Fort Wayne UNITED
Posted by: jepenner on Wednesday, September 30, 2020 at 2:44PM
When Iric Headley was eleven, a young man died on his front porch.
It was 1989; his father had moved the family to Fort Wayne, Indiana from Trinidad and Tobago to fill a pastoral position at a nearby church.
"It was supposed to be the American Dream", says Headley. "We thought it would be like what we saw on TV – white picket fence, 2 cars, a dog, everyone cooking breakfast together."
The reality was the complete opposite. Two weeks after Headley's family moved into their home on the South Side of Fort Wayne, a young black man was stabbed to death on the family's front porch.
"It was hard to process," says Headley. "I'd seen deceased people at funerals before; I'd seen a man shot by police in Trinidad and Tobago. Crime is looked at differently there – I didn't understand the reality of a black man killing another black man that wasn’t in a law-enforcement context. When that young man died, I didn't realize a black man had killed him."
Two years later, Irics Parents had divorced. He and his mom moved into another house a few blocks away in the same neighborhood. Then, another homicide: Iric watched as a neighbor was shot. He still remembers the young man's blood freezing on the ground.
"There was a certain disconnect," he says. "We were in America, the place of Night Rider and Michael Knight and Knott’s Landing, all these shows that painted America as a place where this doesn't happen. There was a sense of 'where the heck are we'? And there was this notion then of 'you're part of a country that isn't safe.' My mom, dad, my sister - we all felt that way."
This reality is hardly a revelation; African American men between the ages of 10 and 24 suffer the highest rate of homicide in the United States. Most community leaders today have been aware of the problem for a long time, but haven’t been able to find sustainable ways of addressing the issues that plague these communities.
Fort Wayne UNITED didn't happen by accident – but it wasn't a bolt from the blue, either. What happened, Headley says, was the work.
“It was work that brought me into it,” he says “I was working at Wiser Park Community Center, and meeting all these young people who didn't have fathers, and you could see how that hurt them. They were judged by the very people who should have been helping."
At that time, Iric was also pursuing a music career with a small production company.
"I saw some things in the industry that were just devastating," he says. "I started sharing what I knew about marketing tactics, and how violent and degrading language was being marketed specifically to communities of color. It was a culmination of things that put me in that space."
Fort Wayne UNITED launched in 2016. The program grew from Iric's work with Wiser Park and other community leaders, including the two men who would go on to be Fort Wayne UNITED's eventual CO-Chairs: Chris Cathcart, Vice-Chancellor of Ivy Tech, and Joe Jordan, Director of Boys and Girls' Club in Fort Wayne.
Fort Wayne UNITED is modeled on a combination of Cities UNITED, an initiative throughout 90 cities across the United States to build political will and create change, and My Brother's Keeper, a federal program focused on education and workforce readiness. Under one umbrella, and functioning on an action plan tailored to Fort Wayne's needs, these two programs form one mayoral initiative designed to advocate and implement policies that ensure educational and workforce opportunities for young black men – while providing mentoring, leadership training, job fairs, educational opportunities, online discussion forums, and community outreach programs, namely the Fort Wayne 10Point Coalition.
Much like the Indianapolis 10Point coalition (in turn, inspired by the 10Point Coalition in Boston), Fort Wayne 10Point Coalition foot patrols, clad in neon yellow workman's jackets, walk through the Oxford neighborhood on the south side of Fort Wayne, a predominantly black community with a high number of residents living below the poverty line.
By identifying the needs of these communities, leaders have been able to come alongside Fort Wayne United and provide action plans. Fort Wayne is known as “The City of Churches”, and multiple churches in Fort Wayne jumped in to help.
Ron Williams is the Senior Pastor at Pathway Community Church in Fort Wayne, and serves on Fort Wayne United's Clergy Committee.
"It's a season of unity between churches – we're looking for ways to help, and we're in a season of opportunity," he says. "People are engaged online now, and they're looking for ways to step out and serve. Fort Wayne UNITED has come up with a lot of great programs.”
While encouraged by the response he's seen, Headley stresses that there's a long way to go.
"The churches around Fort Wayne who've come alongside us have been amazing to work with – they strive to understand, and put differences aside and focus on the mission of Christ. On the other side, though, we've seen some churches struggle with that – as much as we'd like to say churches aren't political, the politics are hidden. For the churches that have put their qualms aside, we've seen great success. They might not see things the same, but the mission is at the centerpiece. The rest doesn't matter. If you feel strongly, let's do God's work together. It sends a message to onlookers that this isn't about country or politics anymore – it's about God. He ultimately is the one who fixes this."