Teach one

After an attack on a teen, local parents mentor young men who want to avoid incarceration and violence

Randy Atkinson (standing) led men in discussion at an Oak Park violence-intervention summit.

Randy Atkinson (standing) led men in discussion at an Oak Park violence-intervention summit.

SN&R Photo By Larry Dalton

Sacramento County youth population:
50% white
21% Hispanic
13% black

Sacramento County’s CA Youth Authority commitments:
31% white
16% Hispanic
40% black

--Year 2000 data from the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice

For more information visit www.connectingthedotsonline.org.

Kimberly Biggs got a phone call during last year’s “summer of hell.” The caller told Biggs that André, her 17-year-old son, had been shot. She could find him at a park near an Albertsons store on Truxel Road.

Biggs rushed to find André on the ground. He was not shot. He was, however, having a seizure after taking a beating from a foe wearing brass knuckles. Her son was disoriented, did not recognize Biggs and tried to fight the emergency medical technicians who responded.

“After that, I began approaching men in the community, asking them to come and talk to my boys,” said Biggs, referring to André and his friends in Del Paso Heights.

“Everyone said they would, but when it came down to it no one would step to the plate,” she said. “So, I decided to do it myself.”

Biggs and Aretha Colston of the San Francisco Bay Area launched Connecting the Dots last September. The organization focuses on preventing and reducing youth aggression and incarceration, serving 40 youngsters between the ages of seven and 16 in Sacramento and the Bay Area. Biggs and Colston strive to create future adults with strong anger-management skills.

CTD began one of its weekly sessions on a recent Wednesday at 6 p.m. in a hall at the Robertson Community Center on Norwood Avenue. Youth started by sharing the positive points of their day.

Alicia, age 7, bought 23 raffle tickets. Anthony, age 7, spent time with his Aunt Tricia. Makayla, age 10, saw her favorite author, Patricia McKissack.

“I think this is an excellent way for them to build self-esteem and learn the importance of words in looking at the positive side of life,” said Etta Ivey, employed by the Mutual Assistance Network of Del Paso Heights. She regularly attends CTD sessions and steers her grandchildren and clients’ kids to Biggs.

To get local youth off the streets and keep them out of the courts, Biggs helps families access counselors, food banks and tutors. She even cooks for those who attend the Wednesday sessions. While the Dots dined on Briggs’ taco salad, she wrote on a chalkboard such words as leadership, respect and “everyday heroes”—a term for youth celebrating their own accomplishments.

For instance, D.J., a high school sophomore, told of giving up his seat to an elder during a field trip to see a play on black history. He told SN&R that he initially thought CTD was “stupid,” but is now grateful to Biggs for urging him to be a role model. “She wants us to find our goals in life and go far,” he said. Now, D.J. wants to attend college and to be a restaurant owner, social worker or school teacher.

Biggs even enlisted D.J. and his teen peers as mentors for younger kids during a violence-reduction intervention that she and Colston planned.

On Bigg’s invitation, about 150 people of all backgrounds—Black Muslims, women bikers, past felons and artists—descended on the Oak Park Community Center on a sun-drenched St. Patrick’s Day to discuss the forces and factors behind youth violence. Youth made up almost half the participants.

“The intervention met and exceeded my expectations,” Biggs said. “I wanted to touch just one person, to agree on the need to stop the youth violence,” Biggs said. “And we ended up reaching so many people from all walks of life that day.”

Attendees discussed coping strategies and law enforcement and the racial nature of incarceration, which affects so many blacks and Latinos. Blacks, for instance, make up 12 percent of the U.S. population but half of the nation’s 2.2 million prisoners, according to the Department of Justice.

Charles White of Sacramento is editor and publisher of Convict Confidential Quarterly, an e-zine. He facilitated a popular roundtable discussion with a total of 50 male adults and youth on aggression, education and incarceration issues.

Akronems, a Sacramento poet, was one of the participants. He was involved in a case of mistaken identity, he said. An assailant shot him in the head and back in a Valley Hi neighborhood 12 years ago, leaving the writer wheelchair-bound. “I learned to forgive the person who shot me and not waste negative energy on someone I don’t know,” Akronems said.

Quentin Sanders, age 20, is an after-school teacher in Sacramento. “Teachers aren’t telling us what we want to hear,” he told the other participants. “My high school education ignored black history.”

Before the event, White had commented on a local link to the state’s growing prison population.

One factor driving imprisonment in Sacramento County is public defenders convincing naïve, youthful defendants to skip jury trials and take prosecutors’ plea deals for shorter prison sentences, White said. He urged more public oversight of this courtroom practice.

According to Steve Lewis, the county’s chief assistant public defender, “Our office is among the highest in the state as far as the number of criminal jury trials per judge conducted annually. We will take cases to trial when we feel it is in the best interest of the client or where the client insists on a jury trial even if we feel that it is not in the client’s best interest.”

A lack of awareness concerning risk factors and prison sentences can lead to some youth’s misuse of their idle time, said Todd Jones Sr., head of the Each One Teach One Foundation in Sacramento and a keynote speaker at the intervention

He wants to end the lethal trend of idle young people using firearms. This has been the situation “as long as I’ve been alive” in the Meadowview, Oak Park, Del Paso Heights, Glen Elder and Valley Hi neighborhoods, Jones said.

“We have to rise above not getting along,” Dale McKinney, a Sacramento attorney, told the other men at the table. He remembered how peaceful Los Angeles was for black people after the Watts uprising of 1965.

There’s little peace in Sacramento these days. Fatalities (homicides and suicides) of Sacramento County teens from guns as a percentage of total deaths rose 400 percent from 2004 to 2005, stated a 2005 report by the county Child Death Review Team, which reviews all deaths of children birth to 18 years.

While Biggs continues to build CTD, which she co-funds with Colston and by donations, she’s hoping to receive 501(c)(3) nonprofit status.

Biggs also wants to integrate her program into the public-school curriculum. She plans to present a play by Tanya Windham, based on her book Both Sides of the Wall, to Grant School District schoolchildren this fall.

“I want CTD to unite with all other small agencies under a single umbrella to provide community services,” Biggs said. “Ultimately, I want the Dots to have their own community center.”