My trip to Dublin to join the Summit Against Violent Extremism started with my running into a guy, on the airplane, with cornrows and tattoos. Knowing that the Summit included "formers," I was convinced that he was a former gang member going to the same conference, and I asked him as much. He gave me an odd look and said "no." It was an appropriate start to the trip, reminding me about the pitfalls of judging a book by its cover.
As I settled in for my trip and looked at the Summit guest list, I was surprised to feel a sense of unease. If anyone should have been open-minded going to the conference, it should have been me. I work with former gang members every day, and one of my friends from prior conferences is a former Muslim extremist who now runs a think tank in Britain. But, still, I had never met a skinhead or terrorist from Northern Ireland, former or not. The diversity of the attendees was extraordinary. A scene from the first Star Wars movie popped into my head -- the one in a bar full of odd and dangerous space creatures.
The Summit, hosted by Google Ideas, the Council on Foreign Relations and Tribeca Productions, was a gathering of survivors of violence, former extremists and gang members, policy wonks, techies, business people, and others interested in finding new ways to stop violence and give hope to youth everywhere. I found myself speaking with executives from Sesame Street and Google, then drinking Guinness with a former Nazi skinhead, then planning action items with former Muslim extremists, a State Department Official and former gang members. I got choked up speaking with an Israeli mother who lost a child to violence and who works with Palestinian mothers, as I described numerous Los Angeles mothers who have lost their own children to violence.
And I sat in awe as I listened to survivors of kidnappings, bombings, and the 9/11 attacks, as they exuded love and forgiveness for everyone, including the ones who caused their pain and injuries.
I have spent three years at my non-profit, A Better LA (www.abetterla.org), pursuing a theory that, to really stop street violence and give at-risk kids a chance, we have to empower people who used to cause the violence. They are in the best position to reach those who are so hard to reach, like kids who join gangs.
Everything we have seen keeps confirming that the theory is correct. We see homicides stopped regularly, kids who never would have been reached engaged in programs, and parks and streets transformed into safe places to play. A network of police officers and outreach workers -- most of whom were at one-time gang members -- now stretches across Los Angeles County to work toward their common goal of keeping kids safe. Even calling some of my colleagues "former gang members" is a little awkward. Their past hardly seems relevant to their current personality and all of the positive community activities they generate. And magic happens when we see our diverse team, made up of business leaders, social workers, psychologists and former enemies -- like rival gang members and police officers -- come together in unity.
So it felt incredibly reaffirming to see others, like the former President of Columbia (Alvaro Uribe) and the CEO of Google provide a platform to highlight the importance of formers. And everything I heard there confirmed that the theory is correct.
One premise of the conference was that there are common elements to most extremist stories. People, after all, are people. The child surrounded by poverty and hate who gains a sense of belonging and identity in an LA street gang, is not that different from the wealthy child surrounded by hate who finds a sense of belonging and identity from the Muslim extremist messaging; is not that different from the middle class child who grew up in an abusive home who found a purpose with white supremacy groups. The emotion is the same. The recruitment method of preying on lost kids is the same. The irrational mission with a clear sense of "us" versus "them" is the same. Through this lens, the issue changes from figuring out how to crush scary bad guys, to figuring out how to protect vulnerable kids.
And if key elements of the problem are the same, then it stands to reason that there are some key, common elements to the solution. For example, if former gang members can be effective in changing the messaging that inner-city kids are getting from gangs, perhaps former Muslim extremists can be a credible voice to change the hateful narrative bombarding Muslim children.
It is a fascinating premise, one that I have believed for years and believe more strongly after this experience. And it makes our work in Los Angeles all the more important. We may be working on more than keeping LA communities safe. We may be working on a formula that could keep nations safe.
And my unease? It quickly disappeared. People are people. People can change for the better. I see it every day in LA and I saw it at the Summit. There was not a hint of tension or awkwardness in the room of 200 people, many who would have been enemies, strangers and/or considered monsters not long ago.
I don't really know where this journey will end, but I know I can't stop pursuing the premise until I confirm whether there is a new, better and more sustainable way to prevent violence everywhere. The faces and voices of the victims I met in Dublin, and of those I know in Los Angeles, won't let me.
Follow Brian Center on Twitter: www.twitter.com/bced