By Ana Martinez-Ortiz
When given the option, most people don’t choose violence, but sometimes, violence seems like the only answer. Given the increased rise of violence, especially among youth, groups throughout Milwaukee County are working together to make a difference.
Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley announced the launch of the Credible Messenger program during a press conference on Wednesday, May 5. The program is a violence prevention initiative and a part of Crowley’s goal is to make Milwaukee County the healthiest county in the state.
The program will focus on fostering youth justice leaders through mentorship.
“It is up to us – the community and the adults our children look up to – to ensure that our young people have the guidance that they need to navigate this difficult time,” Crowley said. “We have to do everything we can to ensure the success of the next generation and that includes exploring new ways to meet young people where they are, make connections and mentor our youth.”
The concept of the Credible Messenger program is not new, David Muhammad, deputy director for the Department of Health and Human Services, said. Instead, the program is elevating the work that organizations and individuals have been doing for years.
Those efforts mean serving the at-risk youth.
“For youth in our community, there are too many wrong doors or harmful doors and unfortunately many times, youth cannot get the help they need until they’ve gotten into trouble or until unfortunately it’s too late,” Muhammad said. “No young person should need to get in trouble with the system to get the support they need, and no community member should either.”
The Credible Messenger program is an intentional and collaborative effort among various organizations such as Running Rebels, the Youth Advocate Program, West Care, 414Life and Milwaukee Christian Center, Mark Mertens, administrator of the Division of Youth and Family Services, said. Mertens said that over the years, organizations working to make a difference have been told that they need to coordinate and collaborate more. Programs such as this, are a step in the right direction.
The mentors in the program have lived experiences that are relevant to the youth they will be mentoring, he said. The mentors will focus on growth, interrupting violence, providing leadership skills and more.
Victor Barnett, executive director of Running Rebels, said he has been doing this work for the past 40 years and is excited to work with more people to make a difference. Co-executive director of Running Rebels, Dawn Barnett, added that these programs make a difference.
Maybe these adults haven’t walked the same path that the youth walk today, but they’ve walked a path with similar challenges, she said. The mentors are here to listen to the youth, find out where they’re at and help them navigate life from there.
“We can no longer stand by and allow conflict to just be,” Dawn Barnett said. “We’re no longer in a position in our community where we can allow it to just work it out on its own.
We have to be willing to come in and to help sort through conflict and to help create some of those spaces.”
Although a county initiative, the City of Milwaukee’s Health Department demonstrated its support during the press conference. Arnitta Hollima from the Office of Violence Prevention said that engaging with the youth early and often is critical to the prevention effort.
“We have to care about our youth every single day and not just when they’re hurt or harming themselves or others,” Hollima said. “Violence is a manifestation of our youths needs going unmet whether it be in the family, in the school or in the community. We have to invest in prevention to ensure that every young person has access to quality and consistent youth programs and services in the city every single day.”
“They [the youth] have more power than they think they have,” Crowley said. “It is not that they are inadequate it is that they don’t believe they are powerful beyond measure. We have to instill that in our young people in a much earlier age but we also need to make sure we’re bringing them along in the action so they can put everything into practice we are teaching them.”