Interview with Erica Ford by Phil Bolsta
Watch Erica Ford’s interview:
Welcome, Erica. Thank you for joining us today.
Thank you for having me.
Allow me to introduce you. For more than 30 years, Erica Ford has worked tirelessly to transform New York City areas inhabited by at-risk inner-city youth to peaceful, violence-free communities. She realized at an early age that we can't stop the violence around us if we don't create peace within.
You've stated, “This is not a job, this is my life. My undying love keeps me committed to my people, until my glory day takes me away.” You've also said, “If I stop, lives get lost. Families get destroyed. Communities go back to gun-riddled death and destruction every day.” Those are beautiful, powerful sentiments. How did this commitment to a lifetime of passionate service become awakened in you?
I think by seeing so much tragedy, and seeing young people just be so hopeless, and seeing the impact of the system against us in terms of trying to stop us from just really disempowering people with basic necessities, it gave me the continual drive to want to make accessible to our young people more, to make hope real, to make the question of peace in our lifestyle real, and breaking the cycle of violence, both mentally and physically. Because of that, I decided to do a whole lot more and just keep going. Just keep going.
You've said that, “An angry peacemaker cannot make peace.” What was your own experience with this truism, and how did you transform your own anger?
When you're always angry, you're fighting with everyone, and you're fighting with those around you. You stay in a constant rage, and so you deplete yourself, and you deplete people around you, and when you deplete people around you, how do they help you? How do you help yourself when you're just constantly in that state?
I had to, yes, you get angry at different situations, but you overcome the anger part, and then you start to organize, you start to plan, you start to come up with strategic ways in which you can shift the conditions that got you to the place of anger. Why did that make you angry in the first place? Those different kind of things allow you to have accessibility to peace. It allows you to do more. It allows the blessings to come to you.
I went to this place called One World Academy, I did work with Deepak Chakra, and just went over the different ideas and what I thought was the righteous way to resolve things... and found out that some of it wasn't the righteous way, and sometimes the righteous way is going at it with true compassion, and being present for people, and being present for yourself, being present with those around you.
It opened up a relationship between me and my mother, between me and the young people who I worked with. I would yell less, and be present more, and those things are beautiful things, they are the gateway to beautiful relationships. First and foremost, a beautiful relationship with yourself.
Yes, relationships are the foundation of everything. That's wonderful. In your TED Talk you said, “Every day we are walking around infected by a disease called violence.” You first became aware of this disease as a child growing up in South Jamaica, Queens. This is an epidemic of national and global proportions. How is continued violence baked into our system?
Right now, we're at a prison, we're at a federal prison right now, and the inmates were locked inside of here for seven days with no heat, no hot water, no electricity, no access to family, and so when you look at those institutional conditions, they reek violence. There's nothing peaceful coming out of that. Nowhere. The family, and their relationship to the institution is not peaceful. The brothers who are locked down, there's not going to be any peace from them if they're in these horrific and inhumane conditions. That's just one place, but it's every place.
[Editor’s note: Erica conducted this interview from her car outside the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, New York, where inmates were subject to prolonged cold and darkness as a result of a fire that caused a partial power outage.]
When you're looking at a kid who lives in trauma, who experiences trauma every day, and he comes into the school, and he does a mischievous act and you’re immediately responding to that act, and you're responding to the behavior, and not what was a root cause of that behavior, so you never help him heal from his trauma, and you just infuse more violence in him. So those are just two examples of so many that face us every single day.
We want to shift how people think, who run these systems, and we want to begin to look at violence from a public health perspective, so that we can then address these things from the ills that give rise to it as opposed to the act of violence that somebody might be doing.
What is the Violence Intervention and Prevention System? How did it come about? What role does it play? What are violence interrupters?
The Violence Intervention and Prevention System is an idea we took to the mayor's office, I would say seven, eight years ago, and through the anti-violence task force, and negotiation, and back and forth, the city adopted it as the New York City Crisis Management System. It's a system that brings together several different organizations and agencies to co-produce public safety.
