100 Strong: Business Owners "Going Hard" Against Gang Violence
By Max Hunter, with Elissa Cook
Growing up in southeast San Diego and Los Angeles, I witnessed and experienced gang violence firsthand. The first house party that my mother allowed me to attend had been the target of multiple drive-by shootings. At 16, I saw a young man stabbed to death at a New Year’s Eve party. By God’s grace, two of my younger brothers survived being shot. My sister’s stepdaughter wasn’t as fortunate. On December 11, 2005, she became another victim in a longstanding gang war, after being shot in the apartments where I grew up.
Last summer, Ray Sugarman, a senior at Seattle Pacific University who grew up in San Diego, engaged me in a conversation about reconciliation and community development in the southeast neighborhood. I told him that, in all honesty, I didn’t know if the city had the heart for it.
Still in touch with some of my high school buddies, I’d hear complaints after each shooting or stabbing, but things just seemed to worsen. That is, I discovered, until Mario Lewis, a neighborhood barbershop owner, joined forces with other members of the community to restore peaceful conditions to the area.
Mario’s mission: 100 percent
Lewis’ Imperial Barbershop is near ground zero of the violence – an area formerly known as the Four Corners of Death.
Years ago while in high school, Mario was known for being humble and gregarious, with an unflappable personality. In other words, he was a cool kid who stayed out of trouble. Now 2011, his story demonstrates what can happen when indigenous urban community members decide that enough is enough.
What is a 100 Strong?
Most Californians realize that drugs, gangs, and violence are serious problems in southeastern San Diego. Yet what many people don’t see is the positive aspect of our community — an aspect that’s supported by organizations like 100 Strong.
The group started as a collective of businessmen who wanted to make a positive change in the community: Mike Norris, owner/operator of the Image Seed photography studio; Steve Walters, president of PCS Marketing Solutions; and myself, the owner/operator of Imperial Barbershop. We believed that if our community was to change for the better, it had to do so from within.
So our goal is to come together and promote positive development out of our own pockets and our own hearts. 100 Strong is a lifestyle, not just an organization. It’s named after our commitment to give 100 percent to God, our families, our community, and our businesses — nothing less.
What are your goals for the community?
One of the goals of 100 Strong is to celebrate the positive events of southeastern San Diego that so often go unrecognized. For example, when Lincoln High School, located in our district, won the California State Championship in Division II basketball — something that no other team in San Diego history has done — they came home to no marching band, no parade, and little news about their accomplishment.
So 100 Strong decided to give the young men a massive banquet. We presented plaques to each player and coach in the name of our community. The rest of the community then followed our lead, bringing gifts like pictures of the team on the front page of the San Diego Monitor and a letter of Congressional Recognition.
What does change look like for your organization?
100 Strong has sponsored community change through negative as well as positive events. A devastating blow to our optimism occurred on July 19, 2010. Courtney Graham, a young web designer and a good friend of ours, was walking home when he was shot six times.
Courtney had no involvement with the local gangs and no known enemies. No one could make sense of his death. Then, just one week later, a 19-year-old was stabbed to death in a public park. 100 Strong decided to do something to break the silence and fear that too often surrounds these killings. That’s how the Reclaiming Our Community campaign started.
As part of this movement, we got volunteers to walk door-to-door asking residents if they had any information about Courtney’s death or other unsolved murders, and handing out fliers with police hotline information.
Can you talk about the Four Corners of Life?
There’s an intersection in the southeast area — Euclid and Imperial avenues — that’s been called the Four Corners of Death for as long as people can remember. Violence, drugs, prostitution — everything imaginable has happened on those corners.
After Courtney’s death, we held a rally at this intersection and said enough is enough. As a community, we called for an end to this violence. To symbolize the new direction of our community, we changed the name of the intersection to the Four Corners of Life.
Can you talk about little bit about community engagement?
We’ve continued the movement by having “Reclaiming Our Community Walks” every month. We knock on doors, talk to the community, and pass out fliers with hotline info for reporting homicide, child abuse, and graffiti. We also put on monthly networking fairs and provide job training and mentorship for youth.
Our community is continuing to draw together and say no to violence every day. We’re working to be more active than the gang members, letting people know that if they shoot and kill in this neighborhood, there are going to be repercussions . We’re committed to giving 100 percent, no matter what it takes
Editor's note: You can follow 100 Strong on Facebook.
Elissa Cook is an SPU senior majoring in Latin American Studies-Spanish. She is the 2010-11 Urban Plunge coordinator.
Max Hunter is the Perkins Center teaching fellow, and has been with the John Perkins Center at Seattle Pacific University since 2008.
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