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West End revisited: Looking back at some of the changes

By Shavonne Walker

shavonne.walker@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — Violence is like a disease and like a disease it can be spread from one person to another. But the immediate question becomes how do you treat this disease? In other words, what medicines do you prescribe?

Four years ago, the West End community, which is made up of about 2,000 residents, gathered in a series of meetings to ask the questions that no one up until that point had ever publicly voiced. The burning questions were how can a community survive when the violence had reached epidemic proportions and how do you fix it?

Carolyn Rice, a longtime resident of the West End community, was very vocal about the violence that had literally hit her home. Rice’s West Horah Street home was hit by bullets in April 2014. One of the bullets lodged itself into a television in the small bedroom her granddaughters shared, missing them by a few feet. Three men were shot and injured during that incident.

Rice was raising her then 16-year-old and 9-year-old granddaughters, now in college and middle school, who had grown accustomed to hearing regular gunfire in their neighborhood.

The West End is a little larger than one-half square mile and as defined by the city, is bound by streets that include South Caldwell, West Innes, Hedrick, Burton, Grace and West Thomas. Old Duncan School on Monroe Street stands in the center of the mostly African-American neighborhood, which includes Livingstone College, Old Plank Road and parts of Brenner Avenue.

In 2014, residents said they feared going outdoors to simply sit on their own front porches. Neighborhood advocates were frustrated with neglect by the city and pleaded with city officials to take action.

Citizens said they felt neglected by city services from police protection to tree limb pick-up. Invariably, residents said the trust between the police and the community just wasn’t there.

Residents said they needed officers who wanted to spend time in the West End community and were not afraid to patrol in the West End. The community said the city should do something about the many vacant homes in the West End. The neighborhood was scattered with deteriorating homes due to absentee landlords.

Then Salisbury Police Chief Rory Collins restructured the department, implemented a number of initiatives which included the addition of a community relations officer, added another Police Interdiction Team (PIT), opened a neighborhood substation and changed patrol structures.

Since 2014, there have been other series of meetings — all aimed at putting an end to violence, providing activities for youth and efforts to mend the distrust between law enforcement and not only the black community, but the city as a whole.

Organizations like Women for Community Justice, Great Women and Men United, and Rowan Salisbury Women Community Action Committee have been formed and have worked to hold city leaders and the community accountable for providing solutions to the gun, gang and violence problems.

But, four years after attention was brought to the violence in the West End community, it appears the residents there, city officials and police are at impasse. Although ideas have been brought to the table, neither parties seem to be able to work together to agree on lasting solutions. One thing is for sure — there are citizens out there still fighting.

Still fighting

Carolyn Rice isn’t one to give up easily. After speaking with media four years ago and in the years since bullets flew through her home, Rice continues to walk her neighborhood, participate in community groups like West End Pride, and meet with city officials about the condition of her community. Although her fight for the West End hasn’t wavered, she has slowed down in recent months.

Rice is currently undergoing chemotherapy treatments for cancer. She became sick and doctors found cancer in her lymph nodes. Most recently she’s been homebound, working to get her strength and immune system stable so that she can eventually walk and pray in the neighborhood she loves so much.

She is determined that like crime in the West End, this disease will not overtake her and she will be triumphant.

Over the years, Rice has had two home break-ins, threats against her life for talking to the media and others thought she was talking to police. Rice doesn’t regret talking to the media about the issues that impacted her community, but said she didn’t talk to police.

Crime hit closer to home earlier this year. In January, her daughter’s home was surrounded and Salisbury Police Special Response Team members were pointing rifles at her grandsons. An argument escalated there and according to Rice someone within the home called 911 to say they were being held hostage. The situation ended peacefully with her grandson being taken into police custody.

She’s thankful that instead of bloodshed, her grandson, who had been on drugs and alcohol, received the help he needed. Rice said it also shows no one is immune to such interactions with police.

“I’ve seen a significant change,” Rice said.

She believes had the situation occurred four years ago, her grandson would’ve been dead. The same day a Charlotte man was killed in an officer-involved shooting. She said the death could’ve easily been in her own family.

In the four years since the West End community meetings, Rice said she’s seen police on regular patrols in her neighborhood.

“We have to keep walking and praying. We have to trust and believe God will do it,” she said.