What we do is, we work with those who are the highest risk of being the perpetrator or the victim of violence. Those communities where violence is highest, we work to change mindsets, we work to give young people and their families and their friends a different way to resolve interpersonal violence. A different way to deal with the trauma is impacting them, when an incident happens, and people go to the hospital, and they're at their highest point of rage, and so we're there to mediate, and intervene, and give them ways to heal, because at the point at which you lose a loved one, you’re most vulnerable, and you’re most vulnerable to the disease, to take on more of its infections.
You’re also prone to the action of the disease in terms of the different side effects that it might have. And so we help to redirect you. We help to give your family ways to release. We're in the schools. We're in the juvenile facilities. We're in the hotspots in the communities, and these young men who are closest to the problem, credible messengers, just because of their experience in life, and where they come from in terms of their knowledge and their history and their relationship to the streets, they have the ability to influence these men and women to do something else. And so those are the interrupters, those are the credible messengers, those are the VIP specialists who work with us at 22 sites in New York City... and over 60 agencies that have been brought together to reduce violence. New York has definitely been defined as the safest big city in America. We have reduced violence in our city.
We went a whole weekend with absolutely no shootings, which hasn't happened in New York in over 25 years. We went six days with absolutely nobody being killed, which is another historic number. These type of historic numbers gives hope to people that, although if there's one killing it's too many, but the fact that we are having some neighborhoods not have any shootings in four years, in five years, in 365 days. Those are records that people can look to to say, “This works, and peace is real. There is an alternative to this lifestyle, and this community violence that we exist upon.” That's we do with the Violence Intervention and Prevention System, because everybody wants to be a VIP, and why not be a VIP for peace. You know?
In one of your videos, it was so amazing, you talked about interrupting violence as it was happening, and “sending in the orange.” Can you speak to that?
Yeah. We have our orange on, right now, see, team peace, the peace force. Right? When they see these orange jackets come, they know that the peace people are coming. It's our uniform, because it stands out, it's the sunshine, it outshines the blood that sometimes takes over in our streets, the loss of life... and they go in, and they mediate, they have conversations with young people.
They just last week took a knife around, an 8-inch knife from a 12-year-old who was getting ready to stab another 12-year-old. Those are the things they do; they don't think twice about what impact it might have on them, they're just solely focused on saving that young person's life, and stopping them from thinking and living a lifestyle that can cause death and destruction to them and those in the environment.
What is Peace Week?
Peace Week is a week of people coming together to promote and take personal responsibility to make peace a lifestyle. We have a series of events and activities in New York City that celebrate, and bring people together, and just similar to… they have Fleet Week in New York, they have Fashion Week, so now on the city calendar is Peace Week, and so way after I'm gone, there’s Peace Week on the city calendar, an official part. If we could have peace for one week, then we could have peace for two weeks, and we could have peace for three weeks, and then we could have peace for a whole month, and similar to what you guys do with the Summer of Peace, we can make peace a lifestyle. We can make peace a natural part of our being, because peace is within us.
Just different ways to get people to come together, to live in peace, and practice peace, and promote peace. Just like there's Fleet Week, and there's Fashion Week, it's an official part of the calendar, and it's something that's going to go on forever, and that's a beautiful thing. I like that. That's one my great inspirations that after I'm gone, it’s still going to be here.
That is wonderful. Now, you've talked about the necessity of unconventional therapeutic services. Can you speak to that? Is the Urban Yogis program related to that?
Yes. What that is, is that a lot of people don't want therapy. A lot of people are like, “There ain't nothing wrong with me. I don't need no help.” But there is something wrong with us, and we do need help. We create different ways to weave people into therapeutic services, whether it's the yoga program, and getting young people to do yoga and meditation, or healing circles, or sitting around doing group sessions, just various different healing through laughter. We have various different kinds of activities that engage people in healing, and it's a beautiful thing. It's a very beautiful thing. People are becoming more and more open to the concept of getting help. That's what we need, we need to heal, because there's a lot of us that are traumatized.
