Erica Ford is the founder and executive director of LIFE Camp, a grassroot violence prevention organization that is a part of the NYC Crisis Management System (CMS). LIFE Camp was birthed in 2002 as the City of NY was searching for solutions to the alarming murder rate (909). She created LIFE Camp as a vehicle to combat disinvestment, food deserts, poverty, high unemployment, high crime, a spirit of homelessness and other socio-economic factors plaguing the Black and Brown communities. What started out as a vision has manifested into a strategy that has assisted in a 67% (292 in 2017) decline in homicides. Erica has worked over thirty-two years making an effort to eradicate racism, improve the community and save lives. She made a conscious decision to make peace a lifestyle and to exhibit the same love to the perpetrator and victim, understanding they are both influenced by their traumatic conditions.
One-line project summary:
LIFE Camp seeks to create a peaceful, healthy, vibrant community where Black and Brown people can live and thrive.
Present your project.
1) I am committed to abolishing the racist systematic structures in Black and Brown communities that create traumatic living conditions and produce high volumes of violence and crime.
2) I am proposing the Crisis Management System (CMS) that views violence as a disease through the public health lens and addresses the entire ecology of the members infected by it. The goal of CMS is not simply to address the violence but more importantly address the entire health of the community.
3) This project elevates humanity by scaling a system and approach that is scientifically proven to address the socio-economic factors that are plaguing marginalized people throughout the world.
Submit a video.
What specific problem are you solving?
Millions of people in Black and Brown marginalized communities across the nation are affected by the plagues associated with structural and systemic racism. Some of the plagues that make these communities difficult to live in is limited access to adequate health care, disinvestment in schools, poverty, high unemployment, high crime rates, high volumes of violence, mass incarceration, a state of perpetual trauma, and food deserts. The CMS approach is collaborative: working with the community to change their conditions and gives the participants in the program access to the necessary services that meet their individual needs. The CMS approach welcomes community into healing and transformation.
What is your project?
The Crisis Management System (CMS) Model aims to decrease violence and accelerate leadership development in New York City’s marginalized communities. We work directly with community stakeholders and national anti-violence leaders to address the underlying causes of violence: the absence of opportunities and a traumatized community with disproportionate numbers of people who are incarcerated, unemployed, and demoralized.
CMS is an innovative approach adapted from the United States Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), incorporating a public health prescription for violence prevention.
The CMS Model network is a collaborative array of experts, credible messengers, community-based and faith-based organizations, and public and private sector stakeholders. With roots in New York City neighborhoods in all five boroughs, this network is creating safer environments for NYC youth and community members. The work falls into six categories: Coalition Building, Holistic Wraparound Supports, Emergency Management System Response to Violence Interruption, Community Engagement and Education Events, Media and Public Awareness Campaigns, and Training and Development for Staff and Volunteers.
Since the deployment of the CMS Model in Queens, we have documented 562 days without shootings in our focus areas. The last year saw an 85% reduction in the number of shootings in our sphere of influence.
Who does your project serve, and in what ways is the project impacting their lives?
The CMS is community founded and led: it directly serves the community that powers it. Founded by Erica Ford, who grew up in Southeast Queens, this model hires and works directly with the people who influence, cause and have been impacted by violence in a specific neighborhood. Our programming meets our communities where they’re at. As part of our CMS model, our staff are also our program participants. The majority of our staff are formerly incarcerated women and men who are back in the streets with the mission of changing the streets. This is important.
At its core, the CMS model provides jobs to high risk individuals to prevent and interrupt violent activities, while helping them transform their lives - in turn modeling that change for others. These individuals build credible inroads into our communities, providing opportunities for jobs, therapeutic and wellness services to heal from the traumas of violence and poverty, and allow our young people to radically reimagine what is possible (and clear paths and resources to do so).
Which dimension of The Elevate Prize does your project most closely address?
Elevating understanding of and between people through changing people’s attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors
Explain how your project relates to The Elevate Prize and your selected dimension.
The Crisis Management System invests in communities to drive change from within, breaking systemic barriers and violence. It works from within to change hearts and minds, heal from trauma, and escape violence. This work holistically re-humanizes impacted people, peeling back generations of internalized traumas and self-violence, while addressing systemic short fallings and violence that perpetuate violence.
How did you come up with your project?
I came up with this project after looking at the impact of violence on my community: the children left behind by fathers either incarcerated or killed in the streets. I knew we had to address this disease head on and help our people heal and transform after the pain - we needed to stop the spread of violence. Along with my friends, faith based organizations and individuals who were already Violence Intervention & Prevention Specialists in their own lanes - people who were individually and collectively transforming families and young people in bold and courageous ways - we came together and made the CMS a reality.
Why are you passionate about your project?
