“Peacemakers” hoping to curb violence in the Northwest Roanoke

Anti-violence volunteers hoping to be the change they want to see in others

By Danae Wensley
Photograph by Xavier Duckett

If you have lived in Roanoke for any period, you are probably aware the Northwest area has a stigma of being a crime-laden community. WDBJ-7 reports that in 2015 the Northwest section had 25 incidents involving gun violence and 18 of the same offenses in 2016. It was the people behind these statistics and the murder of a friend, which motivated local activist Shawn Hunter to do something to deter violence in that part of the city.

Hunter grew up in a high-crime area in Washington, D.C. Although he has degrees in business management and administrative management, his true passion is to help people in communities similar to community where he grew up. He has more than 15 years’ experience in social work, having worked in both D.C. and at Roanoke’s Total Action for Progress (TAP). The loss of his friend inspired him to take a more personal approach. In September 2016, Hunter founded Peacemakers, Inc., and the organization has been growing ever since. Each week, volunteers from Peacemakers canvass the Northwest community, asking residents what they need and want in order to succeed. They specifically target young people between the ages of 18-30, as statistics show that group is the most likely to get into the kind of trouble that leads to death or incarceration. “I ask them if they want a job. If they say yes, I help them get a job,” Hunter said.

In addition to the canvassing, Peacemakers patrols the community nightly to help de-escalate situations. Hunter is certified by the Department of Criminal Justice as a facilitator and as a trainer in conflict resolution. “The people that can stop this senseless violence are not the police. The police are reactionaries; they get a phone call that somebody got shot, they react to it. We’re going out there trying to prevent this thing from happening in the first place. We can’t stop all crime, but we can be a deterrent,” Hunter said.

Twenty-five volunteers from all backgrounds and ethnicities run Peacemakers. They attend weekly trainings in conflict resolution, CPR, self-defense and other relevant topics. Many of the volunteers have served time and some have felony charges. This may be controversial to some but “everybody is an ex-something,” he said. “Everybody is an offender in some way throughout their life. Everybody has something they’ve stopped, whether that be weed, cigarettes or coffee. They’ve cleaned themselves up. Ex means literally that you don’t offend anymore. We’ve found that those who have been out in the world and experienced incarceration and decided to clean their lives up can empathize more with people who are involved in crime. They’ve been there. If a person didn’t grow up in that type of environment or community, nine times out of 10 they aren’t going to be able to capture the people we’re trying to capture.”

The Peacemakers headquarters is in an old firehouse in the Northwest community near the corner of 24th Street and Melrose Avenue. The center, which opened in April, is home to a computer lab, job readiness training and classes in self-defense, boxing and conflict resolution. Karate classes will be added soon. “This building [the firehouse] was closed down for seven years. We cleaned it up and brought it back to life and now it's functional and nice and clean. That's the same thing we want to do in the community. Once you clean it up, the dirt and filth is gonna leave,” Hunter said.

Future dreams for Peacemakers include a village center that would offer affordable apartments and a business incubation program to teach trades and job skills. The organization recently purchased a second building on 11th Street to make this dream a reality.

Those interested in volunteering with Peacemakers, Inc. may contact Shawn Hunter at 540-278-3551.

Other Articles From The June 2017 Issue