By Wasan Issa, a 2021 SECU Public Fellows Intern with the North Carolina Youth Violence Prevention Center
Over the course of the 2021 summer, I have had the pleasure of working with the North Carolina Youth Violence Prevention Center (NC-YVPC) as a SECU Public Fellows Intern. The NC-YVPC serves Robeson County, which is considered one of the most ethnically diverse rural counties in North Carolina. The organization is dedicated to providing services to prevent youth violence and aggression among young men and women in Robeson County. Partnered with the NC-YVPC is another nonprofit organization called Colors of Life, whose focus is dedicated to reducing the number of youths in gangs. Colors of Life hosts a summer camp every year where troubled youth are referred. The camp hosts many lessons, activities and field trips for the kids. The founder, Leon Burden, has been running the organization for 15 years and works directly with the kids. I have been working with Leon at the camp for the majority of my internship. He is passionate about his work and cares greatly for all of the kids he helps. I chose to interview Leon because of his commitments to brighten children’s futures and his loyalty to his county.
Please note that the interview responses have been edited for length.
Wasan: Could you tell me a little about your background and how you started to work within your community?
Leon: I have a background of being in trouble with the law. I did 15 years of my life in federal prison. When I got out, I wanted to do something different. I wanted to be able to give back to the community.
Wasan: Why did you decide to work in Robeson County?
Leon: I decided to give back to Robeson County because this county is where I did a lot of my criminal activities, and my thing was, ‘How can I give back to any other county or anybody else outside my county first?’
Wasan: What motivates you to work with at-risk youth?
Leon: I see myself in them. In order for me to help turn them around, I have to turn myself around. I have to walk the right path so they can look at me and are able to say, ‘If Leon can do it, I can do it.’ I just want to see them grow.
Wasan: What do you find most challenging about your work?
Leon: The most challenging part of my job is when I go to someone’s parents, and I tell them, ‘Your kid is in a gang,’ and they don’t believe it. Another challenging part of my job work is when we have leaders that don’t believe gangs are in our county. And when something happens, they (the leaders) call and say, ‘Can you do this?’ or, ‘Can you come out and speak?’ My thing is we could have stopped the problem a long time ago.
Wasan: What would you do, if you had the resources or funding, to better the leaders around you?
Leon: I would sit down and I would talk to the leaders and bring gang members to the meeting. A roundtable discussion. I want to know what’s going on. What got you to the point where you are now? Why are you participating in gang violence? What is it you want? Everybody wants something if they are in a gang. Is it for protection? If I could get you to go back to school, will you get out of the gang? If you find a job, will you let the gang lifestyle go? After we find out what is drawing you to the lifestyle, then we can overcome those obstacles and put you in a better place. This would expose the leaders to what’s really going on, what the real issues are.
Wasan: What do you find most rewarding about your work?
Leon: When I go out in the community, and I might not even remember talking to a kid, and that kid comes up to me and says, ‘Mr. Leon, due to you talking to me in school, you have changed my life, and now I’m going to college. I’m joining the military. I’m doing something with my life due to you.’ It makes me feel good because I hear this all of the time. Young kids come to me and say, ‘If it wasn’t for you, I’d probably be dead or in jail, but after listening to you, I’m not there.’ And these are kids people had written off.
Wasan: What advice would you give to those who want to work in your field?
Leon: When you meet these kids, you have to meet them at the level they are on. You can’t be above them. You have to be on their level. You have to be able to talk to them. You have to let them know you love them and that you are there for them. If they call you at midnight, you have to respond caringly and say, ‘What’s the matter? Where do I need to come to?’
After interviewing Leon, I have gained a deeper appreciation for him and for his work. Colors of Life provides the community with tools to understanding gangs and gang violence. It also provides the local youth an area where they can be self-expressive and grow. I enjoy working with Leon as well as many of the kids. I have learned that with enough love and care, any child can be helped. I hope the organization continues to grow and expands its services into nearby counties.
“Hope is in our hands.” – Leon Burden