PITTSFIELD >> Last week the City of Pittsfield finalized the Safe and Successful Youth Initiative grant with the state. Violence was escalating last summer when we applied for the grant with the Pittsfield Police Department. Two young men died in separate July shootings and others were seriously injured. This funding expands current intervention efforts so they reach youth in the same age and "proven-risk" category as those involved in the shootings.
At Pittsfield Community Connection — a program working with disconnected young people to overcome obstacles to development — we found older youth already on a dangerous path required a distinct strategy.
Eight months ago we visited a young man in jail just before his release. Rather than celebrate his discharge, he feared addiction and his ability to find a job with a criminal record and limited skills. Once out, we could not keep him focused on our program despite his need for help. It was difficult to ensure behavioral and mental health-related issues were addressed or to engage some prospective employers without offers of subsidized employment. This initiative adds the tools to do just that.
Pittsfield Community Connection continues to engage nearly 40 teenage participants through a comprehensive approach. They are matched with jobs that teach skills and give back to the community, tutoring to bridge academic gaps, outreach workers who contact them regularly, and individual community mentors.
The positive response by community agencies and residents stepping up as mentors is truly inspiring. Yet working with older proven-risk youth requires strong incentives to start and continue on a new path.
Pittsfield Community Connection will run the new initiative. It targets those hard-to-reach young men between 17 and 24 years old with a history in crime, and includes new incentives. The application went through the Pittsfield Police Department and they fund the initiative.
Close involvement of the police department and judicial partners is critical. They will identify the participants; ensuring positive help goes to those most in need of a new direction. Like those in the July shootings, offenders are often well known to law enforcement.
Each participant is offered job training and job search support through Berkshire Works. The program will create subsidized employment opportunities supporting companies that take a risk. Education is a priority and participants will work to get their GED/HiSET if they do not have a high school diploma or equivalent.
Participants must receive behavioral health counseling through the Brien Center. They will experience intensive contacts by PCC Outreach Workers. Some outreach workers have a criminal history themselves, giving them credibility and access. Ensuring the success of other grass roots programs working with youth, as well as close coordination, will also be key.
Young men in the program will not pick and choose the parts of the program they sign-up for. If they want a job, behavioral health counseling and regular check-ins from an outreach worker come with it. The goal is to tackle all challenges they may face, not create a temporary fix.
If the program is successful the $350,000 received for the first year expands to $500,000 and extends for a total of 10 years: an almost $5 million investment in the youth who need intense attention. That is a lot of money that some people will want spent elsewhere. But this is an investment in crime prevention and the development of those headed toward violence.
Young men in the program may have grown up with documented impediments to growth: extreme poverty, criminally involved parents, substance abuse, and others. Every youth deserves a fair shot, and this provides an opportunity to overcome adversity.
Many will stigmatize participants because of past actions. We need the opposite. We know from our work that many of these young men struggle to feel they belong in the city and in the society they grow up in. Instead many encounter profiling or suspicion. These are dangerous ingredients, especially when mixed with poverty and limited employment prospects. It only increases the chance they will seek respect and acceptance from negative groups.
Many ways to help
The key to this program is ensuring these young men feel they have a future in this community. Our challenge is to ensure inclusion and support surrounds this pathway to positivity. In short, every young person in our community must feel they are its most important part.
You can get involved by working with your company to hire a young adult or by mentoring other PCC participants. You can also simply decide to embrace these kids at an earlier age and with more determination than we thought necessary in the past.
To get ahead of youth violence we need a strategy that involves everyone. We are at a critical moment and the entire community must engage. We can turn a negative trend into a positive communitywide demonstration of deep involvement in the development of all our youth.