Local Groups Focus on Safety Today to Ensure Community Dreams Thrive Tomorrow
Updated: Oct 31, 2022
by Rosette Royale
As a child, Tia Yarbrough dreamed that when she grew up, she would help young people — but she never imagined her dream would lead her back to the place where she’d spent hours of her childhood.
Yarbrough was raised in South Seattle, where she attended South Shore Middle School. After graduating from Franklin High School and receiving undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Washington, she taught at Garfield High School. Eventually, she returned to South Shore, by then a K–8, where she served as assistant principal. “I knew I wanted to be a tangible example of someone who had come from the demographic and who was part of the community,” Yarbrough said. “It was kind of serendipitous that I ended up there.”
But serendipity — or a dream — has a way of evolving, taking people to new places, and Yarbrough’s dream to help young people now bears a different shape. Currently, she works as a program manager for Zero Youth Detention (ZYD), the King County program that seeks not only to reduce youth detention but ultimately eliminate it.
The work is important to her on a personal level, she said, because she’s witnessed how juvenile incarceration has affected her family, friends, and former classmates. Yarbrough has also seen the impacts on the larger community. Working with ZYD allows her to explore ways to ensure community members have greater access to resources that will help them fulfill their dreams. ZYD, she said, is “not just focused on just the problem itself but ‘How can we be preventative? How can we intervene earlier?’”
Yarbrough said the young people she interacts with are, of course, thinking about the future, and she’s noticed that many dream of certain types of success. Unlike earlier generations, which often viewed college as the doorway to opportunity, she said she hears young people talk about opportunities that aren’t centered on acquiring a degree and joining the workforce.
“Our kids are seeing themselves as leaders, they’re seeing themselves as creatives and artists,” she said. “They want to be able to create an experience for themselves that fills their hearts, makes them feel bigger. They want to make money, but I think they want to feel purposeful too.”
Yarbrough finds purpose in devoting energy to ensuring the safety of her neighbors, which applies to more than physical safety, especially in an era where gun violence remains a pressing concern for Black and Brown communities in King County. “When I think about what it would look like for people to thrive and people to feel safe,” she said, “it would be having the wherewithal to dream, to see themselves prospering in all the many ways that word means — whether its socially, emotionally, financially, physically, spiritually. That’s really what I envision as a kind of safe and healthy, happy, whole community.”
For Donnitta Sinclair, the desire to help create a whole and safe community lies at the heart of her organization, We Got Us Moms. Sinclair began the group months ago as a resource for mothers whose families have been ruptured by gun violence. “It’s not just about healing,” Sinclair said. “My focus is to … create a space of understanding, allowing mothers to be a voice for their child.”
Sinclair began speaking for and about one of her children after June 20, 2020, when her son, Horace Lorenzo Anderson, lost his life due to gun violence. Anderson, 19, was visiting CHOP/CHAZ, Seattle’s autonomous zone on Capitol Hill, when he was shot. Sinclair said the event ruptured not only her world but that of her two younger daughters. Close to two years later, the aftereffects can feel surprisingly fresh. “I had him at 24 weeks,” she said, her voice breaking. “People don’t understand that, but my son was a preemie, so I had him at four months. My son was six-hundred-eighty grams. He was less than a pound.”
He had to overcome many obstacles in his life, she said, and indeed, the day before he died, he had graduated from high school. “For him to be stripped, and at a young age, the way it was, it’s devastating,” she said. “It’s not allowing me to really heal. I’m going through this new journey, but I’m empty. And so I’m supporting mothers with that emptiness.”
The group of some 20 mothers meets monthly, she said, for event-based gatherings. They share meals, or maybe they get a full-body massage or take part in a balloon release or go on a hike. Mostly, it’s about spending time with each other, even over the phone. “We got a pledge,” she said. “‘You help me, I help you.’”
Sinclair said the group’s name, We Got Us Moms, owes a debt to Anderson. “My son used to always say, ‘Mom, I got us,’” she recalled, chuckling at the memory. ”I was always trying to figure out, ‘How do you got us, when you work at Popeyes? How?’ But he do, and he has allowed other opportunities in our community, other doors to be open since his death. I’m not so happy [that] it had to be my son or any child, right? But opportunities has been open. So we’re trying to make sure what happened to my son and other children don’t happen to nobody else.”
She said one step to restoring strong community ties, and creating a sense of safety, would be for people to talk to each other, to have the difficult conversations many have been taught to avoid. Along with improving interpersonal connections, Sinclair said it’s also time for a truce, a period where community members can live and thrive together, unburdened by gun violence. “We gotta start with a small goal, [so] I don’t want to say a year, but one month without killing,” she said. “Just one month, one week without hearing somebody got shot or there was a shooting.”
