Urban Specialists repairs and reinvigorates troubled neighborhoods by deploying ex-gang leaders, former offenders, and others with street credibility to be agents of positive change.
Bishop Omar Jahwar knows better than most that ending urban violence is difficult. But he also knows better than anyone that it’s possible.
The Bishop, as he’s called, comes from the urban neighborhood he serves — where unemployment is high and so is the poverty rate. Most youth have witnessed some form of violence. Graduation rates are low, and hope can seem scarce. But in this place that can appear to the untrained eye as barren, Bishop Jahwar is cultivating a garden of human potential, redemption, and promise.
In 2000, he negotiated an unprecedented truce in Dallas between the Bloods and Crips — two of the country’s most notorious gangs. The seeds for that intervention were sown a couple of years earlier when shootings, crime, and fear were ravaging Dallas neighborhoods. As a spiritual leader dedicated to eradicating senseless violence, fortifying communities, and helping families, Bishop Jahwar knew he had to do something.
“I can’t tell you how many funerals I have done of young people that I looked at on Monday, alive and well, and breathing, and I had to bury them on Saturday,” he says. “This is not how it’s supposed to be in urban communities. This is wrong.”
A powerful idea for change
Bishop created an ambitious plan rooted in the belief that people inherently want to do the right thing.
He knew people in his community often ended up in gangs and committing crimes because in their eyes, those routes seemed like the only options for survival. But what if they were shown another way?
His idea: ask the very people who had fostered and perpetrated violence — including gang leaders and former criminal offenders — to become beacons for positive change in their communities. They could use their authenticity, credibility, and influence to promote ideas for thriving in life, not just surviving the streets.
As a respected leader with street cred and strong community ties, Bishop was persuasive. Soon, he and a group of new change agents began to spread through south Dallas neighborhoods, listening to needs, mediating disputes, and developing trusting relationships. And so, Urban Specialists was born with the sole mission to transform urban culture by eliminating senseless violence. As the movement swelled, hundreds of influencers joined in to promote peace. Those who were once part of the problem became part of the solution.
“The best way to help a struggling community is to empower the individuals that are inside that community.”Bishop Omar Jahwar, founder of Urban Specialists
Capitalizing on credibility
Bishop believes that existing initiatives to stem violence — be it tough policing or federal crime reduction programs — aren’t effective for two reasons: As outsiders, these groups don’t fully understand a community’s needs, and they don’t have the respect and credibility to enact change.
Without an effective solution, senseless violence and generational poverty will only continue.
Urban Specialists takes a different approach, from the bottom-up. It taps into the clout, knowledge, and experience of credible community members who want to be agents of change.
“No one knows how to keep someone out of a gang better than someone who was in a gang themselves,” says Antong Lucky, a former gang leader who is now an Urban Specialists master trainer.
The “Urban Specialists” that Lucky trains break through distrust, form meaningful relationships, and foster change by:
- Being a consistent presence in neighborhoods — spending time at schools, bus stops, and community events;
- Teaching life-enhancing skills such as goal setting, problem solving, and conflict resolution, and;
- Building connections with schools, law enforcement, policymakers, and economic development centers.
Since 1998, Urban Specialists has enhanced thousands of lives. It has also reduced violence, truancy, and disciplinary actions in schools while making neighborhoods are safer.
“There is nothing greater than to live in a community without fear,” says Bishop. “A fearless community becomes a powerful community because they start seeing things as solvable.”
By the numbers
reduction in violence in schools where Urban Specialists operated
Urban Specialists trained
mentees directly impacted
of OGs, despite suffering themselves, have a strong propensity to give back to their communities
Expanding Urban Specialists’ reach
In 2017, Stand Together Foundation saw the power of Urban Specialists’ unique approach, and made a strategic investment to scale its initiatives. Together, they expanded the school-based youth programs to Baton Rouge, La. and Atlanta, Ga. — the first locations outside of Texas.
In planning future growth, Urban Specialists and Stand Together Foundation realized the most effective way forward was to focus on recruiting more adult mentors to be change agents for good. And so they set out a plan to start identifying, inspiring, training, and activating skilled individuals at an accelerated pace.
In 2019, with Stand Together Foundation’s support, Urban Specialists launched a new program, Original Gangstas United (OGU). (The term “OG” applies to someone with authenticity and credibility.)
Rather than identifying and coaching one Urban Specialist at a time, OGU recruits large groups of 25 to 30 participants (“OGs”) for a 21-day course. They learn how to use their influence to transform their communities, as well as how to train others to do the same.
“We’re taking the original gangsters out of the neighborhoods… showing them how to go back into their communities to avert violence by mentoring teenagers,” says Lucky. “We help them develop a plan for their communities.”
Creating a forum for crucial conversations
In 2020, racial injustice and police brutality finally broke through America’s surface and emerged as a national focal point. In a critical time for our country, Urban Specialists and Stand Together partnered to launch a national platform: The Heal America Tour. This tour, consisting of a series of “civil-discourse” conversations, taps into the reservoir of hope that runs deep within our country and rallies people from all walks of life around a defined call to action examining structural racism and offering viable solutions forward.
The Heal America Tour was modeled on successful community conversations led by Bishop Jahwar that cultivated healing and diffused violence in Dallas, Texas, in 2016 after five police officers were killed by a sniper in retaliation for police violence, including the killing of black men in several cities.
The tour is a series of in-person and virtual talks that brings together national and local leaders, community members, activists, and others to have an open dialogue and share solutions about inequality, systemic injustices, and police reform. It has attracted thousands of online and in-person attendees so far.
“Confronting injustice and eliminating racism won’t happen overnight,” says Bishop Jahwar. “But there is more common ground than people realize. We have the opportunity to move people from being frustrated on the sidelines to being frontline participants of change.”
Urban Specialists is creating a powerful movement to reduce violence, quash racial injustice, and build safe, collaborative communities nationwide. With your support, its OGU model and the Heal America tour can expand to new cities nationwide, building a movement to end the cycle of urban violence and to create more cohesive, collaborative communities.