Cities United is a collective of mayors from across the nation who have joined a movement to stop the unprecedented and devastating loss of human life happening in cities throughout America. Launched in 2011, under the leadership of Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter and New Orleans’ Mayor Mitch Landrieu, Cities United mayors are committed to ending violence and the squandering of human life. Moreover, they are committed to ensuring that hope is restored to their communities, and that citizens can expect justice, employment, education, and increased opportunity.
Designed to bring about awareness, action, advocacy, and accountability, Cities United helps mayors assess their current situations and provides technical assistance in the areas of planning and implementation. The collective accomplishes this by sharing best practices, instituting innovative approaches, and understanding how and where to reconfigure resources. Cities United mayors intend to reduce homicides by 50%, by the year 2025, in each of their cities. The mayors hold each other accountable for achieving results and are also calling on Federal support while asking all citizens to get involved as well.
When Cities United launched in 2011, every 24 hours in America, 14 young people were being gunned down on the streets of our cities. Between 1980 and 2011, over 611,000 Americans were killed across the U.S. That’s more than the total number of Americans lost in WWI, WWII, Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf war, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, combined.
Through the Cities United movement, mayors can help stem the tide of violence, save the lives of children, and improve the health and prosperity of their communities.
Mayors are on the ground in communities across America, experiencing firsthand the repercussions of violence. They are the ones speaking with and comforting the families of victims. Not only do they have a personal interest in restoring peace, but they are uniquely positioned to bring an end to the violence and help save the lives of children. Mayors control the allocation of city resources and can mandate that certain branches of city government work together. They direct the power of the police. They have the ability to create social programs. They can improve education, shape educational policy, and funnel resources into afterschool programs. They can work with employers to create more opportunities and remove employment barriers. They can also advocate for a more balanced justice system.
The number is steadily growing. Currently, 56 mayors and cities have signed on to be part of Cities United. See map of Cities United partner cities here.
As one example, when Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter was running for mayor in 2007, he observed that in the previous 3-4 years, the murder rate kept climbing. So, on the day of his inauguration as Mayor of Philadelphia, he boldly announced his intention to cut homicides by 30-50 percent (30-50%) in three to five (3-5) years. The first day in office, he had a new police commissioner; he created a comprehensive plan that fully coordinated all the law enforcement partners and that included the Department of Human Services, the Department of Recreation, and the Department of Commerce. His plan focused on improving employment. It addressed literacy and the quality of public education. It included getting the District Attorney, courts, and probation and parole offers to be active stakeholders in his vision. Five years later, Philadelphia’s murder rate had dropped 36% as compared to Mayor Nutter’s first days in office.
Another success story takes place in New Orleans, where the city has mounted a comprehensive, multi-agency, multi-pronged program called, “NOLA for Life.” Through this program, the city is aggressively targeting active gang members, but also giving those who want to turn their lives around the opportunity to do so. One former gang member is now managing a city-sponsored midnight basketball program. He was inspired to turn his life around after being shot three times in the back with an AK-47 machine gun by someone he knew. During the seven months he spent in wound care, not knowing if he would walk again, he had plenty of time to contemplate his life. Later, he attended a city event held by the Mayor’s office, and now he is one of the reasons why street violence has gone down in New Orleans.
A key success paradigm for Cities United is when young people who were once part of the problem sincerely turn their lives around; dedicating themselves to becoming part of the solution. This provides young people still involved in the culture of violence with someone they can relate to who has walked in their shoes and is unafraid to speak to them and convincingly convey that street life is a dead end.
This is a complex question without a simple answer. First, as a society, we must admit that America perpetuates and glamorizes a culture of violence. The examples are ubiquitous: just turn on the television during prime time, go to the movies, or play one of the video games sold to millions of children in America. Violence sells and is big business. Moreover, violence has been systematically tied to sex and power by marketers so that it is now perceived to be “cool” if you’re rough and tough. Combine this with a pervasive lack of opportunity for many young people and the ease with which guns can be purchased on the street, and you have a formula for human disaster.
A confluence of contributing factors is also to blame: the demolition of public housing and the redistribution of primarily African Americans to neighborhoods other than the ones they grew up in has created turf wars for an underground economy by which too many are forced to survive. Other factors include the infiltration of crack cocaine into communities; a woefully imbalanced criminal justice system; lack of adequate public transportation; degradation of public school systems; the closing of community hospitals and community mental health centers; lack of access to fresh food; and the lack of safe places for children to play recreationally. This combined defunding and disenfranchising of the African American community over decades has created and sustains the conditions in which crime and violence thrive.
Cities United believes that all life is precious and worth saving. The victims of this violence are our own flesh and blood–real people, with faces, names, families, hopes, and dreams.
When we lose a child, the lost potential is limitless. Have we lost the next president? The next scientist who might have cured cancer? The next great fireman? Inventor? Business person? Or schoolteacher?
Nonetheless, every 15 days in America, we lose 435 young people to violence. That’s equivalent to the entire U.S. House of Representatives. With every death, we lose a little bit of our hope and our humanity. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly…the worst thing a society can do is to create a whole class of people who have nothing left to lose.” We have done that in America. We have created several classes of people who have nothing left to lose. And if we’re truly honest about it, we’re all diminished in the wake.
It is estimated that as many as 10 million children per year witness violence or are victims of violence in their homes. This exposure to violence has devastating impacts on a child’s development, affecting emotional growth, cognitive development, physical health, and school performance. This exposure to violence has been significantly linked with increased depression, anxiety, anger, post-traumatic stress disorders, attention deficit disorders, alcohol and drug abuse, decreased academic achievement, and delinquency and criminal behavior. There is a considerable toll on the emotional health of children who witness the violence of males around them, either as a perpetrator or victim. This has long-term consequences for public health and all of society.
Surprisingly, the average person can do a lot. In fact, the biggest potential for stemming the tide of this epidemic lies with the average person. Most people think “It’s too big for me,” and “These kids are bent on killing each other so it’s not my responsibility.” Or they’re frightened, exhausted, or numbed by it all.
As fellow human beings, however, we cannot afford to stand idly by as an entire segment of our society perishes. Everyone must do their part to restore peace in communities being terrorized by violence. This movement can begin with something as simple as smiling at a young African American male or as meaningful as mentoring a child or teaching someone to read. We can all redefine what it means to be a witness to a human tragedy: the unparalleled loss of life in America to street violence. The bottom line is that these kids are worth saving, and we all have a piece of humanity hanging in the balance if we refuse to do the certain something we can do.
To get involved, start by calling your mayor’s office and asking about what they are doing in collaboration with Cities United. Take time to listen to what young people in your city have to say. Speak with your neighbors. Talk to co-workers. Meet with members of your faith. The best efforts are local, grass roots, intergenerational, and homegrown.
Many volunteers are working overtime! In addition, Cities United is funded by contributions from Casey Family Programs, Open Society Foundations, and others.
Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter; New Orleans’ Mayor Mitch Landrieu;
Dr. William Bell, President and CEO of Casey Family Programs; Shawn Dove, CEO for the Campaign for Black Male Achievement; and Clarence Anthony, Executive Director of the National League of Cities. Cities United is also supported by a number of stakeholder groups, including: the US Conference of Mayors; the Association of Black Foundation Executives; Grantmakers for Children, Youth and Families; the Institute for Black Male Achievement, PolicyLink, and many youth leaders.