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Anti-violence program equipping active offenders with tools to redirect their lives

Posted at 10:37 AM, Nov 22, 2021

FRESNO, Calif. — Devrick Hill had dreams of being a star NFL player. But during the Fresno native's freshman year of high school, those dreams were cut short by reality.

"Yeah, I thought I was going to be the biggest NFL player ever until ninth grade when my cousin died. So, it kind of changed me. It put me in a deep hole," said Hill. "Music is the way I ease my pain, how I deal with my pain. Feeling lonely, make a song. Mad, make a song. Happy, make a song."

On the city's west side, violence is routine.

"We have violence like L.A., but we have turfs like the Bay," said Aaron Foster, the program manager for Advance Peace Fresno. "So, red and blue don't really make a difference here. It's where you live."

Foster says the cycle is fueled by grief and trauma.

"My son was a gang member, but my daughter wasn't. He was killed on Memorial Day, and four years later on Memorial Day, she was killed," said Foster. "We had to figure out something to do because retaliating wouldn't do nothing but add to it."

A reformed gang member, Foster turned to other cities for strategies to stop the violence, landing on one designed to build trust with those most likely to pull the trigger.

Founded in Richmond, California, the Advance Peace model trains former gang members to mentor active offenders, building bridges through their shared experiences.

In 2009, Devone Boggan, then the director of Richmond's Office of Neighborhood Safety, was told by the police department that less than 30 men were responsible for 70% of the city's gun crime. Boggan responded by launching the Peacemaker Fellowship model the following year.

Deployed in cities like Sacramento and Stockton, the model is helping diffuse gang tensions before they end in gunfire.

After years of advocating for the program, Advance Peace Fresno launched in 2020 with the approval of state funding. With a budget of over $900,000, over three years, the California Violence Intervention and Prevention (CalVIP) grant will be matched by local and private philanthropic sources to provide the funding needed to carry out the program.

Participants who commit to an 18-month fellowship are paired with a mentor who helps them set personalized goals. Short-term goals may include attending parent classes, paying outstanding vehicle violations, or participating in counseling, trauma therapy, or substance abuse treatment. Long-term goals may focus on rebuilding family relationships or completing school.

"It may take me six months getting him to engage, but I show up every day for six months. So, he knows I'm not going anywhere, and then he can open up and tell me what his hopes and dreams are," said Foster.

Field coordinator Rod Wade says mentors are available 24/7 and are in daily contact with participants.

"You build trust by being reliable and consistent," said Wade. "A lot of these guys are so used to not being in structured family settings, and they're used to being let down."

When a shooting does occur, Wade and his team go into neighborhoods and work to prevent further violence and retaliation.

"Whatever society calls this person, 'a monster,' I see a young man that made a bad decision, and I want to help him. You can have other alternatives than picking up a gun to settle disputes," said Foster.

Hill turned to gang life after losing his cousin and eventually put his trust in the program.

"They actually gave me studio time, beats, confidence," said Hill. "I go through stuff every day, still. So, I still do need an extra push, extra confidence, but I'm not as deep in the hole now."

After six months, participants are eligible for monthly stipends of up to $1,000. This component has faced pushback in cities, with critics skeptical of a plan that pays criminals.

"He has to earn it. So, it's not a stipend for us. It's an earned income credit for accomplishing goals you set for yourself," Foster.

No participants in Fresno have received a stipend yet, and Foster says younger participants would likely receive a much smaller amount.

"I think this program is essential to change," said Foster. "It won't happen overnight because it didn't get bad overnight."

For Hill, having something to believe in is helping fill a void. He's working on completing school and is pursuing music.

"Make me feel like I got somebody to call on. As I said, my music just makes me feel whole," said Hill.

"As he completes these milestones, he starts feeling better about himself because he's achieving goals. And then we set higher ones," said Foster. "We give them permission to dream."