Nashville looks to Oasis to address rising youth violence

Editor’s note: During each Chips Quinn orientation and multimedia training in Nashville, Tenn., scholars are required to complete a mobile media reporting module, which includes producing videos and reporting and writing stories. Their work is displayed here.

by Samantha Matsumoto

NASHVILLE, Tenn.—There isn’t a person at Oasis Center who hasn’t felt the impact of Nashville’s increasing youth violence. Teenagers involved in programs at the youth-serving center come in regularly with news that one of their friends has been killed.

“They come in and they say, ‘Well, Josiah got killed last night,’” Cathleen Windham, Oasis marketing and development associate, said. “They come in and have to talk to each other about their buddy being dead… It’s hitting them real hard. It’s having a huge impact.”

The highest number of youth deaths in a decade occurred in 2015, when 20 of the city’s 75 homicides were of teenagers or younger, according to a story published by The Tennessean. All of the teenagers who died were killed by gunfire.

The Oasis Center in Nashville, Tenn., has won several awards for its work with at-risk youth since it opened in 1969. (Photo by Samantha Matsumoto/Summer 2016)

It’s a problem affecting everyone at Oasis Center, Windham said. The nonprofit, which is part of the Youth Opportunity Center, has 19 programs aimed at helping at-risk youth. In the last 18 months, as many as five participants in Oasis programs have been killed.

“There’s no one here that isn’t impacted in some way,” Windham said.

Oasis Center, along with other local nonprofits and public officials, is working to address youth violence. Nashville Mayor Megan Barry has hosted four youth summits to talk to teens about violence and identify solutions, and has asked community partners, including Oasis, to draft recommendations.

The city is looking to Oasis as a leader to help reduce youth violence because of its history and mission, Windham said. One of the center’s programs, Reaching Excellence As Leaders (R.E.A.L.), works with teens in the juvenile justice system and has been held out as an example of helping to deter violent behavior. Young people meet at Oasis three times a week for three months and learn ways to cope with anger and trauma. They visit colleges, food pantries and farms to learn about how to get involved in their communities.

Tay McGee, a juvenile prevention specialist at Oasis Center in Nashville, Tenn., says the youth-serving center’s R.E.A.L program has a positive impact on formerly incarcerated youth. (Photo by Samantha Matsumoto/Summer 2016)

Oasis figures show that 96 percent of the youth in the program have not gone on to commit another offense, according to Tay McGee, a juvenile prevention specialist at the center. McGee said he has seen teens in the R.E.A.L. Program go from gang involvement to becoming student of the month at their school. The program works by showing them opportunities and making them feel like they belong, McGee said.

Though R.E.A.L. doesn’t enroll violent offenders, the program does address the underlying issues that can lead to violence, Windham said.

“We’re dealing with the problems that cause those things to happen,” she said. “So we were already poised to put into place more measures. And we are working with the city to do that.”

Oasis is collaborating with multiple groups to propose and implement recommendations to alleviate youth violence. In addition to creating step-by-step plans and marshaling resources, the groups are identifying changes they can make immediately, such as working with police and providing resources to parents concerned about their children.

“Usually when you are dealing with communities and solutions like that, they want something done right now,” Windham said.

Video: An Intervention at Oasis

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