Community leaders from Stockton, Modesto, Merced and Bakersfield joined the Fresno Night Walks on Friday evening at Saint Rest Missionary Baptist Church to learn about efforts to reduce gun violence and mass incarceration.
Many local churches and neighborhoods have participated in Night Walks for the past two years in a collaboration called Faith in Community. During the walks, organizers and community members trek through Fresno's neighborhoods most notorious for gun violence to communicate a message of peace.
Friday night was the first part of the Central Valley "Lifelines to Healing" Bootcamp, a two-day training by PICO California, a Night Walks partner whose goal is to increase peace and stop violence. Valley leaders came together to learn the strategy of Night Walks.
On Saturday, leaders will learn about what the organization calls the drawbacks of mass incarceration and the "war on drugs" in impoverished communities with a high population of minorities. "Lifelines to Healing" works to give those who were once incarcerated renewed freedom and influence peace in crime-stricken areas.
Many first-time walkers like 19-year-old Rashanae Easter, a member of Fresno's Local Conservation Corps, carried signs reading "Live Free" as they walked east from Elm Avenue into southeast Fresno.
A crowd just under 50 people gathered at Saint Rest, and nearly every person rose to their feet when asked if they either previously had been incarcerated or had a loved one victimized by gun violence.
When talking to the crowd about Night Walks, the Rev. Booker T. Lewis II outlined the three-part approach as strategy, resources and policy change. He encouraged walkers to have a back-and-forth conversation with people in the community to understand their needs.
"Meet people where they are. Talk through the blunt. We approach them on their time and their terms," he said.
Bryson White, a Faith in Community organizer, noted that a report by the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice says the ZIP code 93706 had the most homicides in all of Fresno between 1990 and 2010. The report cites that out of more than 1,100 gun-related homicides in Fresno during that time span, nearly 200 occurred in that ZIP code in southwest Fresno.
Lewis said that ZIP code area saw a 50% reduction of crime since Night Walks started. But as Night Walks moved to other parts of the city, city officials and the Fresno Police Department asked organizers to return to the area, Lewis said.
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