Co-Chair Timothy Kirkland's Newest Challenge
“We have to go back to a sense of community,” said Timothy Kirkland in an interview with ACTS, “We have to open our arms for our youth, not judge our youth, not turn our backs on our youth. I believe ACTS has a crucial role to play in this.”
Kirkland is the new Co-Chair of the ACTS Community Violence and Youth Task Force (CV&Y). This chapter in his life began on April 13th, as he was appointed at the CV&Y meeting. Kirkland’s whole life story, however, follows a path of struggle and redemption. From this crucible emerged a leader, one who is now poised to bring Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) workshops to Syracuse. In July, he plans to host the first AVP training session to mitigate Syracuse’s plague of poverty and violence.
AVP is an international, non-violence movement that teaches conflict management. Participants include a mix of gang members, social workers, and social justice activists. AVP’s tactics against community violence originate not from textbooks or theory, but from within the concrete walls of the Attica Prison. Not long ago, behind those same iron bars, sat a young Kirkland.
“In order to understand life, you have to look back at your past for it to make any sense,” said Kirkland. In his case, the past is a journey of 19 years in and out of prison.
“I was at Attica Prison, where there was a big riot back in 1971. There was a still a lot of hostility there, and I could really feel the tension walking down the hallways, from the guards, the inmates, and from the staff. It was like a dark cloud hanging over that place, and I still get horrible flashbacks just talking about it.”
Kirkland spent nearly half his life within the criminal justice system, with the trouble beginning in his childhood and the neighborhood he grew up in.
“I was introverted as a child. And at one time, I used to be very judgmental. I thought the world was against me, and I used prejudice to help me deal with things. Then, I resorted to violence, thinking it was the answer.”
Kirkland’s troubled past is analogous to the stubborn issues faced by so many youth in Syracuse today. Our city has the worst rates of concentrated poverty for Blacks and Latinos in the entire nation, and this breeds a duality of survival and scarcity. Syracuse neighborhoods with concentrated poverty have struggling schools, are nearly devoid of decent jobs, and lack prospects for youth to enter higher education. Currently, 50% of youth in Syracuse graduate high school, and only 55% of working-age residents hold jobs. The stagnation has produced many restless youth, which, like Kirkland from years ago, planted their roots in the soil of conflict.
“A lot of these kids in [concentrated poverty] today are ‘caught up in a cycle.’ They are addicted to the streets. Their fathers were in prison, and some fathers might be dead in the streets. So, a lot of these kids are angry. Unfortunately, they’ve chosen the streets to vent their anger,” said Kirkland.
Anger appears to have reached a boiling point in 2016, as Syracuse experienced the deadliest year in all its history. Of the record number of 26 homicide victims, most had known their killers.
“The shootings…are typically not random, stranger-on-stranger acts of violence,” according to Syracuse Police Chief Frank Fowler for an article on Syracuse.com. Together, all these ingredients: poverty, poor education, crime, and violence, mix into a concoction which has affected minority populations in Syracuse most severely. Although Blacks and Latinos make up only 33% of the statewide youth population, they represent 72% of all arrests. This “cycle of crime and violence” inherited by generations of youth has
become a priority of the ACTS CV&Y Task Force. Kirkland suggests the antidote to the cycle may lie within AVP and its techniques against conflict.
“AVP teaches youth how to respect the humanity in others, and brings out a side of you that you never knew existed, and breaks the stereotypes people hold about each other,” said Kirkland.
He explained these prejudices are a major factor in Syracuse’s strife. Thankfully, he described several techniques he plans to use in AVP to address this issue. One he named was the “One-on-One,” also known as the “Buddy System.” In AVP, a frequent workshop practice is to split the larger group off into pairs. If two participants are combative to each other, often because of latent prejudices, they are “buddied” together. They inevitably share tasks and intimate conversations with each other, exchanging details of their families, hardships, dreams, and beliefs.
“As they get to know each other more as human beings, the stereotypes and judgements fall one by one,” he said, “AVP helps people understand the communication skills they need to listen to diversity.” According to Kirkland, the absence of these communication techniques are culpable for issues as far ranging as gun violence to unemployment, which he believes are two of Syracuse’s greatest challenges.
“There needs to be training for youth to learn work ethics. This training, which AVP can assist with, opens doors to better opportunities for our youth.” His observation has been informed by a multitude of projects he headed in the past. In 2000-2001, between prison sentences, he was involved in the Syracuse Partnership to Reduce Juvenile Gun Violence. There, he helped run a program called “Career Paths to Success” at OCC, which had an 85% success rate. While in prison, he organized a program called “You are What You
Think,” which was all about self-empowerment. He then became a leading member of the Community Empowerment Organization (CEO). Despite all these successful projects, he owes his transformation to AVP above all else.
“I found AVP at Attica [prison],” he explained, “AVP helped me realize that I was my greatest enemy. If I could get past what was holding me back inside, I could go anywhere. Attitude becomes your altitude.”
Despite his incredible progress over the years, he still has obstacles to overcome. Ever since coming home, he’s found it difficult to escape judgements from even some of his family members. His leadership and experiences, however, tell the tale of a changed person.
“They don’t quite trust me to be there for them when they need me, and they think I might go back to prison and leave them again. But I’m not going anywhere.”
As with everything though, Kirkland accepts the readjustment process as another challenge. The hurdles he has passed are motivation for him to finish the race, he noted. Above all, he’s learned to stay optimistic and accept life’s trials as they come. This philosophy he learned from his role-model son Timothy Kirkland Jr., his time in prison, his salvation with AVP, and from his all-time favorite book, The Secret, by Rhonda Burns.
“Burns talks about Universal Law. So, I believe the same energy that you put out, is the same energy that will come back to you. The way to live a long and healthy life is to be kind.”
As the training in July draws closer, Kirkland has called on the ACTS Community to help make AVP a success. First and foremost, he urged everyone to avoid becoming complacent about helping Syracuse’s diverse youth.
“We have to find solidarity with all parts of the city, whether that’s the Southside, the West Side, or elsewhere. We can’t focus on one over the other, and we must trust each other to work together. We’re all working for the same goal: a better Syracuse.”
His request at the end of the interview was for two things: volunteers and networking. A major priority in the next few months is to get the word out about AVP and promote it to those who are on the frontlines of youth interaction, such as teachers or law enforcement. For now, ACTS Members can take the AVP survey compiled in preparation for another meeting on May 11th. Together, we can help write the next chapter for AVP and our newest Task Force Co-Chair.
“It’s a huge responsibility and a challenge, but I’m ready and willing,” concluded Kirkland.