If New Haven attorney Michael Jefferson could make one wish, it wouldn’t be anything for himself.
In a city where shootings are commonplace and gang members are a menace, Jefferson has long tired of the standard solution of rooting out the troublemakers and putting them behind bars.
His wish is to change the self-image that these young men have of themselves so that they may become positive role models rather than inmates. His much-loved community of New Haven earned the title of fourth most violent city in the nation last year, and Jefferson said the problems are deep-rooted and demand community attention.
“I think there is a huge degree of self-hatred in our community and that’s why we see a lot of violence among ourselves,” said Jefferson, who is 48. “If I had one hope it would be to eradicate the self-hatred within our community.”
Since the late 1980s, Jefferson has done his part to help right the wrongs of the community, starting as a student leader at Southern Connecticut State University. His interests quickly morphed into that of a New Haven community activist. In 1995, he founded the city’s first All-Civilian Review Board, formed to look into complaints of police misconduct.
The criminal defense lawyer also chaired the task force that created the city’s first ever Juvenile Review Board, which resolves cases involving first-time, non-violent juvenile defenders. He is a former chairman of the State of Connecticut African-American Affairs Commission.
“He is one leader the New Haven community cannot do without,” said New Haven lawyer Robert Pellegrino, a close friend who has known Jefferson for 25 years. “His insight, intelligence and desire for justice for the disenfranchised are a rare combination so-needed right now. He is a leader in everything his does and his voice refuses to be silenced by the powers that be.”
Gary Highsmith, principal of Hamden High School and lifelong New Haven resident, described Jefferson as someone who backs up his words with action. “Michael is not only a better man because of his community activism, but the community is better because of him,” Highsmith said.
In 2011, Jefferson was one of several founders of the Promised Land Project, whose mission is to address violent crime and its causes in New Haven’s troubled Newhallville neighborhood. The effort involves everything from prayer walks organized by clergy to after-school and summertime activities for kids. There are community meetings with residents, outreach programs for those in need, and beautification projects to spruce the neighborhood.
“We came up with this idea to answer this sort of [violence] problem. People were crying out for action,” Jefferson said.
Jefferson grew up in the Bronx, N.Y., earned his law degree from the University of Connecticut and estimates that he takes on at least a dozen pro bono cases annually. “My mother was very involved in the community when I was growing up. My father was a police officer in New York City. They instilled in me the importance of community and growing up with responsibility. New Haven has the potential to be a whole lot better.”
Most recently, Jefferson has been in the news as a critic of the U.S. Department of Justice’s first-in-the-nation anti-violence program, Project Longevity, which was launched this past fall in Hartford, New Haven and Bridgeport. The project’s aim is to reduce gun violence, partly by stepping up prosecution of gang-related attacks and partly by identifying at-risk young people and trying to get them help.
But Jefferson feels the project misses the point. He contends that the focus shouldn’t be on targeting possible criminals but on nurturing healthy children by building healthy families. “The real issue” is families are dysfunctional due to absentee fathers, he said. Many African-American fathers “aren’t doing our job as men” when it comes to raising their families, ” and that can’t be ignored. We have to do a better job. A lot of organizations are putting forth the effort and have to be supported — that’s what Project Longevity doesn’t do.
“It’s one-dimensional. I have a healthy paranoia about that kind of intervention in the African-American community. They are targeting alleged gang members, yet they don’t consider the comprehensive nature of the problem.”
Jefferson, who has two college-age sons, acknowledged that it’s better if the solutions come from the community rather than the federal government. Toward that end, in 2005, he founded the Kiyama Movement. Spreading the word through a web site and local high school administrators, the movement reaches out to high school-age males and offers a curriculum focused on black issues and history. Teachings include respect for womanhood, respect for life, economic accountability and sexual responsibility. Participants take a public pledge to improve their lives “for the good of my family, my community, the Kiyama Nation and future generations.”
Jefferson said that if African-American families begin to address the issue of fatherhood and other Kiyama principles, it would make a big difference in ultimately reducing the numbers of violent young people. “We have a job to do and it’s a big one,” he said. “Sixty percent of what determines a child’s success takes place outside of school. It starts at home and in the community. You have to admit these things if you’re going to confront them.”
And so Jefferson wishes that Project Longevity took a more comprehensive approach, one that that includes promoting productive lives in urban areas and not just punishing violent criminals. That said, Jefferson indicated a willingness to work with those who are leading Project Longevity.
“When you are talking about solving a problem of this nature, reasonable people will find a way to agree and make something work,” said Jefferson. “We’re not going to be disagreeable when our kids are dying out there.”
One thing is for certain, said Jefferson: The changes that he desires and the federal government desires may be a long time coming.
“You never know the impact that you’re having,” he said. “You have to remain a prisoner of hope. You keep hammering at it. It’s in my blood.
“I’m going to go to my grave as an activist.”•