Cleveland Communities Caught in Crossfire of Gun Violence Search for Solutions

Ra'sheen Ali coaching a young boy at Level C DNA boxing gym
Ra'sheen Ali coaching a young boy at Level C DNA boxing gym : photo ideastream
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A shooting incident just outside the doors of the Level C DNA boxing gym on Lee Road this summer was a tragedy that police say resulted in the death of a 9-year-old girl.

The owner of the club, Ra’sheen Ali, says Saniyah Nicholson’s death has strengthened his resolve to make sure she is more than just a statistic. It also made him even more determined to continue his mission to save young black boys at risk for violence and turn them into men, he said.

“I’ll never be the same, but definitely you know it’s a driving force for me,” Ali said.

Although the number of shootings this year is on par with previous years, the director of The Partnership for A Safer Cleveland says it has been a violent summer. July was a particularly bad month. Shootings in July 2018 were up at least 20 percent compared to July 2017.

The spike contributed to the continued cycle of violence in some Cleveland communities, especially in predominately-black neighborhoods on the East side.

Shootings lead to fear

The boxing gym, located across from the Lee-Harvard plaza in Southeast Cleveland, is one big room with a small boxing ring on the far end and pictures of boxing greats and other boxing insignia on the walls

On a recent humid evening, Coach Ali was going through the usual paces with a young boy training him with a punching exercise.

 “Double that five up. Backwards one. One two, two to the boy,” he said.

Ali opened the gym five years ago and Saniyah’s older brother was working out at the gym on the day she was hit with a stray bullet as she was sitting in a car just outside the front door of the building.

Her mother, Marshawnette Daniels, went into the club to pick up her son on June 20. She was inside just a few minutes when a shootout between two different groups of young men broke out, she said.

Daniel’s son continues to work out with Coach Ali at the gym but other parents have pulled their kids since the shooting, he said.

The numbers have dwindled from about 50 regulars to about 15 or 20 children and teenagers, Ali said

The parents are afraid, Ali said.

 “Those that came back was like, Ali we believe in your vision. We know what you’re doing,” he said.

Sometimes his goal of being an oasis in the middle of a community that is being battered by gun violence feels impossible, he said.

 “But I know its not. I know it's possible,” he said.

Put down the guns, pick up the gloves

Ali, who was a union carpenter for 14 years, is using the gym as his base to reach out to young men like those allegedly involved in the shootout. He says they are victims too of media images that glorify violence and of a culture that values being dominant and strong.

 “The parents, they don’t have the education to raise them properly.  Some of them just don’t. They’re victims themselves or they don’t want to be bothered. They’re working two jobs, so they leave them out in the streets just roaming. I see them every day,” Ali said.

Ali says he understands because he came from the same background, but he is committed to persuading young black men to put down guns and pick up boxing gloves -- perhaps they can find a sense of self-worth in his gym, he said.

 “I hear a lot of Christians say the Bible says you take one step; he takes two. The Quran says he would not change the conditions of the people until they change themselves. Until they get detoxed and reprogrammed it will continue to get worse,” he said.

Hospitals and churches work to treat trauma of violence

Ali is working on his own to prevent gun violence and the psychological trauma inflicted on the entire community. But, there are other efforts in Cleveland focused on the root causes of the perpetual cycle of violence in some predominately-African American neighborhoods.

MetroHealth, a major hospital system, is starting a Community Trauma Institute, led by Rev. Tony Minor, manager of faith community engagement for the health system.

 “We're going to establish trauma response teams in churches working with neighborhood groups in which people will be trained in trauma-informed care. And they will go out and have porch talk community conversations with people that live near those shootings those violence events,” Minor said.

Five churches in southeastern Cleveland neighborhoods, including the Broadway area, Mt Pleasant, Harvard, and Buckeye have committed to participate.  During a meeting with some of the leaders who will be involved in the program, Minor said the hub churches will start training volunteers in the fall to be part of the trauma teams.

“It’s very important for us to understand that there is a ripple effect of the violence. This does not just impact the person but it impacts the entire community,” he said.

Using a model established in other cities such as Pittsburgh, the churches will create healing circles. These circles will focus on the emotional needs of the community first but also help with other things.

“We may run into people that have social problems. They have a need for a job. They need counseling. They need healthcare, so these trauma outreach workers will link them to services,” Minor said.

Gun violence as a public health issue

Linking people to services and focusing on prevention is part of a public health focus to violence. Treating gun violence as a public health issue instead of just a law enforcement issue has many advocates in the Cleveland area.

Michael Walker, director of the Partnership for a Safer Cleveland, says there are many organizations working to solve the problem but what’s missing is leadership to help them all work together.

“We don’t run relays, we’re running sprints and we haven’t found the reality of that. Sometimes we compete for funds. We compete for attention. We compete for clients and guess what? There is enough for everybody,” Walker said.

It takes multiple years of commitment from organizations and from the community for programs to take root and to bring about lasting change, he said.

Cleveland has some wonderful programs. People come from around the country to learn from the programs here, he said.

“They go take a back and replicate it. We're still fighting each other,” Walker said.

MetroHealth is committed to the healing circles concept, said Minor. After it is launched on the east side this year, there are plans to expand to west side neighborhoods, in two or three years, he said.

And Ra’sheen Ali says he is in it for the long haul. He will continue working on his own molding young boys.

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