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A youth football team drives home what violence and trauma do to young lives

A youth football team drives home what violence and trauma do to young lives

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The Panthers youth team practices at Central City’s A.L. Davis Park. (Photo by Brett Duke/NOLA.com)
The Panthers youth team practices at Central City’s A.L. Davis Park. (Photo by Brett Duke/NOLA.com)

Richard Webster and Jonathan Bullington, two reporters who cover crime for NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, knew the vague outline of the big story they wanted to tell: How does constant exposure to violence impact children in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in one of the country’s most violent cities?

But that’s a starting question, not a story. To get the story, they would first have to invest the time. And so they did. They left their newsroom and rented office space in a youth center in Central City, one of the New Orleans’ most culturally rich yet violence-plagued neighborhoods, and spent the first month doing background interviews and holding listening sessions with pastors, residents, local leaders, anyone who’d talk. Slowly they built trust, gleaned ideas and sought advice. Being int he neighborhood was key, they said. They were able to have a constant presence int he neighborhood with the help of reporting and engagement stipends as Fellows at the Center for Health Journalism.

The seeds they planted then eventually grew into “,” a powerful multimedia series of investigative stories, features, documentary video and photographs that give a harrowing and intimate look at the deep emotional and physical scars born by New Orleans’ most vulnerable kids.

It was one tip in particular that unlocked the larger story, 2017 National Fellows Bullington and Webster explained while delivering the keynote at the 2018 National Fellowship this week.  During an interview,  a local Mardi Gras Indian chief mentioned Central City’s A.L. Davis Park and its Panthers youth football team, long coached by local music legend DJ Jubilee. It’s a ragtag team of 9- and 10-year-olds high on spirit and low on wins. Their home field is a rough spot, the turf still showing brown patches leftover from FEMA trailers in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The young players also contend with the ever-present threat of violence in a park best known for drug dealings and shootings. “At any moment something terrible can happen here,” Bullington said.

The team’s current coach casually agreed to let the reporters hang around at practice. “We walked back to our cars and we were just like, ‘This is it. This is the story.’ It was just so obvious,” recalled Bullington. The big-hearted kids in oversized pads, the park visuals, the foreboding sense of menace, it was all there. “It presented everything we wanted."

The Times-Picayune had already granted Webster and Bullington four months to report the series, and they started spending many of their hours at the park. One or the other went to practice every day, swapping notes afterward. As they became regular faces, families started opening up with stories. The reporters started filling up notebooks and finding one story after another of young children witnessing murders, losing mothers and fearing daily for their lives. Out of it comes an old-fashioned journalistic lesson in the value of showing up: “We went to the park every single day, and because we went every day we learned all this,” Webster said.

Early on, a local nonprofit leader the pair interviewed told them that “the biggest mistake reporters make is taking one child and making them a poster child for one issue.” Webster and Bullington took that message to heart. One of the most remarkable things about the stories in “Children of Central City” is just how successfully the series transcends the usual journalistic pitfalls. They don’t make a single child or family bear the narrative weight of childhood trauma in general. Nor do they buttress a few cherry-picked anecdotes with a quick dump of data points to capture the sweep of the problem. Instead, the series is driven by stories but almost sociological in sweep, depicting the bad ends and broken dreams of an entire team over the years.

We learn the story of brothers , who wake to find their mother shot dead in the kitchen. And the story of , a former player and drug dealer who lost two brothers to shootings before turning his life around and becoming a beloved math teacher and coach. We get little video snippets from current players, who give endearing peeks at what they love and hate most about their neighborhood. We also learn about the binder that former coach DJ Jubilee carries around with him, listing the names and dates of 28 Panther players killed over 14 years. Unless something changes, the cycle will continue. Of the 25 players on the current team, Jubilee estimates half will be killed or sent to prison.

The cumulative impact — eight print stories, a haunting documentary and videos by Emma Scott, and powerful photographs by Brett Duke — is heartbreaking. The project has garnered notice since it ran over five days in mid-June. Last week, the United Way organized a screening of the documentary that was attended by the mayor, state representative, community leaders and the governor’s wife. “Mayor LaToya Cantrell ended the event with a ‘call to action,’ pledging that her administration would support programs that assist children affected by violence,” the outlet reported

That wider notice is important, particularly since the reporters take pains to situate the players’ stories amid the broader forces compounding their plight: State that have devastated behavioral and mental health services and in addressing trauma in the classroom. 

Webster and Bullington also sought to preempt dismissive claims that these kids are merely making poor decisions — or the victims of bad parenting. The pair spent a lot of time unpacking the science of childhood trauma and toxic stress. The resulting short illustrated video “” shows viewers how exposure to violence can hijack the body’s stress system, which in turns causes a host of behavioral and academic problems and even chronic disease. When trauma manifests itself at the level of physiology, “bootstrap” narratives seem ill-informed at best. 

“I oftentimes say that trauma is the underbelly of violence,” Dr. Denese Shervington, president of the Institute of Women and Ethnic Studies, tells the reporting team in the documentary. “We know that if we don’t treat trauma, especially in boys, the likelihood of them getting involved in what we kind of call ‘hot, aggressive behaviors’ is quite likely. So why aren’t we not thinking about how to manage that as a health issue, versus putting so much attention on police and criminalizing these young people who have mental distress?”

 


Watch the documentary “The Children of Central City” here:

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