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by Jack Calhoun

Through an entry-level job at a detention facility run by the Massachusetts Department of Youth Services, Eugene Schneeberg inadvertently found his life calling as a faith-based activist and youth advocate. Here, he was introduced to Straight Ahead Ministries, a group that serves youth in lock-up and gives them support on the street after their release.

It's faith based," said Schneeberg, who described that faith as "a belief that under the pain, anger, and fear is a precious, wonderful, and unique child of God."

Eventually his work with Straight Ahead led him to the Justice Department, where he has been since 2010. He is now the Department's director of faith-based and neighborhood partnerships.

Faith Communities Take Unique Approaches
Schneeberg offers that faith communities are different from other communities. They express their commitment to troubled kids in different ways: Some hold peace marches. Some host police–community dialogues. Some are in the middle of the policy process advocating for changes in law and funding. Some walk or ride with the police, intervening in so-called hot spots. Some use their facilities as a "safe place, a place for truce talks between gangs, a place for late-night basketball." No matter what the faith community does, Schneeberg pointed out, they have one thing in common: "a relational ministry, a willingness to engage kids, to forge relationships even with the angriest and the most violent."

There are hundreds of thousands of faith communities across the nation, and that means millions of volunteers. These volunteers are mandated by their faith to work for justice, to reconcile, to return youths to wholeness, to love. "Our job," explained Schneeberg, "is to get them out of their pews [and] into the lives of America's marginalized kids."

Building Communities of Practice in Each Youth Violence Prevention City
Schneeberg has built working relationships with faith leaders in each Forum city, as well as the Community-Based Violence Prevention and Defending Childhood Initiative cities. He now wants to take these relationships to another level through a formalized "community of practice," where faith leaders can share challenges, successes, best and hopeful practice, "or just support each other in this life-and-death work." This community of practice will serve as a platform to unite the three initiatives—a goal of the Youth Violence Prevention grant.

A concept developed in the 1990s by a pair of cognitive anthropologists, communities of practice are ways to share information and experiences among professionals in a particular field. As stated in a 2013 article by Jan Kietzmann and colleagues, the goal is to learn from one another and develop professionally as a result. Members of these learning communities can meet in different ways, such as face to face or over the phone. One wide-scale example is the U.S. Air Force, which uses a Web-based community of practice called Air Force Knowledge Now, encompassing 19,000 communities of practice and 400,000 members.

The need for such a community of practice in the faith community is strongly felt. "It is not uncommon to feel alone in the fight for community healing and safety," reflected Pastor Gregory Sanders, president of the Long Beach California Ministers Alliance. "Schneeberg's office has become a resourceful intermediary forging introductions and access to faith leaders across the nation." Sanders feels he and his faith colleagues urgently need a forum where they can "discuss best practice, results, challenges, and successes."

"The communities of practice will be an excellent opportunity for faith leaders and practitioners to receive information on addressing youth violence in their communities," said Gwen Williams, state program manager of the State and Community Development Division, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. "They will also have the opportunity to network, partner, develop ideas, and create new initiatives together."

Schneeberg envisions a combination of monthly calls, occasional Webinars, topical papers, or a newsletter and onsite, tailored training. He wants to "help develop capacity" and explore "how we measure success in this complex, relational work."

"It's new," he said of the community of practice. "It's the Forum's first community of practice, and I'm open to any and all suggestions. I want to build this together."