Public Safety Grant Supports MLK Center Youth Programs

by Jim Grim

A community challenged by 609 homicides in four years calls for comprehensive strategies that address root causes through creative violent-crime prevention collaborations. A program at the Martin Luther King Center, 40 W. 40th St., is one of them.

Nine area youths spend four hours each, four days a week at the MLK Center as apprentices in a program designed to provide them with career empowerment and foundational life skills. Their engagement serves as a key strategy in the city’s crime prevention efforts, in one of five grant-funded, neighborhood-focused programs to reduce violence and connect individuals to crucial social services.

“The groups receiving funding through the Community-Based Violence Prevention Partnership take a unique and calibrated approach to intervening in lives threatened by violence,” Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett said last August at the announcement that the MLK Center program proposal and four others throughout the city were each awarded $60,000 through the City’s Office of Public Health and Safety. “From grief counseling to job training to financial literacy to basketball, each organization is working to make sure all in our city have a pathway to the positive future they deserve.” An additional $50,000 Crime Prevention Grant to the MLK Center from the  Central Indiana Community Foundation supports a community-building, family support and engagement approach to crime prevention.

The MLK apprentices, ages 18 to 25, spend most of their time in the new Best Buy Teen Tech Center “skilling up with the technology as the equipment rolls in,” Tech Center coordinator Douglas Morris explained. They also learn job-readiness and life skills including communication, team building, financial literacy, and workplace expectations and receive weekly personal wellness guidance from a counselor from the Christian Theological Seminary, Morris added. Apprentices without a high school diploma also work on acquiring an equivalency certificate. Each apprentice receives a weekly $100 stipend as well as bus passes and housing assistance, if needed; a government-issued ID; and Job Ready Indy workforce certification badges. They also learn how to develop a business plan through a partnership with Old National Bank.

Technology skills help prepare the apprentices for entrepreneurial endeavors related to their individual career aspirations, Morris said. Skills include photography, videography, three-dimensional printing, music engineering and production, graphic design, and computer coding. In February, curriculum from the Club House Network, a collaboration with the MIT Media Lab, provides a deeper dive into music and video recording, label and image making, and graphic design, all for marketing skills, MLK Center director Allison Luthe explained.

“The Club House Network curriculum is based on a peer mentoring model where they teach each other in areas they individually find they are most interested and excel in,” Luthe said. “This is where their exposure to become mentors or trainers comes in.” Eventually, she added, they will work after school with younger youths who come to the Best Buy Teen Tech Center program. About 75 area 17- to 24-year-olds have expressed interest in participating, Luthe said.

New Teen Tech Center at MLK

Apprentice Trinity Perry works with commercial logo production software in the MLK Center Community-Based Violence Prevention Partnership Program. Photo by Jim Grim.

Apprentice interests and career aspirations vary beyond technology fields. Trinity Perry, age 18, plans to eventually own a business in culinary arts. “I like writing stories and designing and making logos,” she said, all skills she expects to apply to her entrepreneurial planning and implementation someday. Perry, one of eight children, lives near 30th Street and Capitol Avenue. “I used to hang out a lot in Tarkington Park and one day came to the MLK Center to eat lunch, then participated in the summer program two years ago, and now I’m one of the afterschool program youth leaders,” Perry said. Charity Malone, MLK Center outreach coordinator, recruits young people like Perry throughout the neighborhood for the apprenticeship program, Luthe explained.

Apprentice Damani Gibson (upper left) confers with MLK Teen Tech Center Coordinator Douglas Morris on music production technology in the Center’s Community-Based Violence Prevention Partnership Program. Photo by Jim Grim.

Damani Gibson, age 18, lives nearby on Carrollton Avenue. A 2018 graduate of Tindley Accelerated School and a freshman studying business administration at the University of Indianapolis, Gibson has been intrigued with music and video since a young child. As an apprentice, he hopes to sharpen his skills in music/video production and photography, spending four hours at a time on equipment in the Teen Tech Center, learning new technology tools. “Eventually I can help kids advance in their artistic talents,” he said. “As I get into the tools, I get better at it. I would eventually like to get proficient in the tools to produce music and video and become a professional film director.”

