Despite a checkered past, the future looks brighter for Cleveland Peacemakers Alliance (CPA). Thanks to their affiliation with the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Cleveland, support from their funders, and a newly appointed executive director, CPA appears poised to increase its impact.
In 2016, CPA founder and former Cleveland Browns wide receiver Reggie Rucker was charged with stealing more than $150,000 from CPA and Amer-I-Can to pay his gambling debts and support his lifestyle. Although the scandal marred the organization’s reputation, it continued under new leadership.
Recently appointed executive director and social worker Myesha Crowe started with CPA a year ago as a senior case manager, then moved up to transition manager. After former director Sharyna Cloud resigned in February, Crowe was named interim executive director. “It was a fast move, but nothing I wasn’t prepared for,” she says.
Crowe, who has a strong passion for the organization’s mission of working to reduce youth and gang violence in the city, shares a broad vision for its future. “I want CPA to grow into the 211 of Cuyahoga County, so that whenever there is a young person or young adult who has been exposed to a violent incident, or who has been the perpetrator in gun or gang violence, someone will say, ‘you know what… Cleveland Peacemakers Alliance can do this,’” she says.
Kevin Griffin, CPA’s board chair, says the board shares this vision. It’s what hooked him on working with the organization. “One incident becomes two, three, four,” he says. “Maybe you couldn’t stop the first but if you can stop the second, third or fourth, you’ve done a heck of a job at saving lives.”
Griffin came to the organization in 2016 after it fell onto hard times. That’s when the Boys and Girls Club absorbed it as an affiliate to keep it alive. When asked about CPA’s impact on the community, Griffin says the group’s outreach workers help keep the community safe.
“When there’s an incident of violence and there’s a moment in time where there may be some retaliation or consideration of retaliation, our intervention team are working with those individuals to make sure it doesn’t happen,” he says.
CPA helps solve crime by maintaining peace and keeping young people out of gangs. The group’s outreach workers, some of whom are are former gang members, use “mediation, gang interaction, violence prevention, conflict resolution, case management, family services and hospital-based intervention following violent incidents,” according to the website.
Among other activities, they help “monitor safety at Cleveland school buildings during student dismissal,” assist “court-involved young people with staying out of trouble” and “counsel gunshot victims and their families” at area hospitals, thus deterring potential violence.
The group receives funding from the city, Cleveland Foundation, United Way and others. One of the group’s most important partners is the Community Relations Board. “They help fund some of the work as well as help with sourcing the right types of data, such as identifying hot spots and areas of opportunity for outreach to have a more effective impact in certain communities,” Griffin says.
CPA has a $200,000 contract with the city to help implement the Jackson administration’s efforts to use neighborhood recreation centers as resource centers. The goal is to reduce violence and build bridges with young people by connecting youth with resources such as tutoring, health care, mental health services, family therapy and more, says Griffin.
“Once our outreach team establishes a relationship with a young person, they can take them there and say, ‘Here’s some resources provided by the city and others,’” he says. “So, working with the city and recreation centers is a top priority.”
Although CPA deploys staff across the city, focusing on violence hot spots, Griffin says one of the most important things they’ve done in recent years has been working in the hospitals and juvenile detention centers.
“The idea to be in the hospitals so University Hospitals or Metro can call upon us, and our guys are there” is critical, he says. “Yes, we have social workers, but when you are trained in understanding what’s going on in the communities and in the streets… For us to be there, we’re able to de-escalate, work with the families, answer questions and establish relationships when someone has been shot or died.”
According to Griffin, oftentimes, that’s where the thought of retaliation comes into play and where CPA’s work becomes critical. “That’s where we can intercept that action.”
Beyond violence interruption, CPA also serves as a bridge connecting families to resources. “We’re considering what are all the resources we need to bring to help that family get through that tragic moment,” he says.
The organization has pivoted quickly as violent crime has increased during Covid-19, says Crowe. “One of our efforts was to change our outreach working hours to ensure community coverage,” says Crowe. “Our leaders sat down with Councilman Joe Jones to address the incidents of violence in the Mt. Pleasant neighborhood, with a goal of developing a collaborative plan to address the community safety concerns and determining what CPA will offer programmatically at a street level.”
Crowe says her staff are effective because they’ve experienced it themselves. They are “dope people” who have had hard, traumatizing pasts. “Most of the people who do this work have experienced some form of trauma, including myself, whereas we’re able to share our lived experience with the hope we can change the trajectory of young people,” she says.
Value in partners
Crowe understands that her vision for the organization as a regional resource for violence interruption and family care is something they have to grow into. “Although we are a small organization, we are mighty and we’re ready to tackle it … but we can’t do it alone,” she says.
Knowing that, she takes a holistic approach to leadership. When a young person is murdered, she brings the team to the table, they talk about it and debrief. She also brings in a counselor, now via Zoom, to talk about it with them.
Self-care and supporting other staff are critical to the organization’s success, she says. “If we’re not our most healthy and our best selves, we can’t do this work. It’s an emotional job. And, if our emotions are too heightened to serve the emotions of those who are hurting, then we are not effective. I’m always making sure we check our emotions and create a space to talk about it.”
Crowe has a strategic partner wish list. She wants to develop stronger relationships with The Guardian Angels, Peace in the Hood, Impact 25, and other groups that are working on saving lives. “I’m rooted in relationships. In order to be effective, you have to collaborate and not compete. I don’t care about the credit. The credit will show when gun violence or gang involvement decrease.”
“CPA is an organization that welcomes people who are into saving lives, to work alongside us. We are one piece of the puzzle and there are a thousand other pieces needed,” she says.
At a time of reckoning in Cleveland, when stress from Covid-19 is causing a surge in gun violence, Crowe says her goal is to build on CPA’s strong history and mission and honor those who dedicated “blood, sweat and tears” to help build the organization.
“How can we all come together, with CDC restrictions, to talk about how we save lives when gun violence is high, at midnight, with our masks on, boots on the ground. We can’t be okay with saying this is an issue all over the country. We’re not trying to be comfortable right now.”
Rhonda Crowder is a freelance journalist, entrepreneur, author and literacy advocate. She is also the associate publisher of Who’s Who in Black Cleveland.
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