Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

In conversation with... Jack Calhoun

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When senior consultant to U.S. President Barack Obama, Jack Calhoun, addresses the Thinker's Conference in Winnipeg Friday at the University of Winnipeg, he'll be drawing on years of experience working with inner-city youths.

As a senior consultant to the U.S. Department of Justice and director of the 13-city California Cities Gang Prevention Network, Calhoun works to improve the lives of disenfranchised youth in big American cities.

Calhoun was appointed by U.S President Jimmy Carter as chief of the Children's Bureau in 1979. There, he oversaw numerous programs, including Head Start, a program that provides health, education and other services to low-income youth.

In 1980, Calhoun helped write the Adoption Assistance and Childcare Welfare Act, which aimed to help children in the foster-care program through measures such as requiring the state to return children in non-permanent settings to their homes as quickly as possible.

Calhoun's talk, at 9:15 a.m., will touch on inner-city issues and youth crime. For more information on the Thinker's Conference, visit

FP: What specific issues are you battling?

Calhoun: It's a wide range. One of the biggest issues we're battling, and in my long, long career I've never been so optimistic, it is the gun issue. Actually, our crime rates, if you look at small crimes, carjacking, burglary, simple assaults, thefts, things like this, our crime rates are the same or lower than almost all Western capitals, Amsterdam, Berlin, London, Vancouver, B.C., until you throw in guns. And then we go through the roof and it's absolutely obscene. About 31,000 Americans lose their lives to guns per year. But never in my lifetime, which is long, have I been this optimistic, because very often after the horror of an Aurora or an Arizona or a Virginia Tech, it abates. There's a lot of talk, a lot of Sturm und Drang for weeks even, maybe a month, but then it goes. This is qualitatively different. I've never seen anything like it. Obama has proposed legislation. State governments have come up with their own legislation, and these are not proposed. I don't want the whole thing to devolve to the gun issue, but that's one huge issue.


FP: What are you setting out to accomplish at your talk on Friday?

Calhoun: It will be what we see as sort of pillars for success, of really, the requisite undergirding you have to have to be able to actually reduce crime and help build communities that are more nurturing and supportive. That will be the core of it with two strong emphases: one on the gun issue and why is this new. And please, Canada, don't change your gun laws, don't do what we've done over the years. The other is the importance of the relational, because so many of these kids are without an adult relationship and adult guidance and they're just not being brought into society. People sort of poo-poo the relational as the soft stuff, but as we all know as either parents or kids or employees or employers or whatever, the relational is the hardest stuff. A lot of people have gotten out of gangs because of a relationship.


FP: Why do you think people should know about these issues?

Calhoun: Because I think things can change, and communities can indeed change. I've seen neighbourhoods change. I've seen one neighbourhood in San Bernadino known as the Phoenix area with all the (indicators) of social pathology: dropping out, chronic truancy, child abuse, domestic violence, crime. Everybody wanted to get out, and they interviewed the neighbourhood after several years and they said, "Our kids can play in the street again. They can get to school safely. I don't want to move."


FP: What parallels do you see between the States and Canada?

Calhoun: I can't claim to be an expert, but I think you've got at least an incipient gang problem there, and I know you have a 'First American' (aboriginal) issue in terms of kids who are really either not connected to that culture or the more Western culture, and kids who are floating, looking for a connection and looking for a future. I would venture to guess that there's a lot of social pathology in your reserves in terms of alcoholism and child abuse.


FP: What motivates you to fight for these issues?

Calhoun: I think it goes way back and some of it's DNA and some of it really is a sense of concern about what's happening to certain populations in this country. And it provides me with a lot of meaning in my life. I can't see not doing it. For me, it's constant learning. This is not just the gospel of Calhoun spreading the word in 13 California cities. It's constantly finding new ideas.

-- Oliver Sachgau

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 21, 2013 A11

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