Dedrick Hammond recently found himself having to defuse a potentially dicey situation on West 141st Street. “I saw them ganging up. When you know how it’s going down, you know what to expect,” he says. “Five guys and then all of a sudden it was 10 of them getting ready to go off. I said, ‘Listen, we’re not going to do this. What y’all are gonna do is make it unsafe for everybody.'” Soon after, the crowd broke up. There’d been no fight. But for Street Corner Resources, it was a battle they’d won.
Founded in 2006 by Iesha Sekou, the organization combines anti-violence workshops with spontaneous on-the-ground outreach. And its goal is ambitious: namely, stopping the bloody toll of gang violence in Harlem and debunking the appeal of those groups before new recruits are brought into the fold.
This take-it-to-the-streets approach is designed to underscore proactive solutions for large and small conflicts alike. Sekou’s assistant Dedrick Hammond, for instance, recalls how he and Sekou stumbled on a group of teens on the verge of “getting out of hand” while play-fighting on a recent weekend afternoon. Both decided to get the group a pair of boxing gloves and organized an impromptu amateur session. “I was refereeing all night,” Hammond says. “Funny enough, they came to an understanding that hitting each other wasn’t what they really wanted to do, and they ended up shaking hands.”
For Hammond, the concern for Harlem’s youth grew out of his experiences as an infamous figure in the neighborhood’s late-’90s street crew scene, which in part, earned him the nickname Bad News after launching FSU (which translates to “fucking shit up”) in the St. Nicholas housing project.
After surviving two separate shootings—including a near fatal incident—Hammond, 31, has spent the past year urging his former cohorts and their younger counterparts to avoid the pitfalls that have marked much of his life up to this point.
“A lot of them respected me for the things I used to do. But when they ask me about shooting guns, now I tell them about the worst parts and what happens after they shoot,” says Hammond, who is better known by his newly adopted alias Beloved.
In its roughly four years of existence, the organization has built enough street cred and a reliable network of contacts inside Harlem’s close-knit gang sects that they’re able to sometimes respond—without any apparent fear—to potential acts of violence before they start.
“You have to know the lingo now. They’re using Twitter and text messaging to say where they ‘re getting ready to mob up,” Sekou reveals. “Someone will call us and say, ‘Something is about to pop off on St. Nicholas [Avenue] or Lenox Avenue,’ and that’s when we’ll round up some other folks in the community and immediately head out there.” Street Corner Resources has already organized a weekend “peace retreat” (“No cell phones, no iPods, no gangs,” Sekou says) for Harlem teens who trekked upstate to Maple Ridge, a wind-turbine-powered farm community in Lewis County. The organization has also produced a series of hip-hop oriented workshops, featuring local DJs and rappers, crafted to ensure that students don’t tune out a presentation deemed too preachy.
Sekou, a 52-year-old Bronx native, discovered trouble on her own in the early 1970s as a 15-year-old member of the Black Spades, alongside the likes of future hip-hop pioneer Afrika Bambaataa. But the ultraviolent tendencies of contemporary gangs and the prevalence of guns among them disturbs her.
“It’s almost like young people are playing this thing out like video games,” she explains. “They choose the weapons and set the parameters. It’s not as simple as people think, where kids just pop out pulling triggers. It’s very a very intricate system based on language, behaviors and turfs.”
To meet that system on its own terms, Sekou is raising money for a state-of-the-art trailer that she intends to use as a mobile unit to connect young Harlem residents to a range of services, from GED training to jobs. “We’ve had enough meetings about the problems our young people are facing,” Sekou explains. “If we truly want to address those problems, then we have to see what’s happening, understand their mind-set and roll up our sleeves to do something about it.”