Yes. Now, you are the CEO and founder of LIFE Camp, and LIFE is an acronym for Love Ignites Freedom through Education.
That's dedicated to reducing violence among young New York, and creating a culture of peace. What is LIFE Camp doing now? What is the future of LIFE Camp?
Now, what we're doing is building on that VIP program, and really creating a way to test it, and prove it, and package it, and take it around the nation, so the system can be used in various different cities to help bring peace to the people in the cities. We have a trauma unit that we're getting ready to roll out in a couple of months, so that we can be more places than just in optimal areas. We are growing our work in the prison system, so that we can help brothers and sisters inside there navigate through that system, and really create a way to empower the brothers and sisters to not only heal, but to use their skills to push them forward and not hold them back.
You're doing so much to make a difference, and you've said, “It's a war overseas, and it's a war in our streets.” What can any of us do to make a difference?
I think that the more we become like Voltron, we spread peace, so a lot of times the work that we do, like me Erica Ford, or you, we're not popular people, quote unquote. Peace is not popular, so the more that we can help spread the word of what we're doing, bring people to volunteer, and support or donate or wear the colors or purchase the merchandise... just be part of the whole process to build peace in our minds, bodies, and souls across the nation... it helps us.
Erica, thank you so much for sharing your passion with us today, and thank you for the work you do in the world.
Thank you for the support. I appreciate it. I look forward to Summer of Peace.
Erica Ford is the CEO and Founder of LIFE Camp (Love Ignites Freedom Through Education), dedicated to reducing violence among young New Yorkers and creating a culture of peace.
LIFE Camp provides at-risk inner-city youth, ages 13-24, the valuable tools they need to stay in school and out of the criminal justice system. It provides programs such as I Love My Life Campaign to reinforce self-esteem and respect for life among teens and young adults. The Urban Yogis program and other holistic approaches connect and mobilize youth to prevent and heal from violence in New York City’’s most underserved communities.
Erica grew up in Jamaica, Queens in the 1980s, where crack use and gun violence was an everyday occurrence. With a burning desire to help effect positive changes in her community, Erica attended a rally for the December 12th Movement, a black human rights organization based in New York City. Joining this group empowered Erica, then 18, and solidified her life’s ambition to become a changemaker.
While at York College (The City of the University of New York), she co-founded The Code Club with her friend, the late Tupac Shakur, and others. The group’s mission was to keep young people out of jail and to decrease “Black on Black” crime.
Another offshoot of LIFE Camp is Erica’s “Peace is a Lifestyle” program, featuring holistic guru Deepak Chopra. Chopra, an outspoken supporter of Erica’s work, makes monthly visits to LIFE Camp where he talks to and meditates with the group participants.
Through the years, Erica’s dedication to reducing violence among young New Yorkers has garnered countless awards, accolades, praise and recognition by notable public figures such as former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Reverend Al Sharpton, and hip hop mogul Russell Simmons. Her recognized leadership has brought extensive travel and speaking gigs in prisons, community centers, high schools, college campuses, and conferences throughout the country and internationally.
Erica’s brainchild, New York Peace Week, occurs each January and honors Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy of nonviolence. Organized by LIFE Camp, Inc., the collective goal is to create a culture of peace throughout New York City for seven days by hosting an event, performing an activity, or simply taking one personal action toward creating inner peace and setting a positive example for young people.
Click here to visit Erica’s website, Peace Is a Lifestyle.
Click here to watch a 10-minute video about LIFE Camp.
Click here for a 14-page LIFE Camp PDF.
Click here to make a donation to LIFE Camp.
Click here to watch Erica’s TED Talk, “From Angry Peacemaker to Heart Leader.”
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This article appears in:
2019 Catalyst, Issue 3: Black History Month