I have an unrelenting passion and love for my people. And right now, we can’t breath. This work that I do, this project, is our oxygen mask. I will do this work until my last breath.
It’s difficult for me to think of one defining moment, when I’ve spent most of my life helping my people breath. When I began to look around me, what I saw was that most of the people I grew up with were either incarcerated or dead, or cold and angry that their loved ones were either dead or incarcerated. And this pain, anger and trauma was moving to the children I saw: all of them. It was a cycle, clear as day. There had to be something different. I had to build a way out, a roadway to help us heal. And it had to be a path so that when our brothers and sisters came home from jail, they didn't go back: they needed to reconnect with their families, children and our community.
Why are you well-positioned to deliver this project?
This work takes deep motivation and leadership. We’re asking men and women to put their lives on the line, to stop bullets, without the proper tools or resources. For years when we started (and still to this day), because of City funding structures, our staff would go sometimes for months without pay as we waited for City funding. This happens every summer, at the height of violence - at the end and start of the fiscal year. For years, I needed to motivate my staff to show up despite this. When we first started CMS, for years, I gave up my own salary and became a volunteer, lending my employees money from my own pocket to help them meet ends until contracts with the City are renewed and funds reallocated. We had to do this because our children’s lives were on the line: we couldn’t lose the momentum of what we’ve been building. And it worked. We went 562 days with zero shootings, and saw 4 years with no one killed in the areas we worked.
It takes audacity, compassion and deep dedication to motivate people to show up and risk their own lives without anything in return: while, often, their own families are with little to eat. Time after time, where there is no hope, I am able to give life to a dream; give people the motivation they need to believe in what they can’t imagine. And I’ve been doing this for 32+ years.
Provide an example of your ability to overcome adversity.
When I first presented this project to the Mayor of NYC, he said no. The Mayor said he’ll never fund the people in this way - especially the population of high risk individuals I was asking him to support. The Deputy Mayor advised the Mayor to make us think he’ll help us, for the optics, but don’t. I had to go and regroup and organize allies. Then I leveraged the new mayoral election. I was speaking during a Martin Luther King Jr. Day event when I saw a promennt Mayoral Candidate enter the room. I was strategic and leveraged that moment: I called out her commitment to our work and publicly put this initiative on the agenda for the Mayoral race. I didn’t give up. I was persistent for five years, organizing and building the framework for the CMS, and the allies and partners to ensure it succeeds. I used my personality to command many rooms, the media and elected officials. I was bold. In 2009, the Mayor invested $5M into the model, creating 5 CMS sites. Today, that has grown into a $47M investment into 26 sites, 80+ CBOs and 6 City agencies working together.
Describe a past experience that demonstrates your leadership ability.
We live in a system that is build on the economy of slavery and incercaration, and attachment to a criminal injustice system. The world erupted when we saw George Floyd’s killer kneel on his neck, and as he grasped for his last breath, making that salient cry for his mother. I see this every single day: young people taking their last breath, gasping for air with a system that is strangling the life out of their frail bodies; where the system is not allowing them to grow; where the system is stifling their dreams, leading to the end of their lives; to the loss of hope; to loss of desire to live. So it’s not just a knee on George Floyd’s neck that needs to motivate us to do something bold and audacious; it’s the knee that sucks the life out of our children in Black and Brown and poor communities every day; that doesn't allow them to breathe life into their frail bodies.
Everyday I show up is a show of leadership. I am dedicated to making sure our children not only heal and get the oxygen they need, but to build a system to destroy this existing one.
How long have you been working on your project?
Where are you headquartered?New York, NY, USA
What type of organization is your project?
Describe what makes your project innovative.
The Crisis Management System made the impossible possible in NYC: investing millions of dollars into formerly incarcerated men and women, entrusting them to become changemakers in one of the largest cities in the world. The CMS got NYC to turn power over, telling these men and women - once outcasts - that they are now the doctors and healers, the protectors and influencers for peace and public safety. And then for four years, no one was killed in areas we worked. We went 562 days with zero shootings. CMS proved to opposing politicians, pundits and those who wanted to see us fail that we can transform the minds of those thrown to the side. That the young people at the highest risk of shooting or getting shot are not perps, thugs or criminals: but human beings. CMS proved that we can stand up to militarized violence in our communities. It proved that when communities lead, crime and recidivism decreases, and that peace becomes a lifestyle.
And CMS demonstrates each day to our communities that there is another way. That we can heal and transform. That kids in the hood can do yoga in the park and become international Yogis. That crews can squash generations worth of beef without guns. That gangsters can meditate and become peace doctors. That mothers don’t have to mourn the loss of their babies. That we can grow our own healthy foods. That going to jail doesn't mean an end. CMS makes the impossible possible everyday.
What is your theory of change?
