"What, exactly, are you doing here?" the young man in the hooded sweatshirt wanted to know.
I couldn’t blame him for being suspicious. What business could a middle-aged lady carrying a pen possibly have in his neighborhood after dark?
I live only a few blocks away, but until now I figured I had no business in the Fifth Ward, the two-block tinderbox off Waters Ave. where gunfire and sirens are an almost constant soundtrack, identified by SCMPD Chief Jack Lumpkin as the headquarters of one of the city’s most active criminal groups, also called the Fifth Ward.
But to Ylana Abbott and Eugene "Trae" Priester, organizers of the grassroots non-violence group Solidarity in Savannah, the Fifth Ward isn’t some gang hideout—it’s home to several protégés who have responded to offers of a path out of crime and violence. Since last August, their team of volunteers has arranged job interviews, provided information on the GED and acted as mentors and stand-in parents for anyone who asks.
I have tremendous respect for SIS’ efforts to bring compassion and counsel to some of Savannah’s sparkiest neighborhoods, though I tend to express that from behind a desk. But after the recent flurry of press about the city’s crime stats and the initial successes of the End Gun Violence initiative, I had to agree with Ylana that a certain perspective was missing.
“You know, there have been articles on crime from everyone except those who are in the midst of it,” she mused in a text earlier in the week. “What if there was something from the young men’s point of view?”
So I bundled up and tagged along as Ylana and Trae walked the blocks of the Fifth Ward, handing out newsletters to clusters of men leaning against cars and checking in with the neighbors.
There were people standing around everywhere despite the frigid air, some possibly working illicit business and others simply relaxing.
“All right?” called Trae to a rail-thin gent standing in an open garage.
“Jus’ chillin’ with my Icehouse and my Newports,” the man cackled back, lifting a paper bag in a toast.
We came up on a group listening to a car stereo, and two younger men peeled away to join us. One was a 22 year-old with whom SIS has been working with closely—we’ll call him “Mr. H”—who I had met earlier in the day with Ylana, who often comes by the Fifth Ward during her lunch hour from her job as the faculty affairs coordinator for Savannah Law School.
We picked up Mr. H in front of his house and drove around while he told me his story: He dropped out of Windsor High at 16 to take care of his grandmother. At 18, he served two years for assault after a bar fight and was recently turned down for a job at a fast food joint because of his record.
He admits he’s sold drugs in the past to get by and has also worked warehouse gigs near the port, though finding reliable transportation is always a challenge since most job sites aren’t on the bus route.
“No one wants to give me a ride home once they find out where I stay,” he said, the lines around his making seem older. “Everyone’s scared to come around here except the police and the Jehovah’s Witnesses.”
Lately he’s found a little work cutting grass and trimming trees with his father, an ex-felon who has never been able to find a steady job after he got out of prison over two decades ago.
“You’re forty-something years old, you haven’t been in trouble for 20 years and you’re still being judged for your criminal background,” said Mr. H, shaking his head at the system that also strips felons of their right to vote.
To him, it’s obvious how a revolving door of poverty, lack of education, lack of knowledge about and access to services leads to violence, desperation and prison.
It’s a cycle that’s nearly impossible to break without help.
“Yes, someone is shooting every night. The thing is, they’re not doing it for no reason. They’re trying to survive,” he told me as we sat with Ylana’s car heater running.
“You got these young kids out here—their parents aren’t what you expect parents to be. So they’ve got to go out and help the family, and they do it their own way because no one ever taught them the right way. And once they mess up and get in trouble, they’re in the system and they’re stuck. There’s no point in trying to better themselves because they’re already looked at as hopeless.”
He wants more than anything to figure out how to provide stability for his two small daughters, ages 1 and 3 months, maybe use his natural gift for fixing appliances and radios after Ylana helps him get his GED.
His real dream, though, is to open a dog kennel, he confides when we meet again on the street that night. One of his dogs, a mellow, caramel-colored pit bull named Coco, follows obediently as he and Ylana walk ahead to discuss the details of his upcoming GED test.
