Keeping New Orleans Teens Safe From Street Violence

A profile of Kimberly Byas-Dilosa, an RWJF Community Health Leader

    • August 7, 2013

Kimberly Byas-Dilosa lost her home in Hurricane Katrina but not her determination to improve the lives of poor, mostly minority teenagers in New Orleans. In 2006, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) named her a special Gulf Coast Community Health Leader in recognition of her work to keep New Orleans teenagers occupied, safe, and off the streets.

The problem. New Orleans has one of the highest murder rates in the country. In 2005, after Hurricane Katrina forced half the population to evacuate, the number of homicides receded for awhile, but not for long; in 2007 the number shot back up.

Most of the killings are concentrated in the city’s poorest neighborhoods—places like Central City, just a few blocks north of the stately mansions that line St. Charles Avenue. Much of the violence is attributed to gang activity and drug trafficking, and many of the victims are young.

Building a future for kids. Kimberly Byas-Dilosa is an African American, born and raised in New Orleans, on the West side of the Mississippi River. Her grandfather built custom plantation-style homes—a craft that he passed on to Byas-Dilosa’s uncles and cousins. “All of the homes I lived in growing up were built by my grandfather’s construction team,” she says. “As a kid, I used to draw sketches and designs of those large houses.”

Assuming she would work in the family business, Byas-Dilosa went to Tuskegee University in Alabama to pursue a degree in architecture. During the summers, while interning in architecture firms in New Orleans, Byas-Dilosa became increasingly aware that many of the victims of violence in the city were her peers. “It is a shock to your system when you see someone you grew up with get shot down,” she says. “I wanted to do something to put a dent in youth violence.”

On the weekends after college, Byas-Dilosa began taking groups of teenagers to theater and dance productions or other activities around town. The idea was to “take them out of their element, to keep them safe, and to keep them experiencing new things,” she says. “When I introduced the kids to new things they didn’t want to go back to the same kind of actions, even though they were living in some of the worst neighborhoods.”

Byas-Dilosa soon realized that a career designing and building homes was not her destiny. She wanted to build something else. “I was at peace and happier with the kids,” she says. “I realized, this must be my passion and my purpose.” In 1997, one month after graduating from college, Byas-Dilosa founded YOUTHanasia Foundation—so named, she says, because it strives to “kill what is killing Greater New Orleans’ teenagers.”

Learning how to be a community advocate. The first group of kids Byas-Dilosa worked with included her younger sister and cousins and their friends. “I would do anything to keep them out of trouble,” she says. Byas-Dilosa recognized the talent in her charges and created an array of programs to give them a voice. “I feel the arts are an unbridled outlet for kids,” she says. “They can express whatever they want, however they want. Anger, hurt, happiness, sadness … all becomes this beautiful expression when kids use performing arts as an outlet.”

Byas-Dilosa also wanted the teens to learn the importance of giving back. She engaged them in service projects, such as painting murals at the local children’s hospital, repairing a public playground, and putting on shows at residential facilities for seniors. Community service has been an essential part of YOUTHanasia Foundation ever since. In 2000, Byas-Dilosa created the Young Artists Leadership Summer Camp, which allows troubled teens to express their feelings through performing arts while participating in leadership development and service learning activities.

Along the way, Byas-Dilosa had to learn what it takes to run a community organization. “I knew nothing about nonprofits,” she says. “I was funding everything out of my pocket. I had to teach myself how to write grants.” Filling out the paperwork herself, Byas-Dilosa applied for and received 501(c)(3) nonprofit status for YOUTHanasia in 2000.

Byas-Dilosa sees herself as an unconventional mentor. More than once, young people have come to live with her in order to find some peace in the midst of their personal storms. Teens often call Byas-Dilosa when they need a ride or simply an ear to listen. Graduates of her programs—many of them now adults with their own children—keep in touch by social media, and sometimes ask her for letters of recommendation. “The kids really become a part of our family,” she says. “I am always tied to them.”

Katrina wreaks havoc … and a new determination. As Hurricane Katrina came ashore in August of 2005, Byas-Dilosa evacuated to Tennessee with her husband, John, and one-year-old daughter, KaJa Jonee. She returned after the storm to find their condo and all of its contents waterlogged and moldy—a total loss. Retrieving a few family photos, including her wedding album, she set up house in a trailer supplied by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and went back to her work.

“After Katrina hit, we were like a desert,” Byas-Dilosa says. “Schools weren’t open, houses were gone, stores weren’t open. Kids were literally walking in the neighborhoods with nothing to do.”

