Halting violence in El Barrio

Johnny Díaz, a 12-year-old seventh grader at PS 171, gathered with dozens of other young people to call upon the community to end violence in the streets of El Barrio.

In response to shootings and gang activity in East Harlem, city council member Melissa Mark-Viverito, together with other elected officials, presented the Youth Violence Task Force outside the James Weldon Johnson Community Center.

Johnny is a member of this team, which formed in June of 2010 and is made up of about 200 youths.

“The authorities should listen to us and give us alternatives. There are many Latino young people who want a peaceful community. We want more places to play and study,” said Johnny.

Johnny is also a member of the Torch Club, a youth group that participates in community activities, like bringing food to poor people at Christmas.

Mark-Viverito agreed with Johnny. The city council member stressed that El Barrio needs more programs that prevent children and teenagers from becoming involved in violent acts. In September, a bullet hit Mark-Viverito’s car during a shooting. She said that the alleged attacker was a 16-year-old boy.

“This violence in the streets demands collective action,” she declared.

The Youth Violence Task Force receives support from more than 20 community organizations, among them Arts for Change, CUNY Medical School, Homes and Peace on the Street and Youth Action Programs.

The goals of the Youth Violence Task Force include strengthening the relationship between the police and young people in the community. Programs that the team focuses on include handing in weapons to authorities and preventing young people from being interrogated by police who use the Stop-and-Frisk tactic.

The team’s youth employment program seeks to reduce unemployment rate in El Barrio.

Ilda Morales, 12, said that unemployment is her greatest concern for the future.

“From now on, I’m going to do something for my community, because I don’t want to face the same problems when I’m an adult. I want to graduate and have a job with a decent salary,” Ilda said.

In the Big Apple, over 20% of Latinos ages 16 to 24 do not have a job [pdf], according to data from the 2010 Census.

“Without work, it’s easier to join a gang and use a weapon to look for money,” added Ilda, who is a member of the Youth Violence Task Force.

Next to Ilda stood Peggy Morales, a member of Community Board 11. Morales said that young people need places to play sports and more art and cultural centers.

“The task force is the first step, but we still have a lot to do. If we don’t want children in the streets, then we have to make an effort to give them alternatives.”

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