The Boston TenPoint Coalition is a financially moribund organization on the verge of losing the services of its executive director, the Rev. Jeffrey Brown, when he steps down this spring. Still, the organization has no match when it comes to filling a room with the city’s best crime fighters. No one who is serious about reducing youth violence in Boston’s minority neighborhoods should write off this group of Christian clergy and lay leaders, just yet.
TenPoint’s monthly meeting in March is the high point of its calendar. That’s when the Boston Police gang unit, MBTA police, gang prosecutors, black ministers, street workers, social workers, school police, former gang members, and parents who lost children to street violence compare notes and try to identify trends that might lead to bloodshed in the spring and summer. Brown, who helped to found TenPoint in 1992, described the meeting as a chance to exchange “unvarnished information’’ and “check ideas with the street.’’
Here’s the spring and summer preview: more gang violence driven purely by geography, not the drug trade; younger combatants in the 13-to-15-year-old age group; girls fueling gang feuds and orchestrating fights on Facebook; kidnapping for ransom abetted by so-called “set-up chicks’’ who lure drug dealers into danger; and revenge shootings on the anniversaries of homicides. Police and clergy also warned of the emergence of the “New Movement’’ gang in Dorchester led by a 14-year-old boy who “looks 12.’’ The boy is so clever and vicious, however, that older gang members in the city routinely do obeisance to him.
Boston TenPoint built its bona fides on such gatherings, street ministries, and spiritual house calls to gang members and their families. The group’s reputation went through the roof in the late 1990s when its partnerships with police were credited for a dramatic decline in youth homicides. But personality clashes among the group’s founders led to a breakdown in the leadership structure and set the tone for future discord.
“How can you settle gang disputes when you can’t settle disputes among yourselves?’’ asked Brown.
Still, the organization boasted 17 employees in 2006, more than half of whom worked directly with gang members, according to Brown. Then the recession and doubts about the crime-fighting model blunted TenPoint, which now drags along with just a handful of employees and a paltry operating budget.
TenPoint can’t last in its current incarnation. Brown, 50, is leaving to work as a national consultant on youth violence prevention. The Rev. Ray Hammond, who has chaired the board since 1999, said there are no plans to hire a new director. Instead, he and his board will be working with a consultant to create a new nonprofit structure that protects the mission.
Part of that restructuring should be a new board with strict term limits. Hammond is widely admired within the city’s political and philanthropic circles. But it’s not healthy for an organization to remain under the control of one board chairman for so long. New leaders and ideas don’t thrive in such environments. Hammond, who co-founded TenPoint, should take a side role for the good of the organization.
Brown, Hammond, the Rev. Eugene Rivers, and other TenPoint ministers made huge personal sacrifices over the years. Long nights walking the city’s most dangerous streets took a toll on the ministers’ health and family lives. But TenPoint needs younger leadership now, with or without clerical collars. A familiarity with social media would help to connect with today’s young people. But there is still no substitute for the face-to-face home visits pioneered by TenPoint.
“There is nothing more effective than an aware parent,’’ said Brown.
It’s easy to assume that the parents of gang members are absent or don’t care. But those who actually make personal contact with families, including the Boston school police, said parents are often genuinely shocked to learn of their child’s gang involvement.
Discussions are underway about gathering TenPoint under the umbrella of The Black Ministerial Alliance of Greater Boston, a group of 80 faith-based and community groups. The Alliance lacks TenPoint’s street credibility. But it is a professionally led nonprofit organization that pays attention to strategic planning, grantsmanship, capacity building, and good internal practices such as limiting the terms of board members. TenPoint could find a home there and still maintain its mission. Other crime-fighting groups have, including StreetSafe Boston and Mothers for Justice and Equality.
Meanwhile, summer approaches. And the city’s decentralized street gangs don’t seem to be suffering from a lack of new leaders.
Lawrence Harmon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.