Rice said she’s pleased that the police department is receiving training to help them relate with citizens, which helps build a better community relationship.

Since taking over almost 10 months ago, Salisbury Police Chief Jerry Stokes has focused on community-oriented policing and has worked to hire more officers. Stokes has said more programs are on the horizon, but a shortage in staff prevents him from implementing many of them.

She’s happy the city has focused on shootings, but feels attention needs to be centered on more than just shooting, but also help with improvements on homes.

“When we see improvement, don’t we do better and want better?” she asked.

“I saw other (community) members walking the streets. Prayer can change whatever we see is the problem on the west side,” Rice said.

Since being diagnosed with cancer, Rice has learned to not take things for granted and to be grateful for “all these little things.”

While Rice is quick to acknowledge that God has been good, she said “there is more for us to do.”

She hopes to one day see programs for single parents or an affordable program like the Boys and Girls Club, and more programs that will provide positive male mentors for young boys.

Enough talking, take action

In 2014, Salisbury native Kenny Hardin, spearheaded those West End meetings along with his group, The Chamber. Hardin and other community advocates took city leaders to task about the neglect seen in the West End. The city has since responded by adding more lighting in the West End, which was a concern for West Horah Street residents like Rice.

Residents wanted officers to spend time in the West End, which resulted in beefed up patrols throughout the West End.

A police substation that was launched after the West End meetings was eventually closed for lack of use. In the year that it was open, only three people stopped inside.

In August 2014, the city, in collaboration with the Salvation Army of Rowan County, implemented an array of after-school programs to be held at Miller Recreation Center. But, before the programs began, the parties withdrew them. No real explanation was given, but community leaders have since said the program ideas were great but came without any consultation or input from the people who would’ve been impacted.

These days, Hardin is a city councilman and just as vocal about the achievements and missteps along the way from both the city and Salisbury citizens.

In March, a local community advocate held a Stop the Violence Summit where 210 people attended the first of three meetings. The subsequent meetings have yielded some ideas and possible programs to implement.

In 2016, the city held a number of Community Conversations with the hopes of bringing about some ideas, but more of a way for citizens to ask questions. Some citizens were frustrated when they felt their questions weren’t actually answered. The city has its final of four Community Action Planning Sessions later this month.

The point of these meetings, city officials have said is to come up with concrete action plans to improve public safety, create opportunities for children and improve community relations.

Hardin argues the meetings, regardless if facilitated by the city or a particular entity or group, are pointless if not followed by action.

“Everybody dropped the ball,” Hardin declared.

He refuses to attend community meetings because he doesn’t find them effective. Hardin won’t attend, he said, until someone comes up with a strategic plan.

“It’s a distraction and a strategy to pacify people, whether it’s city based dialogue or not,” Hardin said.

Hardin said everyone is really just moving around chess pieces.

“We know what the problems are,” he said.

He said some people will think he’s being overly critical, but he still gets phone calls from families who dive on the floor because of drive-by shootings.

Hardin said the city doesn’t take it seriously because it doesn’t impact their community.

“There’s too much talking and not enough action,” Hardin said.

He felt even 10 years ago with the aftermath of the death of 13-year-old Treasure Feamster, who was killed in gang crossfire while attending a teen party, was for political gain.

In 2016, A’yanna Allen, 7, was killed while she slept in her grandmother’s bedroom. Someone peppered their Harrel Street home with bullets just a few hours after a shooting at Firewater Restaurant and Lounge, which police have said are connected.

“Where are we now,” Hardin said of Allen’s death.

He said churches are also missing from the equation. He called on the churches to get involved.

He said it’s beautiful when police get out with children and play basketball, but they need to pour into the children. He suggested teaching them about how to start a business or about financial literacy.

“Tell me about an initiative that we have done to improve the relationship with the black community,” he said.

Hardin said he himself has given strategies like providing youth with trade certifications and a Boys and Girls Club, but has been met with opposition.

Hardin does applaud programs like Tsunami Literacy Program, Man Up Monday and Gemstones Academy/COMPASS, which provide mentoring, tutoring and enrichment activities for youth.

“People can implement their own strategies,” he said.

Alex Clark, a Salisbury native, spoke during one of those West End meetings about his criminal past. The former drug dealer spent 18 years in federal prison following a 1996 conviction of drug conspiracy. He shared his story and hoped to inspire someone to not take the same path he did.