In the meantime, Sinclair is devoted to supporting the community by supporting mothers. It’s a model that helps address the trauma and pain of the past, while keeping an eye toward a future dream of creating safe, healthy neighborhoods. “Just understanding that people that lost their family members or children,” she said, “we need to be handled gently. We need to be handled with care. And in order for us to heal, we have to have healthy support. So that’s what We Got Us Moms brings: We bring healthy support. We create that space of just understanding.”
One community effort to ensure the safety of those who dream of the future occurred in mid-March outside of Washington Middle School, at 3:45 p.m. That’s when the dismissal bell rang. As if called to action, Aprais-jah Gee and DeWright Brooks walked toward the main entrance.
Students swarmed out of the door, as Gee and Brooks stood near waiting school buses. The pair smiled as several young people — one toting a violin case, a second with pink hair, a third with turquoise locks — zoomed by them.
While Brooks enacted a DIY beautification program by picking up trash that blew across the lawn, a group of four students walked toward Gee.
“How y’all doing?” Gee asked.
“Good,” the students chirped in unison.
Staying safe is a message Gee and Brooks, along with a handful of other adults, convey as members of the Community Safety Team, which meets outside Washington nearly every day school is in session. There, on the sidewalk, team members interact, converse and laugh with the young people who funnel past them.
The Community Safety Team is part of a broader local program known as the Seattle Community Safety Initiative, a joint effort by the Boys and Girls Club of King County, Community Passageways, Urban Family, and the YMCA of Greater Seattle to address the effects of violence on Black and Brown communities. The Community Safety Team is a direct program of Community Passageways.
Last year, the City committed $14 million to the initiative. Former Mayor Jenny Durkan and the Seattle Human Services Department also announced that 33 organizations focused on community-led solutions to increasing safety in Black and Brown communities would share $10.4 million.
Community Safety Team members have been gathering along the sidewalk near the middle school since last fall, their presence activated by news that a Washington student had been involved in gun violence. Their monthslong dedication, in all kinds of weather, has helped them forge relationships with dozens of young people. At one point, a student in a red jacket approached Wright and shook his hand. Another student with long eyelashes smiled at Gee, waved, then walked east with a classmate along South Jackson Street.
For Gee, seeing students often reignited memories of her own educational experience. She admitted that, for a while, she wasn’t invested in school and even considered dropping out of Garfield. “But I realized that wasn’t the road I wanted to go down,” she said. “So I graduated. Almost didn’t.”
Brooks said that sometimes, when students see Street Team members, they push back against the adults’ presence. “They call us the police,” Wright said.
“Or ‘the Feds,’” Gee added. “But I’m still going to be out here. I’m still going to be engaged.”
Brooks said engaging with the students is critical, “so [the students] can see we’re all in this together.”
As the area in front of Washington cleared of students, Street Team members, several dressed in clothing emblazoned with a circular Community Passageways logo, followed the tide of young people. Many headed east, toward 23rd Avenue South and South Jackson Street. A steady flow of students crossed the intersection and trickled into a gleaming Amazon Fresh grocery store, on the Southeast corner.
Gee knew the store well: She works there in marketing. The store opened last summer, and as she rode the short escalator down to the ground floor, students scurried through the aisles. Toward the cash registers, a customer grabbed the handle of an Amazon Dash Cart, a digital shopping cart that, when activated by an Amazon app, tracked the costs of all the items placed within. The customer’s Amazon account would be charged once their shopping was done.
None of the students used a Dash Cart, and in truth, some of them struggled to pay for the items they wanted. One of the students, whom Gee had interacted with earlier near the school, approached the Safety Team member. She talked with Gee, and Gee followed her to the cash register.
As the cashier scanned a carton of food from the steam table and a Mountain Dew, Gee stood by. Another Washington student walked up with a carton of juice. Gee nodded. The second student placed the juice on the conveyor belt. The cashier scanned it. Gee paid for the transaction. The students hugged her and walked to the escalator.
Gee said some of the students the Safety Team met were growing up in households that struggle to cover the cost of food. When team members realized this, their parent organization, Community Passageways, purchased gift cards to give to students.
“We knew what they needed,” said Brooks.
By 4:10 p.m., less than half an hour after the dismissal bell, most of the students had left the area, save for several of them queued up at a bus stop in front of a nearby Starbucks. Safety Team members watched from across the street and made sure all the students boarded. When the bus pulled away, team members gathered for a short check-in, then began to disperse.
For a brief moment, the sidewalks were calm. Team members vowed to return the next day, ready to provide a sense of safety for the students, ready to engage with young people as they dreamed of their future.
Tia Yarbrough posed during an event hosted by Community Passageways. Photographed by ArtBy FREDRICK 2022.
Donnita Sinclair, founder of We Got Us Moms, hosting an event catered towards mothers who have been impacted by gun violence. Photographed by ArtBy FREDRICK 2022.