The other kid, the one in the sweatshirt, waits expectedly for me explain my presence.
“I’m here to talk to you, if that’s cool,” I say. His face breaks into a smile.
“Mr. J” grew up a few blocks over and now lives with Mr. H and his family, helping out with the rent. They call themselves brothers, though the kinship is more spiritual than genetic.
Though he calls the Fifth Ward home, Mr. J says he doesn’t feel limited by the drama. As we walk, he tells me he’s just finished his kitchen shift at Ole Times Country Buffet and proudly shares his plans to go to Savannah Tech to earn his welding certificate.
“I think it’s because my parents were around more when I was coming up,” he says thoughtfully when I ask where his self-direction comes from.
“But other people, they don’t have that. When no one shows you the way, you don’t even know it exists.”
That’s what Solidarity in Savannah aims to do: shine a light on the possibilities without judgment, following up with a text, a ride to the DMV to get a driver’s license, a safe place to study. Volunteers are also trained to gently disrupt conflict, and more recruits are always needed.
Though only 30, Ylana seems comfortably maternal with these men, dressed stylishly but modestly with her headscarf, which she donned after she and Trae were married last fall. An East Savannah native, Trae embraced Islam while in federal prison, serving a 10-year sentence on non-violent gun charges. In fact, we pass the Fifth Ward house where he was arrested, caught up in a raid instigated by someone who rolled over on his friends for a lesser plea.
With his calm demeanor and gray coming into his beard, Trae is a respected elder on this street, his credibility compounded by his time on the inside. He counseled others on keeping to the peaceful path in jail, and came home committed to help others from getting caught up.
“The feds are big on peer-based programming, but the state and the city haven’t caught on yet,” he sighs as we discuss SIS’ need for funding in order to grow its outreach team.
There was expectation that the End Gun Violence budget would include money for such community work, but thus far the initiative has focused on the necessity of corralling the city’s most dangerous criminals.
Part of the strategy of the End Gun Violence smackdown hinges on not only pursuing perps but their friends, and Ylana worries how this “guilty by association” will further erode already broken communities like the Fifth Ward. Being at the wrong place at the wrong time can destroy a young man’s life and those around him, further perpetuating the cycle.
“It’s absolutely imperative that violent offenders are taken off the streets,” she says.
“But it’s important to understand the gaps that are left when these men—fathers, brothers, providers—are gone.”
The next stop on our walk is at a house strewn with trash in the yard, its cement stairs crumbling. We’re here to check on 19 year-old “Mr. S,” who went back to finish his senior year at Savannah High after finding a SIS flyer and texting that he wanted to change his life.
A boy cracks open the door, and there’s concern that Mr. S isn’t here. But a few moments later a compact guy in a pressed school uniform rides up on a bike, offering apologies.
“We call her the ‘Hood’s Hope,” grins Mr. S as Ylana checks his progress report.
We’re deep in a discussion about the uselessness of advanced algebra when two dark figures walk up suddenly, their faces covered with bandanas. For the first time, I feel fear, understanding viscerally how vulnerable these young men are every day.
The laughter stops, and we all exchange wary greetings. The two men move on quickly, and I don’t ask who they were.
“Things are fucked up,” offers Mr. J in explanation. Everyone nods solemnly.
We stand under the stars for a more few minutes, and a car full of pretty girls rolls up, asking Mr. S if he wants to get food.
“Gotta go!” he says as he sprints off, but not before catching me up in a quick hug.
Mr. J and Mr. H hug me, too, as we part ways, and I feel my own maternal instincts blossom for these bright young souls, who can hardly be called innocent for all that they’ve seen, yet their sweetness prevails.
We have demanded solutions to the city’s crime, and the sweeping arrests and harder sentences are yielding progress. Those measures are welcome and necessary for a safer Savannah for all, and I don’t doubt we’ll see significant decreases in shootings and homicides and more gun busts and arrests in 2016.
Yet, always, behind the stats are the stories and struggle of individuals who would do it differently if they knew how.
Can we as a community support those willing to walk beside them and point the way?