There's No Easy Answer to Building Safe Communities

_CA27898_BestAt Firelight, we often say that for African children to grow up healthy, skilled, and safe, there must be a solid “handshake” between community action and government services.  Families, communities, and government services should all work closely together. This same truth has been brought home painfully to our community of Santa Cruz this week.  Firelight is based in a small, beautiful California coastal town, known for its university, its beaches, and its surfers.  It is a peaceful place.

But last Tuesday, that peace was shattered when two local Santa Cruz police officers, Loran Baker and Elizabeth Butler, were shot dead in the line of duty, something that had never before happened in the history of our town.  As the news spread, we struggled to deal with the shock, and to think about what these killings may say about the social fabric of our community. 

This morning, a memorial is being held for the fallen police officers.  Two hundred police cars, from our town and from cities hundreds of miles away, led a slow procession through the city.  I joined hundreds of community members on the main streets of the city to show support for the police as the processional drove slowly by. 

How can a concerned community best react to violence within it?  There are no easy answers, either in the United States or in Africa.  The roots of the problem are complex, and solutions are often hindered by entrenched or conflicting interests.  Police and other social services are stretched thin, especially in tough economic times.  Citizens see the need to act, but often disagree on what to do.

At Firelight, we are used to getting proposals from local organizations in Africa which have resolved to tackle a problem in their midst.  And now I am witnessing, closer to home than I had been expecting, my own community’s recognition of a problem, and our first efforts to come together to face it.

I know that Santa Cruz will rally.  I am encouraged by the fact that there are many caring, activist citizens here, vibrant nonprofits and community centers, and energetic and capable local political leaders.  I also draw encouragement by what I see in my daily work with African grassroots groups who fight abuse, violence, and insecurity in their own communities.  The urge to pull together to help one another is a shared human trait, honed by challenge and adversity.

My heart goes out to the police, who as “first responders” put their lives on the line to keep community members safe.  I am proud of the support shown today by my community toward our police.  We, the community, are in many ways the “first preventers” of violence.  I hope that we can take today’s feelings of support for the police and build them into a continued and effective “handshake” to keep our community safe.