus stops with nothing to do and few places to go. While walking the streets, these young people were usually ignored, feared, judged, and all too often came into contact with law enforcement. What many failed to see was that beneath the tough exterior of many of the young people, they secretly dealt with issues such as homelessness, food insecurity, peer pressure, fear, and the stress of just trying to survive and stay alive.
In response, several people from my previous church worked to personally engage the young people and to raise public awareness about the limited resources that exist on the East Side to reach the youth and to ensure access to economic opportunity. Unfortunately, our cries often fell on deaf ears and many seemed to view our efforts as a lost cause. This attitude of indifference on the part of stakeholders is disturbing and unfortunately plays a role in our failure as a society to correct the socio-economic injustices that indirectly lead to the types of issues referenced above.
In spite of all of the challenges, I am firmly convinced that the problems facing the East Side are solvable. (And no, I am not referring to an increased police presence in that community.) History has shown us that we will never be able to incarcerate ourselves out of our problems. However, by ensuring access to jobs that pay a living wage, committing resources to help uplift schools in our poorest communities, and ensuring adequate opportunities for positive engagement and gainful employment for our young people, we can break the negative cycles that exist and work to build a healthy, sustainable East Side community. To do this, we must be willing to put differences aside and invest the time, energy, and the resources that it will take to address the current challenges that exist. We must also be willing to “see” the value of our young people and work to fully integrate them into the fabric of our community and help them reach their full potential. It should not take another serious incident for us to decide to the right thing. The opportunity exists right now for us to find the necessary resources to invest in improving the quality of life for those who are most vulnerable, including our youths on the East Side.