How do we end the violence? Charles Clayton

-Messenger photo by Kelby Wingert
Charles Clayton stands on Central Avenue in downtown Fort Dodge. As director of Athletics for Education and Success, he has been working to improve the lives of young people in the area.

To help facilitate answers and solutions to the problem of violence permeating through Fort Dodge, The Messenger is kickstarting the conversations with those in the community who want to be part of the solution. This week, Messenger news reporter Kelby Wingert and Sports Editor Eric Pratt sat down to talk with Charles Clayton, founder of Athletics for Education and Success.

What is the first thing you would recommend as a course of action?

AFES does a lot of things people want to do already anyway, but we don’t have the resources and the volunteers. I don’t think we need to reinvent a wheel. Why not put our resources and volunteers into what we have? And not to toot my own horn, but everybody knows with juvenile court, police, school system, DHS, they’re gonna send us the toughest kids, the at-risk kids. We can’t really do what we need to do with them because my staff was already working double overtime. I mean, we’re busy from eight o’clock in the morning to nine o’clock at night. And I’m taking weekends away from all my coaches every weekend, trying to keep 30-50 kids out of trouble and busy and everything. So my recommendation is always for everybody to get on the same page of what we have already and invest in resources, and volunteers.

Other attempts at addressing these problems have been made over the years. Why why do you think they weren’t successful? And how can we learn from them?

No. 1, everybody’s got to get on the same page. That’s the first thing you got to have. You can’t have 15 groups doing 15 different things. You’ve got to get everybody on the same page and in agreement that this is what we’re choosing to do, this is our lane. Not being on the same page is taking a big chunk of resources and power and time and money and throwing it down to that drain. We gotta get on the same page.

One lane, one voice, one plan of action. And the right people have to be in charge of it. You’ve got to let the people that are maybe in the trenches, you got to let people that have been affected by this lead the effort or lead the charge or at least have a voice in it. If you’re not affected by it at all, you don’t have to deal with it every day when it’s not something that you are tangibly able to grasp, you can’t be the ones making all the choices. So in the past, we just never got on the same page. And we just didn’t get the resources to the right program or programs. We just we fell short on doing that. And then I don’t think we’ve ever talked about our ‘why.’ Why is this important for Fort Dodge? Why is this something we need to improve? Why is it something that we can win? We’ve never talked about that.

How can the general public be convinced that the violence is a problem that can actually be solved?

I think by community leaders — and that’s whatever tag you want to put on leaders, I guess — coming together. One, admitting that there is a problem; Two, identifying what lane we’re going to be in for solutions. Because that’s what I’ve told people last few weeks. There’s a few different lines here and avenues here. We’ve got to decide as a community, what lane we’re going to attack and then we got to explain to the community, why we picked that lane, and how we’re gonna go about tackling it. Lanes are multi-layered, it’s such a complex problem.

But when you talk about prevention, what are you talking about? So the next generation of kids in our community that we don’t want committing violence. If you take on a prevention effort, are you taking on elementary, middle school or high school? We’ve got to decide if we’re gonna do prevention, which one are we going to do? And then how are you going to do that? Are you’re going to do community wide events for those kids? Are you going to work targeted things for those kids, from a list of who are our at-risk kids? Because I think well-intentioned, everything helps. I don’t put anything down that anybody’s going to do or want to do. Well-intentioned plans for a community event for prevention with middle school kids is fine. If you open it up to middle school kids and their families come to this, you’re not gonna get the kids and families you want. So you do something, and it’s helpful. So we’re talking about prevention — what are you really wanting to prevent? You want to prevent just kids in general? The at-risk targeted kids that we know we need to go after? Or the high level even kids we need to go after for prevention? That’s one lane.

The next lane would be do we give our police officers, law enforcement and county attorneys the resources and support from the community to enact tougher measures? Whether that’s more stop and frisk, pullovers. Whether that’s more surveillance — are we going to take that lane of tougher law enforcement, tougher law interventions?

The next lane would be do we think about tackling this from a non-police intervention of community-inspired ceasefires, community-inspired peace rallies, community-inspired ‘guns down’ type of thing. That’s a totally different lane to go into. And that’s more of a community thing where you keep law enforcement maybe on the back burner of that.