The public and private sectors treat violence as a public health issue, building coalitions to unapologetically value and reinvest in our most vulnerable communities through a multi-level systems approach to violence reduction…
Coalition-building is pursued as an ongoing process that includes all stakeholder voices
Individuals and families receive wraparound supports to mitigate the effects of trauma and violence
Stakeholders and staff value and follow LIFE Camp’s emergency management approach to responding to a violent event
Stakeholders actively engage in and contribute to events and trainings promoting safe and peaceful communities
Staff are seen as trusted experts and are supported through training
Black and Brown lives, through collective voice, will influence societal norms for sustainable change in our most vulnerable neighborhoods, leading to thriving communities with increased mental, physical, and emotional wellbeing, which leads to an unprecedented reduction in violence.
Select the key characteristics of the community you are impacting.
Which of the UN Sustainable Development Goals does your project address?
In which countries do you currently operate?
In which countries will you be operating within the next year?
How many people does your project currently serve? How many will it serve in one year? In five years?
The CMS model works directly in the neighborhoods with the highest crime precincts in all five boroughs of NYC, impacting safety across all of NYC. According to the Mayor’s Office to Prevent Gun Violence, since 2010, our work has reduced shootings across the City by 40 percent, and by 31 percent in the 17 highest violence precincts in NYC. Collectively, we directly touch over 66,000 high risk individuals annually, impacting the safety and wellbeing of 8.399 million people each year.
Because of lack of investment into structures and capacity building across the CMS model, and our reliance on the public sector for data, this is the extent of our ability to report out. We know our impact is tremendously bigger than this. After the recent uptick in violence around social distancing and after the murder of George Floyd, the Mayor of NYC and local officials all came to us first for a solution. Our work works, we need support documenting and showing how it works.
What are your goals within the next year and within the next five years?
Within the next five years, we’re going to radically redefine what public safety looks like. We’re going to radically reimagine what investment in communities look like. And where philanthropy and foundation dollars go. We’re going to model for the rest of the United States, and the world, that community solutions to holistic public safety need to be front and center. The Crisis Management System works. Since the start of the pandemic, we’ve distributed hundreds-of-thousands of PPE, meals and wellness resources to our overlooked communities. We’ve demanded (and succeeded) in having NYPD disengage in social distancing enforcement in our neighborhoods (where they used disproportionate and excessive force). We’ve demanded (and succeeded) in reinvesting diverted NYPD budget resources into our community investment programs. But there is so much more needed. We need to put into place a central dispatch system to respond to violence across NYC. We need to bring together research institutions and academics to study and evaluate our work. We need to create secure, centralized and accessible reporting systems for our frontline staff. We need financial sustainability, and the resources to be flexible and responsive to community needs. Our staff needs to be paid livable wages and respected in the City infrastructure. In five years the VIP model will be established as a respected critical service in NYC: much like the Fire Department, or Department of Hospitals. And there will be growth to similar sites and models across the United States.
What barriers currently exist for you to accomplish your goals in the next year and in the next five years?
The realm of public safety, policing, violence, governance, finance, criminal justice, gun violence are all male domindate. The CMS intersects and interrupts all of these spaces. Providing wholistic wellness alternatives to violence and the systems that respond to violence runs directly in conflict with the construction of what it means to be a man in America. And, it’s as difficult to advance ideas of peace, healing and non-violence in this space, as it is difficult for the men in this space to accept the success of a woman (nonetheless a Black woman) and allow it to grow.
How do you plan to overcome these barriers?
I’ve been overcoming this barrier for as long as I can remember - and have been successful in doing this. We need to bring these men into healing and do the inside work to separate the violence and trauma away from masculinity. With the resources, I can help them heal, so they can see the traumas blocking them and so they don’t continue to replicate the violent paradigms they operate in.
With the resources, we can shift the conversions at the philanthropic level, and open space for the growth and success of these systems that work.
What organizations do you currently partner with, if any? How are you working with them?
The NYC Crisis Management System is a network of 80+ community organizations across NYC working with 6 City Agencies. Additionally, we work with national nonprofits, activists and influencers, and values-friendly corporations to help drive our mission and vision forward.
What is your business model?
Right now, the CMS is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit model that relies on private and public investment. The majority of our funding comes from the City of New York. However, we’re beholden to city contracting timelines and requirements, and this is not sustainable. Over time, I envision the CMS becoming a concert expeducture in the City budget (much like the FDNY, or DOH), with investments from both the public and private sector, and elements of a social business model.
Why are you applying for The Elevate Prize?
The Elevate Prize will provide the start up dollars needed to strengthen this initiative. It will allow me to step out of my current role at LIFE Camp and into a larger role to scale, strengthen and grow the CMS Model across NYC. The connections and networks will allow us to grow investments, and will lend us credibility in academic and institutional spaces to get the needed support to measure and elevate our work.
In which of the following areas do you most need partners or support?