In Mississippi, Credible Messengers Promote Community Safety and Youth Success

Posted February 28, 2022
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
Three men stand shoulder to shoulder, looking at the camera and smiling.

From left: Strong Arms of JXN's John Knight, Terun Moore and Benny Ivey

A pro­gram called Strong Arms of JXN is work­ing with young peo­ple to reduce com­mu­ni­ty vio­lence in Jack­son, Mississippi.

Launched in 2018, the ini­tia­tive relies on cred­i­ble mes­sen­gers — peo­ple with life expe­ri­ence and strong com­mu­ni­ty ties — to men­tor youth and steer them away from destruc­tive behav­iors and crime. It’s is one of sev­er­al Jack­son-based com­mu­ni­ty groups sup­port­ed by the People’s Advo­ca­cy Insti­tute, an Annie E. Casey Foun­da­tion grantee.

Read about the Strong Arms of JXN in the Jack­son Free Press

The city of Jack­son exem­pli­fies com­mu­ni­ty part­ner­ship and the ecosys­tem nec­es­sary to sup­port vio­lence reduc­tion strate­gies,” says Bur­gun­di Alli­son, a pro­gram asso­ciate with­in Casey’s Cen­ter for Civic Sites and Com­mu­ni­ty Change.

Inter­rupt­ing a Cycle of Violence

In Strong Arms of JXN, for­mer­ly incar­cer­at­ed adults use what they’ve learned to help youth avoid mak­ing the same mis­takes. The pro­gram itself has two main objec­tives: 1) keep young peo­ple from drop­ping out of school; and 2) keep young peo­ple away from neg­a­tive inter­ac­tions with law enforce­ment. Both sce­nar­ios are pre­cur­sors to lat­er crim­i­nal activ­i­ty, research indi­cates.

Strong Arms of JXN’s Co-direc­tor Ben­ny Ivey and adult men­tor John Knight share pasts scarred by drug and gang activ­i­ty. After exit­ing prison, Knight got his life back on track and grew deter­mined to dis­suade young peo­ple from fol­low­ing in his ear­li­er destruc­tive footsteps.

Keep­ing Young Peo­ple in Jack­son Schools

In addi­tion to his role with Strong Arms of JXN, Knight works as a peer coun­selor at Hen­ley-Young Juve­nile Jus­tice Cen­ter, a local youth deten­tion facil­i­ty, and as the tru­an­cy direc­tor for the local youth court. In both set­tings, he talks with young peo­ple to learn about the chal­lenges they’re fac­ing and to share his own sto­ry. He lever­ages school offi­cials — and con­nects fam­i­lies with need­ed resources — en route to help­ing youth redi­rect their lives with­out police involvement.

My job is to get all the infor­ma­tion from the par­ents and set up meet­ings to see why these kids are not going to school, what we can do to help them get into school and what we can do to make them more inter­est­ed in school,” Knight says. That’s a bat­tle, but it’s a good bat­tle to fight because, as you are in the process of try­ing to influ­ence them to go to school, you could teach them things in the same process.”

Part­ner­ing With Juve­nile Courts

Through Knight’s role as an on-site peer coun­selor, Strong Arms of JXN has start­ed work­ing with young peo­ple at Hen­ley-Young Juve­nile Jus­tice Cen­ter. Youth Court Judge Car­lyn M. Hicks, a vocal advo­cate of the pro­gram, has seen first­hand the group’s abil­i­ty to reach young people. 

I inves­ti­gat­ed this cred­i­ble-mes­sen­ger pro­gram myself,” says Hicks, who remem­bers feel­ing quite pleased,” with Strong Arms of JXN’s approach and impact.

Today, Hicks reg­u­lar­ly refers youth to the ini­tia­tive and notes that vio­lence at Hen­ley-Young has dra­mat­i­cal­ly decreased since the program’s arrival.

Mak­ing a Dif­fer­ence for Young Peo­ple in Jackson

Sev­en youth have grad­u­at­ed from the pro­gram since 2021, and anoth­er class is now mov­ing through the stan­dard three-month men­tor­ing peri­od. Most grad­u­ates have remained out of trou­ble in school or with the law, says Ivey.

Jack­son May­or Chok­we Lumum­ba, whose sis­ter helped intro­duce cred­i­ble-mes­sen­ger approach­es in the city in 2016, attend­ed the inau­gur­al class’s grad­u­a­tion cer­e­mo­ny. He liked what he saw.

Aa he sur­veyed the grad­u­ates, Lumum­ba remem­bers how he could see new hope in their eyes, see peo­ple look­ing at them in a dif­fer­ent way, hear them speak about how they want­ed to be a part of the solu­tion while also rec­og­niz­ing the chal­lenge of what they were up against.”

In the last year, Strong Arms of JXN has orga­nized a work-readi­ness pro­gram called the Dig­ni­ty Econ­o­my Fel­low­ship. Sev­en par­tic­i­pants between the ages of 18 to 25 com­plet­ed the pro­gram, with two mem­bers find­ing full-time employ­ment soon after. One is dri­ving an 18-wheel­er now,” says Ivey. 

Strong Arms of JXN Looks Ahead 

Strong Arms of JXN’s suc­cess has earned it access to the Sykes Park Com­mu­ni­ty Cen­ter. The new area will house train­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties while also giv­ing kids in Jack­son a safe space to hang out. Knight and Ivey plan to out­fit the loca­tion with video game con­soles, air hock­ey tables and even an on-site rap stu­dio — changes intend­ed to spark more social­iz­ing among young participants. 

The pro­gram is also work­ing to address com­mon obsta­cles that kept past par­tic­i­pants from suc­ceed­ing. For instance: Some youth lacked reli­able trans­porta­tion, which impact­ed their atten­dance. Strong Arms of JXN iden­ti­fied this chal­lenge and hired a dri­ver to give young peo­ple rides to and from the program.

We are inspired by the trans­for­ma­tive work that grass­roots orga­ni­za­tions like Strong Arms of JXN are doing with young peo­ple,” says Pamela Lawrence, the Casey Foundation’s direc­tor of Nation­al Com­mu­ni­ty Strate­gies. Casey rec­og­nizes that, by work­ing with local orga­ni­za­tions to tack­le the root caus­es of crime and vio­lence, we can work toward com­mu­ni­ties that are safer for everyone.”

Learn About Casey’s Com­mit­ment to Improv­ing Com­mu­ni­ty Safety

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