Reflecting, Renewing, and Responding to Overcome 400 years of Oppression

By Duy Pham and Whitney Bunts

Last week, CLASP joined Cities United in Hampton, Virginia, during the remembrance of the 400-year anniversary of the first Africans being forcibly brought to this country and enslaved. Cities United works to eliminate the violence in American cities related to African American men and boys by centering young Black men and promoting prevention instead of prosecution and intervention instead of incarceration. The group’s 90+ participating cities are committed to cutting violence in half by 2025.

Since Cities United’s inception, CLASP has been a proud partner, and for the past several years has collaborated on leveraging policy opportunities to advance systems change. We also work to uplift best practices and encourage cities to make quality investments in jobs, education, and healing, which is core to our anti-incarceration and reinvestment framework. While economic opportunity is far from a panacea, research shows it is an effective prevention tool in reducing community violence.

The legacy and detrimental impact of slavery continues to cut deep in African American communities. Racist policies and actions stretching from enslavement to mass incarceration have undercut the success of Black Americans, which has contributed to an unjust and immoral racial wealth gap. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 12 young people under the age of 25 are killed each day by homicide. Young Black men are more likely to be victims of gun violence than any other demographic group, perpetuating a cycle of trauma and lost opportunity in African American communities.

In Hampton, CLASP provided technical assistance to cities on cross-systems partnerships and systems change, facilitated a workforce breakout session, and led a workshop on young adult engagement in policy. Kisha Bird also spoke during a plenary session about her personal journey and CLASP’s policy work in partnership with youth and young adults to create safe, healthy, and hopeful communities.   

We met with city leaders from Louisville, Seattle, Richmond, and Washington, D.C. to discuss how violence-reduction efforts can connect to workforce systems and investments. In the breakout session, we discussed workforce pathways and heard from young men from youth leadership programs in Lexington and Louisville. Both programs are partnerships with city government that give young people the opportunity to prepare for careers in public service. These workforce programs are clearly changing lives, but they need to be improved, invested in, and prioritized by the public sector.

Core to CLASP’s advocacy agenda is our young adult engagement strategy in which we partner with young people to advocate for policies that affect them and their families. CLASP facilitated a policy and advocacy 101 workshop for the Cities United Roadmap Academy Fellows that helped them learn how to create their own policy agenda on issues they are passionate about. Many of the youth at the workshop have been directly or indirectly impacted by gun violence, so we focused on how to advocate for policies to reduce gun violence. While violence and trauma are pervasive in many of the communities these youth are living and working in, it stems from systemic oppression, so we emphasized policies to address the lack of jobs, economic opportunity, education, and resources.

Cities United purposely chose its Hampton meeting to coincide with this important remembrance of our country’s shameful past. One of the speakers fittingly invoked Audre Lorde’s words: “For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.” For far too long, Black people have been fighting to be recognized as human, to receive the same rights as their counterparts, and to overcome the trauma of being kidnapped and enslaved 400 years ago.

As an antipoverty organization with a commitment to racial equity, we have a clear directive and critical role to play. We must ensure our communities and policymakers invest holistically in young people of color so they can achieve their dreams. We also must empower young people to meaningfully advocate for themselves and their communities. However, because this country was built to uphold a racist structure, we are committed to reimagining and realizing a more just nation for all to bring about genuine change.

For more information about Cities United

For information about CLASP’s youth and justice agendas