Policy makers can’t always agree on the best approach to reducing violent crime. But in Dallas, city leaders increasingly seem to understand that we do know what doesn’t work: putting more people in jail. What’s needed instead is investment in what advocates call a community-based continuum of care. “This is a big pendulum shift. This is not how things have historically been done in Dallas,” says Gary Ivory, president of the national nonprofit Youth Advocate Programs. “We’re finally turning the tide on the mass incarceration that has happened in this country the last 50 to 60 years.”
Ivory’s organization helps young people through alternatives to incarceration, connecting them to jobs and social services and stipends. In recent years, it has also adopted a “violence interrupter” model in cities like Baltimore and Washington D.C. Violence interrupters are hired from within certain neighborhoods to serve as “credible messengers” who can defuse conflicts before they happen.
Next week, the City Council is set to approve a contract that would see YAP bring that model to Dallas. It would allocate about $800,000 each year from the general fund so that YAP can hire 12 violence interrupters to work in four to-be-determined Dallas neighborhoods. “We do a lot of wraparound support—substance abuse treatment, housing, schools, jobs, economic opportunity. Whatever they need, we’re going to provide that relentless outreach,” says Ivory, who lives in Dallas and has worked in the area for more than 20 years. “We know if we target the right individuals in a neighborhood that has high crime levels, we can reduce crime.”
I got on the phone with Ivory late last week to talk about the work he does and how violence interruption can help Dallas neighborhoods that have high crime rates and a lack of opportunities for young people. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Tell me a little about your background. I understand you grew up in East Texas. Yes, I did. I grew up in Pittsburg, Texas. I matriculated through schools there and then went to Austin College in Sherman. I’ve always had a love for both Christian ministry and politics. I decided to go to seminary at Princeton Theological Seminary and went from there to chaplaincy work. I worked a little bit in D.C. on Capitol Hill but then landed with Youth Advocate Programs. I left for a 3-year hiatus but have been with them ever since. It’s been a labor of love.
What inspired you to pursue this line of work? I’m the youngest of 14 brothers and sisters. My mother raised seven other nieces and nephews, so she really raised 21 kids. I grew up in that environment. We were very poor. Three of my brothers at different times were incarcerated, one for over 20 years. I grew up knowing that I wanted to address the suffering of people. When I found YAP, it was an alignment between my lived experience and my calling as I see it: to help alleviate human suffering and deal with mass incarceration. I didn’t have the language for it then, but it was trying to prevent people from being incarcerated.
How did you find YAP? What did your early days with the organization look like? I was in my first year in seminary at Princeton Theological, and I was doing my chaplaincy work at what was then called Trenton State Maximum Security Prison. I was also a youth minister at a Baptist church in Trenton, New Jersey, and YAP had leased space from the church. I started volunteering with YAP and began to facilitate groups with young people. In 1992 the program director position became open and in 1993, we opened a program in Fort Worth. At that time the gang issue was huge. I started doing a lot of work with gang members, doing retreats with gang leaders and working on truces. I then did a fellowship with the Annie E. Casey Foundation and worked at another foundation called the Enterprise Foundation, but in 1999 I came back to YAP in Texas. Fast forward to 2021 and I became the president of YAP.
What kind of work has YAP done in North Texas? Historically we’ve been focused on serving young people and families that no one else wanted to deal with because of the complexity of the challenges. We’ve worked with child welfare, juvenile justice, mental health providers, and schools. We’ve tried to identify young people that need a lot of intensive support so we can develop alternatives to detention, alternatives to hospitalization, alternatives to correctional and out-of-home placement. It’s a very individualized approach. Over the last decade or so we’ve gotten more involved in models like credible messengers, or violence interruption, or models like Cure Violence.
In Dallas, since 1995 we’ve worked with about 300 young a people a year who are on probation, helping them successfully complete probation or do detention alternatives. They’re arrested, the judge releases them to us, and the whole plan is that they return to court and don’t recidivate. We’ve found that most of these young people are successful. Their recidivism rate is about 11 to 13 percent, which is far better than what they get in a locked facility.
What is violence interruption? The violence interruption work began a few years ago when we started getting contracts in Baltimore and Washington D.C. We were approached by the mayors of those cities to help address the violence in target neighborhoods. In Baltimore we started with the area where Freddie Gray was killed. We have eight people who are on call 24-7, working till 12 at night with young people in that area. It’s more of a neighborhood-based approach, where we’re trying to reduce crime violence and victimization in an entire ZIP code. We have gotten some really good outcomes in helping to reduce homicide rates and gun violence in those neighborhoods.
What we’re proposing to do in Dallas is to take that same violence interruption model, and we’re going to do it in four different areas. We’re going to meet with the police chief and other city leaders to determine what those areas are. We’ve going to hire 12 violence interrupters and credible messengers who are going to do intensive outreach to the highest-risk young people—the 14- to 25-year-olds—who are likely to be the perpetrators and victims of crimes. We do a lot of wraparound support for them: substance abuse treatment, housing, schools, jobs, economic opportunity. Whatever they need, we’re going to provide that relentless outreach. We know if we target the right individuals in a neighborhood that has high crime levels, we can reduce crime. There are only a small number of people typically in a neighborhood that commit the majority of crimes.
