Speaker: Aqeela Sherrills

Phoenix Rising: Transforming Trauma in Urban War Zones as a Heart-Centered Peace Activist

I believe we now exist in a time where the heart has been prepared for a new movement, where love becomes a practice as opposed to an idea, where vulnerability and humility become strengths as opposed to weaknesses.

Growing up the youngest of 10 siblings in a Watts, Los Angeles housing project, and a member of the famed Crips gang, Aqeela Sherrills witnessed from the inside the pain and devastation of the country’s most violent urban street gang war, which would proceed to claim 30,000 lives between 1983-2003. By 1992, he and his brother and a few other key community players had brokered a historic peace agreement between the rival Bloods and Crips. He is now a leading campaigner against gang violence and the death penalty, as a subject matter expert on victim service and community-based public safety.

Aqeela inspires as a national leader in the public safety and criminal justice movements. As a spirit-centered organizer, he promotes transformational change at both individual and community levels, while coming from a place of love, healing, and reverence. Today he is poised to influence the national conversation by including community-based public safety -- a movement that Sherrills has prototyped in both Watts and Newark, NJ with great success -- as a foundational alternative to policing in the US, even as he provides consulting services to The International Association of Chief of Police.

In his words:

…for far too long, you say, “Public Safety,” and people say, “Police,” but we understand that police are only one aspect of the public safety process .... It’s not the absence of violence and crime only. It’s the presence of well-being and the infrastructure to support victims and survivors in their respective healing journeys.

Tragically, in 2004 Sherrills’ own 18-year-old son died to gun violence while at home on break from college. In response, Aqeela in 2005 visited sacred sites around the world, and upon returning to Watts he embarked on a new phase of work and activism, launching The Reverence Project (TRP). TRP’s work has been to create intentional space for individual healing and to develop comprehensive wellness centers in urban war zones, in order to introduce those who suffer from high levels of trauma to alternative healing technologies and to support healing journeys.

Healing, and the need for healing, have been marks of Aqeela’s entire life. As an older youth, with his 9th grade best friend shot dead, Aqeela escaped his war zone for college, where he shared for the first time about his childhood sexual abuse (CSA), and made the startling connection between festering, buried shame and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). “Sharing [my CSA experience] for the first time was transformative, giving me access to my heart and imagination in a way I never knew. I discovered that there is a gift in the wounding, but we have to look for it,” Aqeela reflects.

Alongside this awakening, a professor exposed him to the writings of James Baldwin and Malcolm X, as well as W.E.B.Dubois, from whom he learned about the “birthright” of the collective suffering of blacks through ancestral enslavement, and its gift of “double vision” into both the colonizers’ views and their own intuition and perceptions. “Sometimes we have to sit long and hard in the anguish and the pain for the gift to manifest. We hold space for what’s possible to emerge from sometimes our worst experience,” Aqeela says. At 19 Aqeela began working with football star Jim Brown to co-found the Amer-I-Can Program to heal gang violence by negotiating peace treaties in violence-prone cities, and framing “peace as a journey, not a destination.”

Following his own healing journey and groundbreaking work with gangs in Watts, Aqeela in 2013 co-founded Californians for Safety and Justice, through which he made significant contributions to the criminal justice reform movement. Then, in 2014 he was tapped by Newark’s mayor to address the long-standing and intractable gang violence in the city. The program, Newark Community Street Team (NCST), has been powerfully successful, having reduced the homicide rate from gun deaths there by 50% in 5 years, and removed Newark from the list of the nation’s top 10 most violent cities. The program incorporates a relationship-based approach of training ex-gang members, convicts, and drug dealers as public safety professionals to intervene in individual and group conflicts; a “Safe Passage” program that provides escorts for kids to and from schools; and victim trauma reduction services, including counseling and alternative healing technologies.

Of the powerful philosophy underlying the NCST program, Aqeela says,

Every obstacle is an opportunity to deepen relationships and understand the circumstances that brought one to a particular place. We are not our experiences. The harm we do and things we experience do not define us or who we are, they just inform who we are becoming.

Currently over 200 cities nationwide are using evidence-based practices that reveal that community residents and non-traditional leaders trained as public safety professionals have the capacity to provide safety in their communities at a higher level than law enforcement. A tireless worker, as well as a father and grandfather, Aqeela now bases himself in both Watts and Newark, where he continues to grow and spread his peace work. Along the way to this moment, he has also co-founded or advises Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice (focused on meeting the unmet needs of victims of crime, which includes healing, recovery and prevention), The Forgiveness Project, Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, Just Beginnings Collaborative (for inspiring survivors of childhood incest abuse on a healing journey), and the Alliance for Safety and Justice’s Shared Safety Initiative (working to replace justice and prison system waste with common sense solutions that create safe neighborhoods and save taxpayer dollars).

Join us for a discussion with this inspiring heart-centered activist who walks the talk of transforming trauma into healing service, and whose community-based approaches have made potent progress in promoting peace, safety, and justice.

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