Gun violence interrupters point to promise of intervention programs
Outreach workers say combating violence is about meeting people where they are.
In North Lawndale, a neighborhood on the West Side of Chicago laden with crime and poverty, Derek Brown, founder of Boxing Out Negativity, has taken the fight against gun violence off the street and into the ring.
His program provides mentorship and a safe space for at-risk youth who are more likely to be swept up into street life.
"I’m a counselor, I’m a teacher, I’m a motivator, I’m whatever our children need," Brown told ABC News. "Boxing took troubled kids and started programming them. In order to be 'bad' here, you have to run at least five miles a day, exercise all day, repeat the same techniques over and over and over until you get it mastered."
"We're not just fighting our way inside the ring, we're fighting our way through life," Brown continued. "Our everyday objective is to fight for ourselves, our families and friends and communities."
As a former gang member who transitioned out of street life at 28, Brown, now 45, said he is acutely aware of environmental factors that lead young people down the wrong path.
Trumale Coleman, Brown’s 18-year-old mentee who has been in the boxing program since he was 8, said the lessons on discipline and dedication provided him with the tools to see his higher potential and navigate through an environment where violence is the norm.
"I never even thought I would do boxing. I never even thought I had as much knowledge as he gave me. He [Brown] is not my biological father; he is my spiritual father. I learn more everyday, and what he teaches me, I teach everyone else," Coleman said.
Experts say examining the environment that perpetuates gun violence is key to understanding the latest uptick in communities of color.
Dr. David Ansell, the senior vice president for community health equity at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago and author of "The Death Gap: How Inequality Kills," told ABC News that public health and poverty are directly correlated to high rates of gun violence.
"[West Chicago] has one of the highest COVID death rates in the city; it also has high rates of gun violence. These things are co-prevalent," Ansell said. "What ties it all together is trauma over time and how people react to various traumas. Some of that trauma gets acted out in behavioral ways, with either mental illness, addiction or violence."
Chicago Police department data showed that 48 people were killed in shooting homicides in January, ABC station WLS in Chicago reported. That's a 13% decline compared to January 2021, police said.
There were 219 people shot last month, compared to 241 around the same time last year, the data showed.
"We're seeing reductions in involvement in gun violence. We're seeing reductions in victimization rates among the [community-led outreach organizations], all heading in the right direction," Andrew Papachristos, professor of sociology at Northwestern University and director at the Northwestern Neighborhood & Network Initiative.
"It's hard to prove," he said. "It's especially hard to prove because of the national surge in gun violence we just saw happen in Chicago. But even during COVID, even during this national surge in gun violence, we're seeing positive direction in street outreach."
Northwestern Neighborhood & Network Initiative (N3) is a research collective that works with Northwestern University’s Institute for Policy Research to engage with community organizations and policymakers to address social problems in Chicago. Researchers have been studying the impact of community street outreach programs, and evidence shows that credible messengers -- people who grow up in the same neighborhoods they serve -- have a promising impact on lowering gun violence.
A 2021 N3 report evaluated the outreach program of Chicago CRED, anti-violence organization that provides mentorship and resources to at-risk youth, to identify how the use of credible messengers impacts gun violence in neighborhoods with high crime rates. The report identified young adults in the program to see how they perceive violence around them and examined how CRED engaged with them.
Early results from the study showed that there was evidence of a reduction in gunshot victimization and violent crime arrests among CRED participants.
"Overall, the number of fatal and non-fatal gunshot injuries across all CRED participants decreased by nearly 50%, and the number of arrests for violent crimes fell 48% in the 18 months following the start of participation in the program," according to the report.
The average outreach worker in Chicago is a 44-year old Black man who's been incarcerated, who got involved with gangs and the criminal justice system around the age 13, according to Papachristos. Twenty-five percent of outreach workers are Latino, and about 20% are women, he said, explaining that credible messengers can have a unique impact on the ability to reach disenfranchised members of low-income communities who are often out of reach by law enforcement and city officials.
"When we look at their lived experience, they have long histories of involvement and victimization. They've been victimized when they were young. They have a long history of involvement with gangs. They've been incarcerated and they largely have lived in the same community their entire life. So they're quite familiar with what gun violence looks like in their neighborhood. They know the families, they know the people, they know the neighborhoods, they know the parks, they know the stories, and they're part of those stories," Papachristos said.
"This is the workforce that is charged with tackling gun violence," he said, "and in some ways, they are the only workforce that can reach people that are at risk and bring them into these sorts of services."
He added, "The question is not about, 'Did they reduce violence by 50 or 60%,' but rather, 'How many lives were saved today?'"
Tio Hardiman, executive director of Violence Interrupters Inc, an anti-violence program focused on combating the culture of violence, uses peace circle and conflict resolution trainings to help at-risk youth de-escalate disagreements and avoid deadly retaliation.
"The violence interrupter trainings that I facilitate is very important because we have an opportunity to actually help young men and educate them on how to think on a higher level. That's why the training is so important. We focus on the do's and don'ts of conflict resolution and gang mediation," Hardiman said. "The work of credible messengers is very impactful because it's about saving lives. Last year, in 2021, Violence Interrupters Inc mediated around 60 conflicts that could have turned deadly."
For Patricia Hillard, a West Garfield Park outreach worker, violence interruption work is about meeting people where they are.
That means doing outreach work on "Heroin Highway," a stretch of West Garfield Park battered by the opioid crisis. It’s the same area Hillard said she dwelled when she was addicted to drugs. After years of sobriety, she said she found a new purpose in helping others.
Now a salaried employee with the Institute for Nonviolence Chicago, Hillard said that the residents she mentors trusts her, because she was once them.
"I was with them. I was with the drug dealer. I was the person out here running to get drugs. I did it all, and I survived," Hillard said. "A lot of the guys around here, who are doing the shooting and the sliding, they know me. So I've actually been able to intervene with guns drawn."
Investment in gun violence interruption programs is taking shape in major cities and states around the country.
President Joe Biden showed his support for community-led anti-violence programs during his visit to New York City last Thursday, where he discussed his and Mayor Eric Adams' plans to tackle gun crimes. Biden’s Build Back Better plan proposes a $5 billion dollar investment in community-led programs, but that legislation remains stalled in Congress.
Papachristos said financial investment in street outreach as a profession could have major implications for the reduction of violence over time.
"You can look at any map of any city, and the areas that have the highest levels of homicide also have the highest levels of poverty, dropout rates, low birth weight, exposure to toxins like lead. ... It's not that most poor people are criminals. It's just that crime tends to concentrate by design in communities that lack resources and opportunities," Papachristos said. "It’s vital right now more than ever, especially as you're getting the attention from the White House and the State House, to find out how do we develop this workforce? What tools do they need?"
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