Young people, empowerment and inner peace

Moderated by Rick Badie

Today we present the fifth installment of our Opinion series on teenage crime, incarceration and drug abuse that was begun late last year. The founders of two Atlanta-based nonprofits write about their attempts to help young men become responsible adults, while another activist explains addiction and recovery. To comment, go to: http://blogs.ajc.com/atlanta-forward/.

Help young people find inner peace

By Kit Cummings

In 2009, I drove to the Gwinnett County Detention Center to visit a kid I had connected with years earlier when he was a teenager. Now, he was a grown young man. After years inside one of the toughest street gangs in the world, he was facing potentially the most severe punishment, which he avoided, only to look at a life sentence inside a maximum security prison.

I worked with him weekly for two years, and saw him transform before my eyes. He happened to be Latino, and we reconnected and got very close because he already trusted this middle-aged white man from East Cobb. He trusted me because we had made that bond that we were now building on from years before.

That set into motion a new course and trajectory for my work that has only gained momentum over the past five years. This work has taken me inside prisons all over the United States, as well as South Africa, Mexico, Ukraine and Honduras. This fall, I plan to go to Kuwait.

Eventually my work began to take me into schools. Prevention became my cause. I was meeting these young people’s fathers, big brothers, uncles and grandfathers on the “inside,” and I wanted to see if we could break the cycle and reverse the generational curse.

I began to work in city schools with black and Hispanic kids in tough areas of town. However, I began to come to terms with an uncomfortable realization: This was not a black or white problem. It wasn’t a rich or poor problem. It wasn’t about inner cities versus the suburbs, or the ‘hoods rather than the gated communities.

No, this was — and is — a generational, human problem, and kids are in the crosshairs. We are losing a generation of kids — black, white, brown, rich, poor, inside the Perimeter and outside. This is a generation that is quickly losing its way and needs to be redirected.

We recently lost two kids to street violence this year in an inner-city school where we do our “Inspired Straight” program through the Power of Peace Project. In that same period, we lost four kids from a North Fulton school to suicide.

Kids today are being bombarded with more information, faster, with practically unlimited access. They are being tempted with things  our generation did not face, or faced at a much older age. It’s not just alcohol, weed and fooling around with girls any more. The “new normal” is sex texting, painkillers and violent video games.

Recently, when I was speaking in South Africa, Dr. Bernard Lafayette — Dr. Martin Luther King’s right hand man — reminded me of  King’s final wish. He said that we needed to institutionalize a non-violence message and take it into the schools to a younger generation. That’s what my organization intends to do: Help this young generation find peace on the inside, so they have no need for the foolishness they use. Please help: http://thepowerofpeace.org.

Kit Cummings is founder and president of The Power of Peace Project Inc., a nonprofit that works to reduce crime, rehabilitate inmates and lower school dropout rates.

Empower young black males for life

By Norma Joy Barnes

Too many young black males are at risk. This is not a myth, but a statement of fact.

For years, I have been concerned about the welfare of at-risk youth and disadvantaged individuals. It has led me to volunteer service and a human service career. However, it was during my volunteer work with Joint Action in Community Service Inc., and my 30-plus years with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, that I became acutely aware of the plight of young black males, who seemed to face insurmountable odds.

Bleak statistics and compelling evidence showed these young males were disproportionately excluded from the thriving workforce, but over-represented in the criminal justice system. My heart ached as I witnessed their struggles. I was compelled to do more than commiserate about their plight. The quote, “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime,” had always inspired me, but I realized that I had to put it into action if I truly wanted to help. This realization refueled my desire to make a real difference and planted a burning vision in my heart to do so.

In 2008, my vision was actualized with the incorporation of the Community Council of Metropolitan Atlanta Inc. as a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. In September of that year, the Priority Male Institute, a free life-skills and job-readiness program, was implementedto teach black males 18 to 28 skills to help them reach their full potential — academically, vocationally, economically and personally.

With no grant or ongoing funding, the council depends on donations to provide its free programs. Morris Brown College has co-sponsored the institute since 2010 with classroom and conference space and logistical support.

The council is currently recruiting trainers, workshop leaders, keynote speakers, mentors, potential employers and partners for the 2014 Institute. It will run March 3 to May 23, with classes 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, at the Hickman Student Center, Morris Brown College.

Participants will be provided hands-on training in self development, goal setting, interpersonal skills, communication skills, conflict resolution, etiquette, image, financial literacy, vocational exploration, entrepreneurship, work ethics and other life skills. In layman’s terms, they will be taught how to fish, even in turbulent or murky waters.

Throughout the program, participants will be assigned life-skill coaches and mentors to provide support and guidance. The goal is to place graduates in gainful positions with participating employers, or facilitate enrollment in educational/vocational institutions.

The council cannot do this alone. We need businesses, organizations, churches, employers and individuals to partner with us. Together, we can teach at-risk young men how to “fish for a lifetime” and empower them to live more productive lives. Please contact me at normajoybarnes@live.com. or visit www.communitycouncilma.org.

Norma Joy Barnes is president/CEO of the Community Council of Metropolitan Atlanta Inc.

Work to reduce addiction

By Neil Kaltenecker

I was fortunate enough to be given the helm of the Georgia Council on Substance Abuse about five years ago after working for more than 25 years in various state governmental agencies, most of which built on my bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and my master’s degree in criminology.

I felt my career hit its peak in 2005 when I was hired as the first director of the Office of Addictive Diseases under the Department of Human Resources. It’s now the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities. In that position, I was responsible for state and federal funding passed to local communities for addiction services.

Research shows that states with higher treatment admission rates have lower incarceration rates. I thought that I could finally make a positive impact by helping to reduce Georgia’s reliance on criminal justice solutions to what I knew to be a preventable, treatable chronic health condition called addiction.

You see, I am a person in long-term recovery. What that means for me is that it has been more than 23 years since I had my last drink or illegal drug. I talk openly about my recovery because I think everyone should have the opportunities that I’ve had to get well.

Through experience, in research, and as a member of Georgia Recovery Initiative listening sessions, we know individual paths to recovery are deeply personal, and that each journey is unique. Recovery is not bestowed on a person by any program or system, but is nurtured by relationships in communities that are supportive and provide hope.

What is also clear is that a person caught in the cycle of addiction feels profound shame. Many still believe someone must “hit bottom” or “has to really want it” to get better, or that only “tough love” interventions work. Fortunately, people in long-term recovery like me are speaking out and telling our stories of hope.

Research backs up what more than 23 million people in long-term recovery know. There are many ways to get and stay well. As with other chronic health conditions — like diabetes and hypertension — people need a full continuum of support, from nutrition to exercise to a caring practitioner and meaningful relationshipsto get and stay well.

Earlier this week, hundreds of people in recovery, and our allies, families and friends, were at the state Capitol for Addiction Recovery Awareness Day to demonstrate to policymakers and state leadership that people can and do get better.

Additionally, this week, Gov. Nathan Deal presented a framework for the Georgia Prisoner Reentry Initiative, which recognizes that recovery and wellness take place in communities. He is asking for input. We should all take him up on this and recognize we can help reduce the impact of addiction and build stronger, healthier communities.

Let us look to the future with great hope!

Neil Kaltenecker is executive director of the Georgia Council on Substance Abuse.


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