A key component to effectively address poverty is recognizing and reducing barriers to the work of neighborhood organizations that are the lifeblood of our nation’s civil society.

The Center for Neighborhood Enterprise (CNE), led by Bob Woodson, recognizes and supports a nationwide network of thousands of grassroots leaders, whose impassioned commitment to those they serve in their communities has engendered transformation in the lives of those in need. Among the programs coordinated by CNE is a nationwide Violence Free-Zone (VFZ) initiative, which focuses on eliminating gang activity and youth violence in schools throughout the country. The VFZs—of which there are over 30 nationwide—are a collaborative effort, involving local grassroots organizations, school staff, and police school-resource officers.

The VFZ site in Richmond, Virginia, for example, is coordinated by the Richmond Outreach Center. It serves two of what had once been the most crime-ridden schools in the city. In its first year of operation, police calls from the two schools fell by nearly 20 percent, arrests by 15 percent, and car thefts in the community by more than 60 percent. School officials likewise reported that the truancy rate in the schools decreased by nearly 15 percent.

The model of the VFZ dates back more 30 years to a youth safe-haven in Philadelphia called the House of Umoja. A couple living in the inner city, David and Falaka Fattah, established House of Umoja after they discovered that their son was involved in a gang. Rather than attempting to block their son’s relationship with his gang members, the Fattahs determined that they could work with them and invited all 15 of the youths to move into their home. The Fattahs became an extended family, offering not only food and shelter but also the direction, support, and opportunities for positive involvement within the community.

While the House of Umoja was a residential, long-term, 24/7 project, the principles and guidelines that it embraced are the foundation of the VFZ programs that are reaching hundreds of youths today.

A powerful element of VFZs is the outreach by peers and young adults who have overcome the same problems. These youth advisors are screened and trained by members of a local neighborhood organization, and VFZ staff are hired to serve as hall monitors, mediators, and character coaches for high-risk students.

Because these advisors come from backgrounds that are similar to those of the youths they serve, they have their respect and trust. They are often forewarned by students of impending violence and are able to defuse a conflict before it escalates. According to police reports at numerous VFZ sites, progress within the schools has had a ripple effect in the surrounding communities, where rates of crime and arrests have also decreased.

The VFZ initiative is just one example of how the organizations of civil society are effectively addressing the needs of individuals, families, and communities throughout the nation.