Parent boot camp marches on, but history casts doubt on Minneapolis efforts to sustain youth anti-violence efforts


The high-energy call and response summed up the evening’s lesson for about 15 black parents with teenage children.

“What do we do?”

“Model and Teach!”

Dr. BraVada Garrett-Akinsanya, a psychologist, started what she calls a parent boot camp after working with a number of black families whose children were traumatized by seeing violence in school and the community. It’s called Project Murua, which is Swahili for respect.

Her lesson this evening is that children take their cues from parents, so parents have to model and teach the behaviors and attitudes they want to see in their children. No matter what parents do, they will model and teach something, either love and understanding, or hostility and rejection, she said.

“The path to destruction is to model low self esteem,” Garrett-Akinsanya said. “What are they seeing when they look at you?”

It’s a 10-week voluntary program. Classes run three hours a week; miss two and you’re dropped. Parents who graduate can choose to continue to meet monthly for mutual support. (For information on Project Murua, contact Dr. BraVada Garrett Akinsanya at (612) 302-3140.)

The military imagery might seem to run counter to an effort to reduce violence. Garrett-Akinsanya said Murua grew out of an early meeting with parents, where they were using war analogies. They were fighting a battle to save their kids. She views the boot camp as a peacekeeping force.

The city is funding Murua, one of the bright spots to evolve with the city’s Blueprint for Action: Preventing Youth Violence. Programs such as Early Childhood Family Education help parents of very young children, but there is very little support for parents of teenagers. The city plans to fund additional parent support programs.

Murua participant Nada Jones is the mother of five kids, ages 10 to 23, and the last four are boys. She signed up because she wanted to address some of the dysfunction, the self-destruction and the shame that can happen in her community. For instance, it’s common for black kids to use racial slurs with each other. The class has given her confidence in addressing such behavior. “I do not allow them to use it in my presence,” she said. “That is harmful.”

Instead of telling kids what not to do, she looks for ways to redirect them. “I feel like I am a stronger person,” Jones said.

Pam Wright is taking the class, too. She has two adopted nieces, 10 and 12 and two children 29 and 35. Her 25-year-old son was killed in a drive-by shooting at Washington and Broadway last February. “The violence has to stop,” she said.

Asked about what she was learning in class, she said: “It is not about being nosy. It is about being involved. I have always been involved in my kids’ lives. I am always willing to learn more.”

Blueprint for Action: Preventing Youth Violence

Murua is one of the programs claimed by the city as part of the Blueprint for Action: Preventing Youth Violence, launched by city and community leaders in January. As a program to support parents of teenagers, Murua provides a greatly needed service. The Blueprint also encouraged the Shiloh Zone, a northside violence prevention outreach effort. The new Juvenile Supervision Center, a city-county effort to intervene with low-level juvenile offenders to get them back on track, opened under the Blueprint umbrella on January 7. (Murua, a program at the Minneapolis Urban League, began in 2007, funded by a city community development block grant.)

The Blueprint’s overarching message is to treat youth violence as a public health problem. The public health approach focuses on prevention and prevention takes time. (Think seat belt campaigns or anti-smoking efforts.)

The Blueprint’s biggest challenge is staying power.

Mayor R.T. Rybak has spent considerable time and personal capital on the Blueprint. He is up for reelection in 2009. He may run for mayor or he may run for Governor. If Rybak seeks a third term, the Blueprint is a likely campaign issues. Rybak will point to successes. Other candidates will critique it.

Would the Blueprint survive a change in administration?

A history of good efforts

The Blueprint joins a long list of city reports and initiatives to improve the lives of children and youth. Some of these long-forgotten initiatives are a reminder of just how tough it is to stay relevant and focused.

In 1988, when Don Fraser was Mayor, the Minneapolis Youth Coordinating Board (YCB) wrote the City’s Children 2007 plan. It created a vision for the city’s children in the year 2007. It had some success in early childhood programs, but implementation fell short of its goals.

The Blueprint and City’s Children 2007 sound similar themes. One Blueprint goal states: “Every young person in Minneapolis is supported by at least one trusted adult in their family or their community.” Compare that to a City’s Children 2007 goal that said: “Assure each child has access to at least one parent or adult who nurtures and supports that child.”

In the mid-1990s, when Sharon Sayles Belton was mayor, the YCB worked with the Search Institute to increase youth involvement in sports, arts, leadership or other positive out-of-school activities. At the time, research found that only about 50 percent of city youth ages seven to 14 were engaged in those activities. The “Places to Grow” report set an ambitious goal: 80 percent of city youth would be engaged by the year 2000.

That initiative didn’t last long enough for anyone to measure the results in 2000. However, the Blueprint again picks up this theme with its goal to “increase the number of high-quality community-based youth programs, services and opportunities, including leadership training.”

In 2000, the Minneapolis Department of Health and Family Support (DHFS) issued “Aiming for a Safe City: Reducing gun tragedies in Minneapolis.” Similar to the Blueprint, the report said: “violence is a public health issue.”

The list could go on. The point is not to diminish past efforts or discourage the work on the Blueprint. The lesson is just how difficult prevention efforts are to sustain and how often similar recommendations recycle.

Gretchen Musicant, commissioner of the Minneapolis Department of Health and Family Support, the office charged with overseeing the Blueprint, sums it up this way: “Everything old is new again.”

The Blueprint helps align the work already happening in the community, she said. “It is an ephemeral thing,” she said. But, “this notion of hope and a plan and a common direction really helps connect and direct work.”

What’s Up?

As a postscript, it’s worth marking the end of the What’s Up? hotline, a youth-run phone line to connect youth with positive activities. It grew out of the YCB youth development recommendations in the mid-1990s. What’s Up? also had a website.

The YCB ran the program for a time, but eventually transferred What’s Up? to the nonprofit Yo! the Movement. Yo! struggled to fund the hotline, but it was operating as recently as last year.

Call the number today and a recorded message says it is no longer in service.

Read more about the What’s Up? hotline at the U.S. Conference of Mayor’s website. It is listed it on the “Best Practices” database.

Staying power

Rybak said the good news is that Minneapolis has had three straight mayors committed to young people’s issues, a reflection on the electorate. He has talked to President-elect Barack Obama about the Blueprint. Twice. He wants to get federal resources for youth violence prevention.

“I am deeply committed to this work,” he said. “Part of our work is to have everyone in the community see what their role is. I am not trying to build an initiative for a year or two.”

That is the tricky part.

The Mentoring Partnership of Minnesota is working to promote mentoring in targeted neighborhoods as part of the Blueprint. But Executive Director Joellen Gonder-Spacek, said she has seen similar plans come and go. Sharon Sayles Belton promoted mentoring.

“Our interest is enhancing and building programs that have staying power,” she said. “We don’t want a here today, gone tomorrow kind of programming. We want to look at ways to build capacity and sustainability.”

Sondra Samuels, president of the Peace Foundation, has worked on the Blueprint’s steering committee, and says it’s fair to question whether the initiative is sustainable.

“I can hope,” said Samuels, whose organization is working on the new “Don’t Shoot … I want to Live” campaign, which fits into the Blueprint. “I can put my efforts squarely in what we are doing right now.”

She is philosophical about the future. “Let’s just say this thing flops,” she said of the Blueprint. “I look forward to the next person like me who is picking [it up] and saying, ‘We are continuing down this path.’”