A lot of the issues in Dallas are the same as the issues in any big city. But what’s unique about what’s happening here? How can you specifically address violent crime and a lack of opportunity in Dallas? One key thing is hiring the right people within those neighborhoods. Credible messengers are change agents. You’re getting people within these areas—whether it’s Pleasant Grove or 75216 or 75217 or 75215, whatever the ZIP code is—because people who are closest to the problem also are closest to the solution. The second thing is training and support. We’re going to develop a steering committee of people from the neighborhood. The faith-based community, the workforce—all of the communities who have a role to play in reducing crime. We want to get them at the table and coordinate resources. It’s hard to have economic revitalization when crime rates are as high as they are in these areas. I don’t think there are any particular issues with Dallas that are so unique, but everything we do is going to be tailored to that particular neighborhood.
We’ve done a lot of works with gangs, for example. You’ve got to make sure you are dealing with the leadership of those gangs as well as the young people who may be recruited into them. We’re going to be offering a model of cognitive behavioral therapy, because so many young people have been traumatized. That’s why they’re acting out. We want address some of the root causes of why young people are gravitating to gangs and why they’re gravitating to behaviors that can pose a problem to their safety and the safety of others. Everything we do hinges on having a positive relationship with these young people. And once you have that we see that there’s a lot of buy-in and crime goes down.
What does this look like? If I followed around a credible messenger for a day, what would I see? We want to make sure we’re interrupting violence before it happens. If we see a fight, we see there’s beef, before there’s any retaliation we’re going to go over there with people trained to do de-escalation: We’re going to resolve the conflict before it happens. If there is a violent incident, a shooting or some other event, we use that as an opportunity to educate and inform the community. We do vigils and organizing and talk to the community about how we can stop this from happening. We call that changing norms.
“These young men and women in these neighborhoods have something to contribute—if we support them and give them opportunity and give them the resources they need.”
Through our credible messengers, we also work one-on-one and in groups with young people doing cognitive behavioral therapy. There’s a component of this that’s hospital-based interruption. Let’s say someone is shot or stabbed in a neighborhood in one of the target areas. They go to Parkland Hospital. We would have a staff person, a credible messenger, go there and meet with them. We know that most violence, up to 40 percent in some places, is retaliatory violence: “Somebody did something to me. Somebody harmed me. So I’m going to retaliate against them.” We meet them at the hospital to deal with the issues, de-escalating it, helping them—when they go back—not to retaliate.
We’re also working to develop stipends for young people. We don’t have this in the budget. But one thing I’ve found over the years doing this work: You can’t help turn around the life of a young person in one of these neighborhoods just by taking something away. You’ve got to replace it with something of equal or greater value. If you put down the gun, you put down the drugs, you stop selling drugs, what opportunity can we be offering you? We’re going to be reaching out to the philanthropic community saying, “Help us create jobs. Help us create stipends for young people.”
How can you tell if what you’re doing is working? We’re always making mid-course adjustments. We’re looking at crime data, and we have an individualized service plan for each person we serve. It’s a plan they agree to. How well are they attaining the goals that we both set out in the plan we developed? A lot of the people we’ll be supporting will probably have some formal system involvement: probation, parole, municipal court issues, citations. So how well are we doing with that? Are we making progress? It’s a data-driven approach. Are we achieving success with individuals? Is crime coming down in those target neighborhoods? We’re not afraid of being ambitious. We know if we’re going to change some of these neighborhoods and get some economic revitalization going on, we’ve first of all got to deal with the violence. We know that this is a part of helping to revitalize an entire neighborhood or entire ZIP code.
When you look back at your career, is there one story that stands out to you? Back in the early ‘90s in Fort Worth, a young man was referred to us, Dante. That’s his real name. He was about 15 years old, living with his mom and grandma in Fort Worth. And he was one of the angriest kids I had ever seen in my life. He was a Blood but living in a neighborhood that was primarily Crip. The first thing we did was relocate him to a different neighborhood. Sometimes you have to relocate in order to save their lives. We’re a family-focused model. His mom at the time had some substance use issues. She talked to us about it. We helped her get treatment and stabilized him living with his grandma.
We were meeting with Bloods and Crips and taking them to YMCA Camp Cater outside of Fort Worth. We just said to the guys, “How can we help you?” We got jobs for them. And then we decided to take a lot of these young people, including Dante, on what we called a tour of the South. Most of these kids were African American. We took them to Memphis, Tennessee, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed at the Lorraine Motel. We took them to the civil rights museum in Birmingham, Alabama. We took them to Natchez, Mississippi, to see where slaves were sold. We ended with a trip to the Martin Luther King Center for Social Change in Atlanta. The whole purpose was to understand why killing each other wasn’t the way. If they understood their history and the history of nonviolence, they wouldn’t do this. I fundamentally believe in that. How can we help young people create a sense, through a cultural lens, that there are alternatives to violence?
Dante was a leader. He came back to the community and helped to organize a lot of these young men. A lot of them were able to get out of gangs and violence as a result of that. Dante is one of hundreds of young men and women we’ve engaged through these advocates, the credible messengers and violence interrupters. They’re all people who have shared lived experience with the young people. And they all want to give back. We find that the Dantes of the world, if they have the right person who establishes a great relationship with them, it’s very likely that it’s going to be transformative in their lives. That’s what we try to replicate.
The city seems likely to approve your contract in a couple weeks. What happens after that? We’re going to go through an intensive training, developing partnerships within each of those four target areas. We’re going to be canvassing, assessing how we can make this a huge success for kids and families in Dallas. This is a big pendulum shift. This is not how things have historically been done in Dallas. There hasn’t been this kind of investment. We’re finally turning the tide on the mass incarceration that has happened in this country the last 50 to 60 years. We’re starting to say that mass incarceration is not effective. These young men and women in these neighborhoods have something to contribute—if we support them and give them opportunity and give them the resources they need.