Birmingham Sees Conflict Resolution as Key to Breaking Cycle of Violence

Janae Pierre, WBHM

Brandon Johnson, Director of Birmingham's Office of P.E.A.C.E. and Policy.

Jefferson County Circuit Judge Michael Streety says many of the criminal cases he hears involve young black men. Shootings often stem from he-said-she-said-type arguments. And if there’s one takeaway, he says, it’s that young people don’t know how to resolve their differences peacefully. But it’s a skill they need, he says. 

“I’ve seen how some violent acts occur and they sometimes occur from basic disagreements between people that if they understood how to address differences of opinions that they could deal with those issues differently as opposed to violence, so it is necessary” Streety says.

Officials in Birmingham agree. A new initiative aims to give young people the skills to work things out. The city is putting more than $100,000 toward conflict resolution programs.

Brandon Johnson, director of Birmingham’s Office of P.E.A.C.E. and Policy, says many young people have little support, and they’re left to grapple with strong emotions. Quite often it ends with someone being shot, killed or sent behind bars. Johnson says it’s important to connect with young people before it’s too late. 

“It’s taking them in a space they’re already engaged and challenging them to think differently, see differently and ultimately be peaceable and level headed on how you resolve different challenges and conflicts” he says. 

Johnson says young people ages 5 to 18 will learn different conflict resolution skills through sports, yoga, and mentorship programs. More than a dozen groups are part of the city’s initiative, including some that focus on mental health and suicide prevention.

One group the city isn’t working with is run by 14-year-old Deon Arnold. Deon was watching the news with his mom a year ago when it hit him: he wanted to do something to curb the violence epidemic. 

“I began to see a lot of homicides and kids dying on the streets and I began to get very annoyed by it because it was a bad thing” Deon says. “And it was really my dream to make a group.”  

Deon’s mom died before his dream became a reality but he says she was his inspiration. He launched his group, Solutions, with the help of his grandmother, friends and members of Sixth Avenue Baptist Church.

Deon Arnold and his grandmother at Sixth Avenue Baptist Church.
Janae Pierre, WBHM

Deon Arnold and his grandmother at Sixth Avenue Baptist Church.

Deon says the goal of Solutions is to help teens in Birmingham get along and set aside their differences. He says the focus is on prevention. Deon’s group tackled this recently in four sessions.  

“We had one on communication, we had one on anger management, we had one on conflict resolution and we had one on decision making” he says. “And we broke it down. We did games, we did activities.” 

Deon says they’ve helped more than 25 teens in the Loveman Village, Cooper Green and Smithville communities. 

Judge Streety says conflict resolution skills are just one way to address violence. But he says for Birmingham’s youth, the skills will be useful. 

“The one thing I always say is this: if you can make a difference in one life and make one person make a different decision by knowing what conflict resolution is … it’s well worth it” Streety says.

Officials hope young people will soon be able to resolve their “beef” without the use of a gun.

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