The problem of youth violence and the best ways to address it have long been on the minds of elected officials and community leaders in Cedar Rapids. There have been a variety of initiatives over the past several years to combat youth violence, especially gun violence, but the COVID-19 pandemic and the social distancing it requires have changed how programs can be delivered.
This prompted the Creating Safe, Equitable & Thriving Communities Fund to redesign its summer programming and try a different approach.
The ReSET 2020 Youth and Family Challenge will include programming designed for youth and families most vulnerable to community violence. The efforts include anti-violence messaging from community leaders, regular check-ins from outreach teams, care packages, porch talks and incentives and awards for participating in the program.
“[ReSET 2020] is simply really about letting them know that we care about them, that there’s a community that cares about them, that we want them to be safe. We want them alive. They’re important,” Rachel Rockwell, SET fund program officer, told Little Village.
The SET fund is a partnership between the Greater Cedar Rapids Community Foundation, City of Cedar Rapids, Linn County and the Cedar Rapids Community School District. It was established in 2018 as the next phase of the city’s SET Task Force, which developed recommendations on how to reduce youth violence.
Rockwell said there was a theory that people across the country having to shelter-in-place due to COVID-19 would lead to a reduction in violence, and some areas of the country have seen a decline in crime.
In Cedar Rapids, violent crime is down almost 2 percent compared to the city’s five-year average, but shots fired and homicides are both up, Cedar Rapids Police Chief Wayne Jerman shared during the city’s Public Safety and Youth Services committee meeting last month.
There were 17 shots-fired incidents in April, which is three times the average, Jerman said. In 2019, there were 99 shots fired incidents during the whole year. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Jerman said it has been difficult to try to make sense of the data.
“Even though we did see declines in a lot of incidents because of what we believe is COVID, there was a couple week period where I know you were probably getting one or two emails from me a day with either shots fired or actual shooting incidents,” Jerman said during the meeting on May 18. “We continue to struggle to get a firm grasp on a lot of the causations.”
Community members were asked to film a short video for Cedar Rapids youth that was then posted on the ReSET 2020 Facebook page. Linn County Supervisor Stacey Walker’s message is above.
ReSET 2020 has identified 60 families with youth ages 10 to 21 where the youth or family members have an elevated risk of being impacted by violence over the summer. Some of the factors considered include previous exposure to acts of violence, previous high-risk behaviors that can lead to involvement with the criminal justice system and previous school suspensions or referrals to law enforcement.
“We’re really looking at those [families] who, essentially, we’re really worried about them over the summer, about their safety,” Rockwell said.
Families were identified by the SET grantees, as well as juvenile courts and the Cedar Rapids Police Community Action Team (PCAT). Even though juvenile courts and the PCAT team were involved in helping identify families for the program, Rockwell emphasized that this is a grassroots, community partnership that is not looking to get anyone in trouble — “We want to focus on that support and understanding what their needs are … and to get them opportunities for the future.”
The seven SET grantees are the African American Museum of Iowa, Boys and Girls Club of Cedar Rapids, Big Bang Foundation, Jane Boyd Community House/DREEAM Sports, LBA Foundation, Washington High School and Willis Dady Emergency Shelter.
“What we’re asking the SET grantees to do is to work together and to do a push for as much engagement and interaction and support of our most high-risk community members, families and youth over the next 12 weeks, so that’ll take us through the summer to mid-August or the end of August,” Rockwell said.
Brandon Jackson’s message to youth in Cedar Rapids. Jackson is the founder of Dreeam Sports, a Cedar Rapids nonprofit.
There will be an outreach team that will engage youth and families through phone check-ins, weekly delivery of care packages and brief home visits from a safe distance. The goal is to build a trusting relationship, hear and address what the families need and offer support.
There will also be incentives, awards, challenges and other opportunities to further engage youth. The first challenge asked for people to send in a short video with a personal message of safety, peace and hope for youth and young adults.
“We can’t let them down because this population that is most at-risk of being involved in violence have been let down by the systems, have reached out for help and historically have been disappointed or even harmed by the systems that are in place, so we have to be able to follow through,” Rockwell said.
ReSET 2020 has a Facebook page in addition to a website. The website includes information on the challenges, COVID-19 resources, conflict resolution, information on mental health and various helplines.