Sometimes the recipe for reaching at-risk youth starts with good food, positive role models and a certain amount of credibility on the streets.
That was the concept behind the Hug Your Hood picnic Saturday in Harris Park in Kansas City, where community activists grilled hot dogs, hamburgers and chicken wings with an open invitation to at-risk young people in the neighborhood of 40th Street and Wayne Avenue.
The invitation came with no strings attached, said organizer Andre Thurman, director of the activist group 100 Men of Blue Hills who early in life had trouble with the law. Thurman, 42, said his group hoped to talk with young people about peaceful conflict resolution and how to solve problems without winding up in handcuffs or seeing someone get hurt.
The intended audience on Saturday included members of FO, a local street organization — those attending Saturday preferred not to use the term “gang.”
“They have the same concerns as everyone else,” Thurman said. “They don’t like living in fear. The young people want peace too. But the thing is how to get there after so much blood has been shed.”
Saturday’s event was the third such picnic hosted by 100 Men. Two more are planned later this year. The group counts about 100 members so far. Part of the solution, Thurman says, is leadership that isn’t tied to law enforcement or government, but leaders who are known to have lived the gang life themselves, who can gain the trust of the youth who need outreach the most.
In making his case to young people, Thurman can point to his past with the Rollin’ 20s Crips. In 1993, he participated in historic gang peace talks in Kansas City at the National Urban Peace and Justice Summit. Now a father of 12, Thurman has worked with the local anti-violence group Aim4Peace and helped form the 100 Men group.
“We know they’ll come out to this,” Thurman said. “Most of the young people, if they don’t know me personally, or our members, they know our reputation. They know we’re not involved with locking them up.”
Along with offering help with conflict resolution, the group hopes to show a better path toward success. At Saturday’s picnic a local auto club lined the street with Corvettes. Many of the drivers were owners of small businesses who could offer, if not a job immediately, some advice about making a legitimate living.
Early in the afternoon, picnic tables began to fill up, mostly with local men who had never attended a Hug Your Hood picnic before but came at the suggestion of friends.
One early arrival, Rubin Townsend, said he was open to the activists’ message.
“We want the crime to quit happening. We want the violence out of our neighborhood and the drugs out of our neighborhood,” he said.
Asked if he thought 100 Men had an answer, he said, “I hope so.”