Meanwhile, apprentice Andre Henderson, age 21, focuses on learning studio skills that could support a career in fashion design. He attended Northwest and Arlington high schools and has acquired a high school equivalency certificate. “I am learning this technology to design clothes professionally someday,” he said.

Apprentice Alexander Sam, age 24, learns video and music mixing and photography technology with a plan to eventually produce music videos. A singer in the choir since fifth grade, the North Central High School graduate says he already has his own music label and is in the process of getting an official BMI professional music certification account. He works with apprentice Roice Davis, 18, and others in the Teen Tech Center. Davis, who attended Arlington and Arsenal Tech high schools, focuses on photography production for commercial marketing purposes someday.

The MLK apprentices demonstrate the target market for participation in the city’s youth violence reduction efforts—ages 16 to 25, says Shonna Majors, director of community violence reduction in the Indianapolis Office of Public Health and Safety. “The Best Buy Teen Center attracts them in,” she said. “They love music, they love video, they love technology, and the experience provides them with healthy options. Without this exposure, a lot of them don’t know they can do better than they might otherwise.”

In addition to skill building for attractive careers, the Community-Based Violence Prevention Partnership programs connect participants and their families to basic resources necessary for a healthy life with reduced violence exposure. The neighborhood-based programs that were awarded funding exhibit opportunity and hope where both might be crucially needed for some of the city’s most vulnerable people. High rates of violent crime in Indianapolis the past few years demand such a comprehensive approach to reach individuals while young and to connect families to existing resources to relieve deep trauma, Majors explained. “If you meet them where they’re at, where they’re loved, we can get a mindset change,” she added. “That’s what’s needed. It’s about providing information, education, and different, healthier options throughout our neighborhoods, and we have seen a lot of our kids make positive changes as a result.”

Most of the violent crime throughout the city happens in economically distressed neighborhoods where random efforts to meet needs seem only to perpetuate the problems and do little to address persistent foundational trauma, Majors says. “Most of our groups are using trauma-informed models,” she added. “A lot of our jailed kids are broken. Many grow up with a parent or two in prison. We have a lot of kids raising kids. We intervene with the thought process to show them there is a different way. That’s why we’re out in these neighborhoods, knocking on doors, using case management-style referrals and follow-up that create real relationships to make a difference in people’s lives. We call and check in on our families at least every 30 days.”

As a result, the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department takes its collaboration in the crime prevention efforts seriously, according to Chief Bryan Roach. “As our officers continue to build relationships in their new beats, the social services and community connections these organizations foster run parallel, helping shape a stronger, safer Indianapolis,” he said in the August crime prevention partnership awards announcement. “The work funded by the Community-Based Violence Prevention Partnership will help to fill critical gaps in our neighborhoods.”

Additional community organizations awarded 2018 funding for youth crime prevention projects include Community Action Center of Greater Indianapolis, Edna Martin Christian Center, Flanner House, and the Ross Foundation. Majors says another opportunity for neighborhood organizations citywide to apply for project funding is scheduled for this summer.

In November 2018, the MLK Center hosted an Employment and Resource Fair sponsored by the City’s Office of Health and Public Safety to connect employers, community organizations, and interested individuals with jobs, training opportunities, and existing social services throughout Indianapolis. Luthe says the Center is interested in doing so again this year. They also are embarking on a partnership with Klipsch, the local headquarters of a corporate producer of high-quality speakers and audio and home theater products. The Best Buy Teen Tech Center is equipped with ProTools, music engineering software powered by Klipsch.

Only four months into the apprenticeship program implementation at the MLK Center, Luthe says she sees early successes. Participants have not been involved in violence and instead have created a safe place to socialize in a youth-friendly, high-tech learning environment. She fully anticipates continuing the program. “We will have the apprentices as long as we can,” she added. “We’ll always be fundraising to sustain it.”

Jim Grim, director of university/community school partnerships at IUPUI, has lived in Midtown for 30 years. He has been widely published and specializes in education and community engagement topics.