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Jeffrey L. Sedgwick, Acting Assistant Attorney General
Office of Justice Programs

Boys and Girls Clubs Board of Directors Meeting
Washington, DC
September 16, 2008

Thank you, Rick. I’m happy to join you today.

Since becoming the Acting AAG, I’ve learned a great deal about Boys and Girls Clubs, and I’m proud that OJP has had an important role in supporting your efforts.

In May, I was at your annual conference in San Francisco and had the privilege of meeting club directors and leaders. Their dedication to the youth they serve in clubs across the country is impressive, and you should be very proud of their leadership and commitment.

The mentoring and other services that Boys and Girls Clubs provide are life-saving, and you’ve got the statistics to back you up on that. I saw the Harris survey results showing that 57 percent of alumni believe that Boys and Girls Clubs actually saved their lives. There’s no better testimonial than that.

I was particularly drawn to the section of the survey on crime and substance abuse. According to the survey, two-thirds of Club alumni said that Club staff helped them stay out of trouble with the law. Given what we’ve observed in recent crime trends, we can’t underestimate how important that is.

In late 2006, I was part of a group from the Department Justice that toured 18 cities to evaluate why crime was rising in some cities, and not in others.

There were three important findings, all related to youth:

  • First, we heard that juvenile violence was becoming more serious, with a younger population of offenders committing more violent acts.

  • Second, we heard about gang members as young as 12 and 13 carrying firearms and using them precipitately and indiscriminately.

  • Third, we heard that re-entering felons were exerting influence on young people through a kind of informal and perverse criminal mentoring system.

In testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee last Wednesday, the criminologist George Kelling said that, quote, “Right now a relatively small number of youths are carrying guns, dealing drugs, draping themselves in gang colors, and shooting each other to settle what are often trivial disputes. The effects on communities are disastrous and degrading.”

If we hope to suppress gangs and prevent juvenile delinquency and violence, then we must work to mentor and support our young people. The staff and volunteers at Boys and Girls Clubs across the country play a critical role in offering alternatives to gangs, crime, and drugs.

I saw a good example of that during my visit to the Willie Mays Boys and Girls Club at Hunters Point in San Francisco. I saw how the Club has transformed the community in response to the escalating violence in the Bayview/Hunters Point neighborhood. And I got to see the beautiful new facility that opened back in June.

This club and others like it offer young people services in areas including the arts, education, and sports and fitness. It’s also a model of partnership with law enforcement. I know that kids in challenged communities like Hunters Point often grow up casting a suspicious, if not hostile, eye on law enforcement. I could see that the Club in Hunters Point was beginning to change that attitude.

In fact, while I was speaking with the staff there, I noticed a young girl sitting next to a police officer. At some point during the conversation, she leaned over and placed her head on the officer’s shoulder. . . clearly transfixed by my every word. But I thought, what a great metaphor for the trust that’s developing between young people and law enforcement officers.

I also had the pleasure recently of visiting the Boys and Girls Club of the Northern Cheyenne Nation up in Lame Deer, Montana. As you know, one of the fruits of OJP’s partnership with Boys and Girls Clubs is the expansion of services in Indian country. The Northern Cheyenne program embodies the great progress we’ve made. The tribe’s president is the former executive director of that program, so there’s a clear commitment on the part of leadership there to tribal youth.

That commitment and our involvement are so important given the challenges that so many tribal communities face. A third of Northern Cheyenne tribal members 18 years and younger live below the federal poverty level, and two-thirds of youth are what we would call economically disadvantaged. And as you know, that’s not uncharacteristic of life in Indian country.

The Club is the only place where kids can go after school and in the summer for academic and social enrichment. And they, like the Hunters Point club, have a strong partnership with tribal law enforcement.

The Northern Cheyenne and Hunters Point clubs are just two fine examples of the excellent work that your organization is doing across the country, in both urban and rural areas. I’d like to see that work continue, with OJP’s support. I’d like to see us continue our aggressive outreach to public housing communities. I believe there are now more than 430 clubs operating in public housing. OJP helped to support 84 new public housing clubs just last year, along with 18 new Native American clubs. I hope we can keep that momentum going.

Working with young people is one of the most challenging and rewarding jobs there is. I understand my cliff-diving analogy went over pretty well at your national conference. For those of you who didn’t hear it, it goes like this:

Working with at-risk youth is a lot like cliff diving. Cliff divers have to have impeccable timing. When they jump, they are often looking down on little more than bare, wet rocks. They have to time their leap so that in the course of the descent, the wave advances and crests, creating a deep enough pool for them to land in. If they misread the play of the sea, the consequences are dire, perhaps fatal.

What Boys and Girls Clubs do is an awful lot like cliff diving. You know going in that you’re taking an incredible risk, yet you take the leap, knowing that the rewards, if successful, will be immense.

I’m proud that OJP has been your partner, and I’m proud that we will continue to support you in all the good work that you do.

Thank you for asking me to join you today. I look forward to continuing our work together to improve the lives of young people around the country.

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