After a long hiatus, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we are pleased to announce, THE SWEETEST LAND has been selected to screen by Saint Louis Children’s Hospital w as part of their 2021 Pediatric Trauma Symposium.
With an up-tick in violent crime across the country, along with the film’s critical focus on violence prevention, we are honored and pleased the film is being utilized exactly as it was intended – to educate and save lives. On behalf of the cast and crew of THE SWEETEST LAND, we would like to thank Lydia Wood, Lori Beck and Saint Louis Children’s Hospital, for their amazing efforts in improving violence prevention and championing the film’s Saint Louis screening.
THE SWEETEST LAND – SYNOPSIS:
In urban America, there are community promises made, triumphant political speeches performed and conditions, which rarely change. Yet when the gunshots sound and blood spills, who shows up?
From the midnight surgeons, to a community on the brink of hope and sacrifice, THE SWEETEST LAND investigates real stories of violence, prevention and change, where complacency can no longer be an option.
I grew up in Hartford, attended Hartford schools and college. I have always seen life differently. My family raised me here, we definitely struggled and yet I believe it was living in Hartford that created my determination to serve my community in deeply committed ways.
Before retiring in June, I spent 20 years as a Hartford police officer, where I regularly advocated for gang prevention initiatives that would help youths succeed. I was assigned to the Homicide Division, Gang Intelligence and the Police Activities League (among others). In that time, the violence and bloodshed continued through a number of chiefs, enforcement philosophies and political administrations. As an officer, I took every violent act personally and clearly remember the screams I heard. But in all of those years, I saw very few cohesive, responsible, dedicated and accountable violence prevention strategies implemented within the city and community that I love. And that is troubling.
Studies show that roughly 2 percent of Hartford’s population commits most of the criminal acts. From firsthand experience, I know historically, and most likely now, there has been no plan for a brighter future or any extensive efforts to effectively reach those individuals (or those who will become that 2 percent). Much of what you hear are band-aid fixes, new program names and reliance on “hope” for what I see as a chronic sucking chest wound within the city.
We all have advocated for more resources and jobs at one time or another. But even successful prevention programs cannot compensate for the many other funded programs that repeatedly fail our youths, do not advance practice and provide low quality care for those in dire need. Overall, there is a gaping lack of accountability and oversight within these prevention initiatives, their methods and outcomes. We lose lives, miss opportunities and misspend millions without quality assurances and studied results. For example, crime prevention nonprofits submit self-evaluations and self-monitoring reports to receive funding while few watch for accuracy, data proof and outcome. I’ve seen it.
It seems to be part of a predominantly fruitless funding cycle between local, state and the federal government to nonprofit programs that ensures “just enough” is done to stay funded, yet does not mandate enough quality, sustainability, delivered skills and tracking of youth living in Hartford, where the risk of violence is high.
Let’s be clear, there are some great nonprofits that are doing the best they can. But, this is a result of a caring core of workers and prevention practitioners who are dedicated to the cause. Unfortunately, with little leadership and structure, real lives are lost, while a cycle of internal politics, budget tricks or optimistically framed statistics, distracts us all from a truth few are willing to share. We need to responsibly overhaul prevention strategies, reallocate what we spend and deliver effective care. In doing so we need to rigorously monitor results and ensure that people and families have the tools and skills needed to share in the American dream.
On the streets, I dealt with some of the most at-risk individuals in Hartford. I also regularly encountered too many parents, children, criminal offenders and victims who are completely uninformed about which nonprofit programs are available to them, or even what programs might be an appropriate fit for their needs.
Many years ago, I presented a number of ideas to then-Mayor Eddie Perez, which I believe could have changed Hartford’s dynamic; one of them being a citywide referral database by which all nonprofits receiving funding within the city would be required to register and share information with each other. This could help our community to better assess and serve youth and families in much more comprehensive ways, while providing the services they need. I also suggested we use out-of-state evaluators, who have no political ties or agendas. Doing this would ensure true compliance, value and service for the millions of prevention dollars being flooded into the same sections of the city. While I received no response from my presentation, it is more important to acknowledge that Hartford is not advancing as much as it should. In fact, history is repeating itself.
I have seen violence in the most profound, hurtful and personal ways. I would love to see department heads, politicians and the community stand for nothing less than true prevention through true accountability.
Karla Medina of Hartford is a retired Hartford police sergeant and participant in THE SWEETEST LAND
It should have been an enjoyable day. I was at a basketball tournament in Hartford a few months ago and the energy was great. Some 200 people cheered, bikes were given away to community youths, and donation bins accepting clothing for families in need were filling up.
That’s when the sounds of gunshots erupted. You never forget those sounds and the chaotic wave of panic and screams they produce. On that day everyone ran — children, teenagers and adults scattered in broad daylight while another innocent bystander in Hartford died on the ground. Three others were injured.
This wasn’t my first experience with violence. On Aug. 24, 2009, I too became a victim. I was leaving a convenience store in Hartford’s North End and was approached by two men. One of them had a gun in each hand. He was targeting me. Out of reflex, I lunged at him.
I grabbed his arms. I held on tight, but he slipped my grip. Two shots sent bullets searing inches from my spinal cord and I fell to the ground. Trying to stand, my legs didn’t work. I was in the parking lot trying to crawl to the store when my brother saw me. He ran over and held me. The moments were long. I kept repeating, “I don’t want to die, I don’t want to die.”
Truth be told, five out of 10 men in my family have been shot. I’ve lost more than 40 friends to violence, including my best friend, who was killed at 10 years old in Highland Park, Mich.
I was mad. I had thoughts of retaliation. So did my friends. Although ours might be a typical response to trauma (or a preventable future act of violence), there were no follow-up services from any community-based organization or gun violence intervention program offered to my family, friends or me. In fact, aside from one underfunded reverend, several mothers who also lost their children to violence, and my family, there was no one to help.
Nighttime was the most difficult. I dreaded seeing the nurse come into my room to change the bandages. The pain was excruciating. I’d stay awake, just watching the door. I wondered if those who shot me would return to finish the job.
I wasn’t alone. Across America, too many young men and women of color endure traumas like this every day and have the same thoughts of revenge.
I know that many violence-prevention programs exist in Connecticut. However, it is puzzling that none called. There were no specialists, therapists or government officials who offered preventive care.
Unacceptably, for too many years, the capital city has had too many lives lost and families broken from violence. We respond with community rallies, meetings and even a visit from the Rev. Al Sharpton. Politicians use the issue to get elected. But with all of this talk, what preventive measures are in place to address these problems, and what programs actually help victims? Too many victims experience abandonment.
I was shot three months after becoming a first-generation male to graduate from college. Had I not been shot, I would have been playing professional basketball in Europe right now. Violence ended my dream.
On the other hand, I fought back. I had lived on one of the most notorious streets in the North End of Hartford, and I considered myself a survivor of violence. I didn’t want to become another statistic in Hartford.
I completed my master’s at UConn’s School of Social Work. As an educated resident and victim of violence, I wanted to connect those at risk with the services they need.
Homicide is the leading cause of death for black men age 15 to 34 nationwide. This is a public health crisis.
Aswad Thomas appeared in the documentary “The Sweetest Land.” He is an advocate for violence prevention programs.