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By BriannaLopez
Special to the SPIRIT

Scattered conversations whisper through the Alumni Auditorium at Widener University as about 50 community people prepare for a highly anticipated panel discussion about collective efforts to find solutions to reduce youth violence in Chester. Then it began.

“There are people in this city that are very committed to this issue of youth violence prevention. That’s encouraging and I would just say the answer is (already) here. Yes, you need money to do things; yes, you need resources; but the answers are wrapped up in this city,” said keynote speaker Eugene Schneeberg, director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

As the meeting’s featured speaker and one of seven panelists to discuss the issue, Schneeberg verbally guided the audience to an array of websites and resources that could possibly help them start, or continue, the process to addressing youth violence in their homes, communities, and even within themselves.

The audience of elected officials, Chester residents, community and youth activists, young people themselves, ex-offenders and others listened intently as Schneeberg revealed a piece of his own childhood.

The Massachusetts native said his own upbringing in the tough Roxbury neighborhood of Boston without a father in the home, make him acutely in touch with issues young people have today and why so many young men find comfort in violence.

But coming out of that history, Schneeberg said he knows caring people can make a difference. Before joining the Obama administration he said he worked at a youth program that empowered at-risk kids who turned their lives around, therefore he knows firsthand about approaches that work.

Panelist Dr. Fatima Hafiz, a Temple University education professor engaged in a year-long project addressing youth violence in the city among four stakeholder groups, agreed that young people are angry and don’t get taught to focus anger in right direction, but she cautioned, “We don’t want to forget that these youth are human who recreate their own reality.”

Hosted by Rev. Richard C. Dalton and organized by Grace Community Resource and Empowerment Center (GCREC), panelists from various walks of life, all relating to community uplifting and development, shared stories from their perspectives about how youth violence has affected them in an attempt to voice problems and solutions to community people fed up with youth violence.

No specific recommendations, courses of action, or commitments were apparently made from the session.

The six other panelists included Calvin K. Hodnett, senior analyst for community policing advancement; Rev. Dr. Bayard Taylor, senior pastor of Chester’s Calvary Baptist Church; Ben O’Dell, former deputy director of the White House Faith-Based Neighborhood Partnership who met with GCREC members last summer in Washington, DC; and Nicole Cogdell, former president of an organization of mothers who children were lost to youth violence and now works as public relations liaison and coordinator for the William Trippley Foundation and technical advisor for Brothers of Concern.

Also on the panel was City Councilman John Linder, a Social Sciences professor at Delaware Community College, and Hafiz, a senior facilitator for Transformative Education Associates and Temple education professor.

O’Dell, who first met GCREC members last year when Chester was under a “State of Emergency,” spoke about fatherhood and how community people can mentor young people and maintain positive relationships with men by remaining strong support systems and foundations.

After panelists introduced themselves and their involvement in the community, audience members were invited to voice their questions and opinions.

Leo Davis, a co-founder of Brothers of Concern and longtime Chester resident, asked whether there were any laws specifically relating to gangs in the state of Pennsylvania? U.S. Attorney Robert Reed replied, “You don’t need a gang statute to prosecute gang members.” Davis was relieved.

Other people offered opinions and commented on past experiences which affected them and/or members of their family. After about 45 minutes, the panelists and public mutually agreed that extensive work must continue being done to reverse the devastating outcomes of youth violence.

Dalton closed with, “Chester has to own up and come together to make this a collaboration and balance.” A final prayer was offered and people adjourned, hoping this meeting would be the last one necessary to stop youth violence.

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