Panel examines gang issues in community

The Duke Human Rights Coalition brought together students and representatives of the community that work with at-risk children Wednesday night for "Durham's Gangs"-a panel discussion in the Social Sciences Building.

The discussion began with a 10-minute clip from the Sept. 22 Court TV documentary, "Al Roker Investigates: Menace on Main Street," which highlighted Durham's gang problem.

"Dig deeper! Hello!" Amy Eliott exclaimed, eyes glued to the video of Roker and a Durham police officer driving the streets of the city. The simple statement was the unofficial mantra of the discussion.

Eliott is the program manager at A New Day, a Durham County educational institution for children who are failing in mainstream schools or who have criminal records. She sat on the panel with Irene Dwinnell, a juvenile court counselor for the State of North Carolina, and Kenny Dalsheimer, Graduate School '85, a documentary filmmaker and activist who has worked with students at A New Day.

City officials' reactions to the segment prompted the coalition to examine the humanitarian issues involved with the city's gang problem.

Panelists used their allotted time to highlight one or two issues that they thought were most important. "The principal reason young people join gangs is to belong," Dwinnell said, going against popular suggestions that poverty and lack of education are the biggest causes.

She also disagreed with several assertions in the Roker segment, especially comments by gang scholar David Kennedy, a former Harvard law professor, suggesting that "small town gangs"-such as those found in Durham-are only local operations.

"We are very nationally connected. Please do not let that Harvard man who's never been here confuse you," Dwinnell said.

Eliott decried the emphasis Roker and others place on fighting symptoms like gang violence rather than the underlying social factors that lead to gang formation.

"This is what Al Roker is not talking about, this is what the gang people are not talking about, what the Harvard guy is not talking about-it's the sense of helplessness," she said, adding that the gang label becomes a way for a major social problem to go ignored.

Although the media tend to view gangs as a law enforcement issue, the problem needs to be approached as a social, economic and racial problem, Eliott said.

During his section of the discussion, Dalsheimer asked the audience to list some of the human rights issues involved in the debate, eliciting responses about the rights of survival, food, clothing, shelter, security and freedom of expression.

During a question and answer session following the panelists' statements, students asked about media portrayals and how to get Duke students out of what one audience member called a "cycle of privilege" and become more involved in their community.

"While you're at Duke, whether you like it or not, you're a local Durhamite," Dwinnell said.

In answering a student's concern about being rejected or appearing patronizing, the three panelists told the crowd of about 20 that racism is a serious obstacle in solving gang problems.

All three panelists, however, said change is possible, but it will be slow. Dalsheimer said attitudes are changing, and Eliott mentioned that more and more young people are becoming involved in grassroots community organizations to repair broken neighborhoods.

"If every child in this community could feel like they belonged to some group, it would go a long way toward solving the problem," Dwinnell said.


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