Another Salisbury native, Alisha Byrd, was also in the audience. The two have since partnered to create a program to empower youth.

Reaching the Youth

Byrd created Gemstones Academy, a program for students in grades 5 through 12 that was designed with mentoring, leadership, education, self-esteem and etiquette as the focus.

Clark around the same time created COMPASS, which stands for Confident, Optimistic, Motivated, Persistent, Assertive, Studious and Successful, a program for young men.

Byrd and Clark merged the two programs and average about 30 children who meet twice a month.

In the two years since they began the initial Gemstones Academy/COMPASS programs, Byrd and Clark have added a tutoring program, created a food pantry to fill food gaps for students, organized an annual scholarship golf tournament, implemented chess lessons, established volunteer work at the shelter and are now providing a similar one-day a week program at North Rowan Middle School.

One of the reasons he teaches the students to play chess, Clark said, is to get them to not just think linearly but holistically.

Clark has also created Dinner & Dialogue, which gives young boys the chance to learn etiquette, dine and have conversations with positive male role models.

Byrd has also introduced a college version of Gemstones called STYLE — Sisters Touching Young Lives Everywhere — at Livingstone College.

The tutoring time has become so popular with some of the children like twins India and Invy Robinson, 9, who even when they don’t have homework or need tutoring, still attend.

“We like being here with you and Mr. Alex,” India declared to Byrd.

Gemstones Academy/COMPASS meet from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. the first and third Saturday of every month. Tutoring meets from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. every Tuesday and Thursday.

This upcoming school year, the two plan to start Mentoring Matters, which will be open to all fourth graders as a component of Gemstones and COMPASS. This summer they have planned a business boot camp.

Karen Brown’s 16-year-old son, Joshua Ruggs, a Salisbury High student joined COMPASS in the fall of 2015. Brown said she’s seen a change in her shy, studious son.

He didn’t have a problem with his attitude. She just wanted him to come out of his shell, Brown said.

He’s since become a leader within COMPASS and was named COMPASS Man of the Year. Her son gets straight As, has a 4.0 GPA and has made a “tremendous change,” Brown said.

Brown said the thing that she admires about Byrd and Clark are that they have maintained the program because “with children, they want to see consistency. They see them being consistent.”

Clark said the students see the importance of going to school and can apply the things they learn in the program into their lives.

“We give them another lens to look through,” Clark said.

He said they don’t dodge hard-to-talk-about topics like politics or gangs or violence they may see in their communities. The group discusses it all.

Jared Wallace, 17, a student at North Rowan High, said being apart of COMPASS has helped him when responding to situations. Clark and Byrd talk to the students about cause and effect and consequences. He said their words come back to him and he thinks before he acts.

“I’ve learned how to handle situations better,” Wallace said.

Clark said he even listens to the same music the kids in the program do so that he can hear what’s feeding into them and they have conversations about the suggestive and demeaning lyrics.

Byrd said the children need to know they can attend and feel supported and hear open and honest dialogue.

“They need that support and the feeling like they belong and are connected to something,” she said.

Clark said he’s disappointed there weren’t more programs that were born out of those series of West End meetings than there are in the community.

Two programs that were not a direct result of the West End meetings but were created in the months following are Tsunami Development Literacy Program, which operates three days a week at the West End Plaza; and Man Up Monday, a mentoring program started by local pastor Timothy Bates.

Byrd said that although mentoring program, Man Up Monday, did not derive from the Miller Recreation Center meetings, she does commend Pastor Timothy Bates, Pastor Pat Jones, Nick Means, Tristan Rankin, “for the time and work invested in our young men in the Rowan Salisbury School System. I applaud them for giving back to our community in such a powerful way. They are prime examples of what ‘it takes a village’ looks like.”

“It’s been successful,” Byrd said of their programs and “every year it’s bigger and better.”

The goal that Clark and Byrd have prescribed to is that their various programs add value to the children’s lives.

For more information about Gemstones Academy/COMPASS contact Alisha Byrd at 7980-330-1173 or Alex Clark at 980-643-8487 or visit their website at www.gemstonesacademy.com for other details.

Contact reporter Shavonne Walker at 704-797-4253.

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