Anti-violence Crown Heights group celebrates 20 years, continues to make impact on the community
When Lavon Walker Jr. cut the ribbon for Neighbors in Action on Wednesday, he wasn’t just happy to herald a new era for the anti-violence organization long known as the Crown Heights Community Mediation Center.
Rather, the 9-year-old was honoring his dad, Lavon Walker, an anti-violence advocate with the Center who was fatally shot while vacationing in Miami two years ago.
“It’s a representation of my father,” said Lavon Jr., who, despite being in the fourth grade, already aspires to be an NBA point guard. “He would say he’s very proud of me.”
The ribbon cutting celebrated both the Center’s recent renaming to Neighbors in Action as well as the organization’s 20th anniversary.
Two decades ago, the neighborhood nonprofit was launched to help mediate disagreements before they turned violent — and provide skills for solving disputes constructively.
In the years since, the non-profit has expanded beyond Crown Heights and peer mediation — prompting the name change, advocates said.
“Our survival rests in learning how to be better neighbors and learning how to care for each other as neighbors,” said Neighbors in Action Project Director Amy Ellenbogen, who has been with the nonprofit for 16 years. “We think that learning how to work collaboratively is what’s critically important in times when resources are limited.”
Among the organization’s long-time initiatives is Save Our Streets (SOS), a community-based approach to preventing gun violence. Teens can also get involved with S.O.S. and train to serve as peer leaders.
Neighbors in Action also provides job search and benefit access services as well as legal information, so residents can help each other navigate issues involving immigration or housing, according to the organization.
S.O.S. Project Manager David Gaskin said he was largely moved to get involved because of a 2012 shooting that injured a 3-year-old in his neighborhood of Bed-Stuy.
“It was getting closer and closer to home,” Gaskin said. “I really wanted to use my influence to bring awareness to gun violence.”
S.O.S. uses a “public health” approach to quell gun violence. By emphasizing prevention — the way one might try to eradicate a widespread “disease” — community members can help stop the spread, Gaskin explained.
Tashanna Davidson, 18, got involved with the organization in the eleventh grade.
Davidson, now in college studying psychology, said she participated in a program that taught her how to de-escalate heated situations, be they with peers or police.
When Davidson’s father died last year, mentors at the nonprofit provided emotional support that helped her succeed.
“If I didn’t have anyone to talk to, I’d be in the streets fighting somebody,” she said. “It helped me build my confidence.”
Marilyn Ramirez, Lavon Jr.’s mom, is optimistic that more and more community members will rally to stop gun violence.
Ramirez, 32, is heartened by Lavon Jr.’s role in that work and what it will mean both for him and his two-year-old brother.
“He’s a strong child and he’s been able to be resilient through it all, and by him standing here and having the honor to cut the ribbon, it just shows me that you have no choice but to go on,” said Ramirez. “His father’s legacy will continue to live on through him and his younger son, Matthew.”