Or do you take the lane of making sure that when you have high-risk individuals in the community or coming back in the community — coming back from juvenile court and/or prison — that you have more of a set program or plan for those high-risk people that you know are in your community?

I don’t think Fort Dodge has a lane. I don’t think we’ve ever thought about picking a lane.

What does your organization need more of to be increasingly effective moving forward?

Just to continue partnerships. Once COVID hit, a lot of places I think really got hurt by COVID or took steps back. We were trying to build a lot of partnerships in the community with the police department with UnityPoint Health, Iowa Central Community College, Fort Dodge school system, residential correctional facility. More partnerships is the biggest thing that I see we continue to need and expand on. And then you can’t do anything without funding and volunteers. Say what you want — if you don’t have the funding, we could not do it. We would love to do a Friday – Saturday program for middle school kids when they could just come in and utilize our facility, but when myself and other coaches all winter long are coaching on those days, then we don’t have enough staff. We don’t have the funding to pay new staff or volunteers. We have middle school kids, their idea on a Friday or Saturday of what they go do is to walk around Walmart or Target. In the size of a town this big — Houston there’s a problem.

What AFES wants to do next winter, we just want to be able to like open up an ‘AFES Cafe’ type of thing and just say you can come in you can eat here, we’ve got video games, we’ve got computers, we’ve got the gym, and we can be open from seven o’clock to 10 o’clock for middle school kids.

What can the average citizen do to help address this problem?

Conversations within your own home. And those are very multi-layered conversations, because it isn’t just about gun violence. Conversations about bullying, conversations about goal setting, conversations about investing in your community by paying it forward and giving it back, the importance volunteering. Every service club in Fort Dodge, membership is 75% less than it was 10 or 20 years ago. That aspect of community. Parents are having that conversation at home with their kids and it’s a lot of different conversations that you’re talking to kids about, like gun violence, but also the importance of just being involved and invested in your community and going out and volunteering. Fort Dodge Ford does their Thanksgiving dinner every year, or volunteering for Salvation Army and just giving back to your community and actually being invested in your community, not a bystander. You don’t have to do a lot, but is there a way for you and your family to be invested in the community? I think that’s the easiest way that people get involved. If you can preach that enough to your own kid, the kid who’s not getting that conversation at home, he’s got five friends at school that are getting that. People don’t have to do a lot. There’s not a lot you have to do. We’re not asking someone to quit their full time job and come do something or give boatloads of money. Just have more conversations within your home about real social issues.

How do you combat the breakdown of the family structure or dynamic that plagues communities and society when you’re only able to spend so much time and so much energy in a given day on a young person?

To be cliche, it’s like the village concept. If we all are really in this together, or enough within this community are in this together, there’s no reason why that should be an excuse in 2023. Social media, the way people can interact at anytime they want with each other, it just doesn’t make sense. The breakdown of the family is always what everybody always says why we never fully invest. I think that that excuse is just gone because there’s too many success stories of single parent, multi-family unit, dysfunctional families, parents who are just dysfunctional or DHS took kids from families — there’s too many success stories for ust o keep saying that. That’s like this easy go-to for society, but it’s not because 80% of the kids out of those situations are surviving. The kids from a single parent home are doing good in life. Even the kids from dysfunctional families are fine today.

I just go back to that’s the village approach. Do we as a community want to take the village approach so we all have a little part in making sure that there’s no throw away kids and families? Now the hard thing about that is when you put in the drugs aspect. When drugs are involved in the home then that’s where you got to have some other more formal interventions.

AFES does great work, but how can we create more social opportunities for kids who maybe aren’t interested in athletics and how do we make stuff like that affordable for families?

The greatest kept secret in Fort Dodge is AFES does more than sports. So we’ve got our after school program and our mentoring program. We’ve got our in-school mentoring diversion program. We’ve got a summer-long program. Kids come all summer, and all the things on a sliding-scale fee. They all have financial aid and financial assistance. We’ve got our music program our STEM program, we’re going to get ready to put it in a recording studio. The affordable part is where the resources come in. If you want all these things to stay affordable and be affordable, is our business community, is our grant foundations that are local, wanting to really put real dollars into these efforts? Because the headline of expanding our trail system right next to an article of a teenager getting killed doesn’t promote your community. You better invest in both. Plain and simple.


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