Worried that the emotional stress of Katrina would fester into violence, Byas-Dilosa created The Campaign to Rebuild a Teen-Friendly Greater New Orleans. The initiative aimed to raise awareness about the correlation between the increase in teen crime and suicide in post-Katrina New Orleans and the lack of mental health care being provided to teen hurricane survivors. She and the teens organized a press conference to protest the closing of the New Orleans Adolescent Hospital, New Orleans’ only psychiatric facility for children. They also launched “Release Your Tension” Open Mic Night to give young people an outlet to express their hurt and frustration.

“There was nothing celebratory going on in the city,” Byas-Dilosa recalls, so she organized a citywide talent show for teens. About 20 teens performed and some 2,000 people attended that first show in January 2006. “It was the first public event held after Katrina,” she says. “It was like a light at the end of the tunnel. The parents were thanking us for hosting the show because the kids were so bored and upset.”

That success prompted Byas-Dilosa to create TeenzMATTER Productions, a company that enables teens to produce and participate in citywide entertainment shows featuring dance, hip-hop, poetry and other art forms. While the main goal of the productions is to empower teens, the performances also generate income in ticket sales and participation fees, which has helped sustain the effort. Journalists reporting on TeenzMATTER called it an early example in post-Katrina New Orleans of social entrepreneurship—ventures that use business principals to solve social and environmental problems.

Becoming a Community Health Leader. In 2006, Byas-Dilosa was named an RWJF Community Health Leader, one of five leaders from the Gulf Region to receive a special award in recognition of their work to rebuild their communities after the Gulf storms. The award was a “lifeline,” Byas-Dilosa says. She used part of the $125,000 RWJF grant to open Teen Center for Non-Violence—an around-the-clock gathering place where teens can do homework, hang out, and participate in other educational and service programs.

In 2010, disaster struck again, when the BP oil spill forced the Teen Center to close. “Many of the teens using the center were the children of restaurant and tourism workers who had lost their jobs and could no longer pay the small monthly fees for their kids to come,” Byas-Dilosa says.

As of May 2013, Byas-Dilosa was negotiating with BP for funding to reopen the Teen Center. “No matter what disaster comes, these kids are still going to be here, they still need to be worked with,” she says. “I just refuse to let this program be a program that folds. The kids are too talented to let that happen.”

Finding talent and telling stories. Nearly eight years after Katrina, New Orleans and its people are on the mend. Byas-Dilosa and her family welcomed a son, Jahari Lawrence, in 2007 and are finally building their dream home after years of living in temporary housing. But the mental pain from the storm and its aftermath lingers and New Orleans remains a dangerous place for young people.

“As much violence as is going on in the city, I just feel like these kids need to tell their story,” Byas-Dilosa says. To make that possible, TeenzMATTER will kick off a storytelling concert series, called Future ICONs of NOLA, in the summer of 2013. Teenagers from across the city will tell their story in whatever art form they choose—poetry, song, dance, writing—and the concert series will be filmed.

“I want to get the kids who are in terrible situations,” Byas-Dilosa says, “and I just want them to speak to me, and to speak to the camera. ‘What is your story? Where do you come from? If something is inside of you, why is it bothering you?’ No one is asking them, ‘What is your story?’ You don’t see the kids until they have gone bad and the situation is on the news.”

Since Katrina, New Orleans has emerged as a so-called “Hollywood South”—a popular location for filmmakers. Seeing possible performance opportunities for young people, Byas-Dilosa launched ASolid Talent & Management Agency. “I have a whole lot of talented kids on my watch,” Byas-Dilosa says. “They don’t know it, because their self-esteem is low and their spirits are broken. So we build up the spirit and get the change in attitude and share it with the world. It is another way I am creating opportunities for kids.”

RWJF perspective. RWJF recognized the first 10 Community Health Leaders in 1993. They are unsung and inspiring individuals who work in their communities—often among the most disenfranchised populations—to address some of the nation’s most intractable health care problems. The formal recognition of these Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Community Health Leaders and their programs often launches them to greater levels of influence and extends their reach to serve more vulnerable populations. For more information on the program see Program Results Report.

Under the RWJF Community Health Leaders award, each year RWJF has provided a $125,000 award to 10 individuals and their organizations ($105,000 supports a project at their organization and $20,000 goes directly to the leader for personal development). RWJF also connects the RWJF Community Health Leaders with each other so they can continue their work with the support and experience of their peers and previous award winners.

“Community Health Leaders are characterized by three specific traits—they are courageous, they are creative, and they are committed,” says National Program Director Janice Ford Griffin. “The Foundation recognizes the tremendous resource of experience among the leaders and we look forward to mining that resource as we consider future initiatives.”

“Through the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Community Health Leaders award, we at the Foundation have the opportunity to recognize innovative and courageous local leaders behind ground-breaking efforts in communities across the United States,” said Sallie George, MPH, program officer at RWJF. “These individuals remind us that one person can have a powerful impact on health and health care within their communities.”

The most recent round of leaders was chosen in the fall of 2012.