"Safe Night" Combines Celebration and Violence Prevention
By Keith Martin, Assistant Editor
Getting youth and members of the community to interact can some times meet with friction from both sides. One program not only brings these two sides together, but does so to provide a safe place for youth to meet and celebrate a positive lifestyle. Created in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the Safe Night program has developed methodology and message that has spread nationwide. The basic rule of Safe Night is simple: no weapons, no drugs or alcohol and no arguments.
"When I looked at police reports, I saw that those things were the biggest reasons for homicides," says Safe Night founder Olu Sijuwade. "So there needed to be some education, some creative education, some way to use non-violence or conflict resolution."
Sijuwade was an officer for the Milwaukee Police Department for three years before beginning a violence prevention program for the City of Milwaukee Health Department. With the increasing number of homicides in the city, especially among youth, citizens were looking for an answer.
"[As an officer], I was patrolling and arresting people for violence, but didn't do things to keep it from happening in the first place," he says.
Because many community agencies offered programs for youth during the day and not at night, he decided to come up with a safe way that young adults could gather for a "party," and at the same time learn valuable life skills. The first Safe Night actually began during the day in 1994, when Sijuwade gathered a number of small, grassroots agencies to volunteer for a last day of school conflict resolution event and party to celebrate the summer. Forty-seven agencies signed up and after the event wanted to do more, as did others in the community.
"Larger agencies saw this and the impact it had - kids off the street, empty blocks [where kids gathered] and quieter hospitals - all of which I hadn't expected." says Sijuwade.
That first experience helped generate events over the next 30 weekends, involving nearly 8,700 participants. Additionally, state research showed that the youth homicide rate dropped 30 percent by September of that year and the total homicide rate decreased 12 percent from 1993 to 1994. In 1995, the National Crime Prevention Council even published a special report recognizing Safe Night as a national model of violence prevention.
Spreading the Safe Night Message
In 1996, Sijuwade enlisted the help of Wisconsin Public Television (WPT) to expand Safe Nights throughout Wisconsin. In November of that year, over 100 communities and over 10,000 youth participants joined for Wisconsin Safe Night, in which communities put on dances, talent shows, sports tournaments and other activities, all while responding to issues of violence in their area. WPT broadcast the event from three different sites to show viewers how the Safe Night message was being carried out in the state.
Later that year, WPT received a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to develop a national model and videoconference on Safe Night. The goal was to initiate one night where Safe Nights would take place nationwide, by providing on-line planning assistance as well as staff to help coordinate state efforts.
On June 5, 1999, 1,000 communities across America participated in a national Safe Night, with the help of organizations ranging from the Boys and Girls Clubs to 100 Black Men of America. The event was broadcast on PBS and BET, live from Safe Night parties in Washington, DC, Los Angeles and Milwaukee, with sites such as Detroit and Miami also checking in during the one-hour broadcast.
Much like the first statewide event in Wisconsin, the response was both immediate and overwhelming.
"We never really intended to [do a national Safe Night] every year," says Susan Latton, who was the National Site Coordinator for the event. "It was so fabulously successful, that people wanted us to continue. The strength of the model, however, is in community membership that provides a safe harbor for kids to build up relationships."
Planting Roots In Other Communities
One community where the Safe Night message has flourished is New Orleans. Staging their first local event in February of 1999 and then participating in the national event, organizers are trying to share their individual success with others in the state.
"People like the concept," says Rekaya Gibson, Director of the Greater New Orleans Violence Prevention Task Force. "In Louisiana, there is always a party and this is a nice educational piece where it is good that [those in the community] come together, without guns, weapons or arguments."
According to Gibson, after participating in the national event, the interest was so strong from both citizens and organizations that they then decided to spread information to others in the state. In 2000, Gibson and others went to other communities to do training workshops including their own planning guide adapted from the national model. The workshops resulted in four additional Safe Nights that year.
"Utilizing [a planning guide] is a plus, but it is up to the communities to keep Safe Nights going," says Gibson, who until recently served as the state's violence prevention coordinator.
A statewide Safe Night has been planned for October 26 of this year, with Gibson and others targeting all the schools in the states to be participants with the help of local organizations.
"We are marketing the date, providing the planning guide and providing technical assistance, but [individual sites] can decide whom they want to target and how many hours they want their programs to be," she says. "Our goal is to register 50 sites with at least 10,000 youth participants from around the state. "
A volunteer in her position, Gibson credits the benefits the program as her motivation in putting in numerous hours to help spread the message.
"I definitely think that this is something that is needed," she says. "Youth and adults need a safe place to come together and work with the community, police and others. With violence on the rise, they need safe places to go."
One Theory, Multiple Messages
Safe Nights not only impacts the lives of young people and others involved during that one night event, but more importantly carries over into their daily lives. Referring to the numerous evaluations of the program that she has, Latton says that beyond providing a vehicle for the community to come together, the events create a new outlook on the community for youth.
"One comment I found amazing was that [there was this feeling from one youth] that the community cared about them," she says. "There is a lot of fear about bringing youth together and sometimes we do a lot not to do that for a variety of reasons."
Sijuwade adds one of the messages of the program is the community working towards one goal.
"[Safe Night] brought people together from different parts of the city, from different cultures," he says. "They were all working on the same thing - having a peaceful city and working on the individual goals of these kids."
Those goals can be very powerful. Sijuwade recalls an incident where two young people were telling him how proud they were to graduate and why.
"I asked them why they did so well and they said that they had found friends [at a past Safe Night] with common interests and goals versus their old friends who were involved with gangs and other stupid stuff," he says. "Since he found a good crowd, he'd rather hang around with [instead]."
For more information on Safe Night, go to: http://www.pbs.org/safenight/index.html
Rekaya Gibson, Director, Greater New Orleans Violence Prevention Task Force, (504) 240-6911
Susan Latton, Community and Content Director, National Center for Outreach, (608) 265-9679, http://www.nationaloutreach.org/
Olu Sijuwade, non-violence trainer/consultant, (414) 562-3887, http://www.peacelab.com/
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