It was a snowy December evening in Chicago's Westside and I was wrapped up in layers with lovely warm heat blowing in my face as I sat in a big black SUV. I was, however, about to have an experience that would open my eyes to the reality of life on the streets of Chicago; a reality that has included nearly 60 shootings, many fatal, over the Christmas weekend.
I'd spent the afternoon with the Ceasefire team at UCAN; a Chicago based organisation who believe that youth who have suffered trauma can become our future leaders. UCAN serve over 10,000 at risk young people and operate the Cure Violence 'violence interruption' model in the Westside area of Chicago. The Westside is home to communities where violence is endemic, touches everyone and spreads like a contagious disease. The Cure Violence model, pioneered by Dr Gary Slutkin MD, proposes that violence will spread unless interrupted by culturally competent, trained outreach workers who can reduce the likelihood of retaliation through conflict resolution, offer effective, trauma informed support to those most at risk and mobilise communities to change the norms of violence.
My afternoon with UCAN started with me looking in awe at the huge oil painting in the lobby by artist Gerald Griffin. The painting depicts a young Black boy in simple clothes and trainers standing against a backdrop of debris and wreckage but with a pose of strength and defiance. The painting is titled 'Still Standing' and is described as representing 'the power of the will, the resiliency of the spirit and the anomaly of Black people'. This picture really does speak a thousand words.
Talking with Norman Livingston Kerr, Vice President of Violence Intervention at UCAN, was my next stop and another thought provoking experience. Norman speaks powerfully and eloquently about what growing up in Chicago is really like, particularly for young Black men. He talks of communities focussed on surviving not thriving, of hopelessness, racism, segregation and of a poverty of hope not just wealth. He also talks of the emotional trauma running through these communities like infected blood running through veins, carrying hurt and acting as a carrier for infectious community violence. Norman and his team understand these communities. They understand the violence. Many of them have lived it.
It is the deep lived experience and the community credibility of the Violence Interrupters, alongside high quality training and support which makes them effective. This became evident in the planning meeting I attended, where the team don't rely on referrals to know where violence may occur. They know. The sensitivity of what was discussed isn't for a blog but I was so impressed with how the team pooled their extensive knowledge of what's going on across their patch; worked out where to focus and decided on what violence reduction strategies to implement that day.
Then it was time for me to hit the streets. I've lived and worked with violence for many years and so I wasn't as scared as I probably should've been; you don't get many white women walking through the Westside communities after dark and I didn't expect (or warrant) to be made to feel welcome. Thankfully, the UCAN team made me feel incredibly welcome and safe despite the area we were about to walk through.
Getting out of the nice warm cars and into the freezing night air (it was about -10!) was a shock to the system but so was the whole experience. It was surreal to be walking through streets plagued with violence, the day after a shooting left a 54 year old man fighting for his life after he was shot in the head whilst driving through the neighbourhood. The team, all in distinctive yellow hats to identify them as Violence Interrupters, immediately start shouting as soon as we leave our vehicles. They shout at the top of their lungs 'Ceasefire!' and I'm left wondering is this just an announcement as to who they are or a plea not to shoot at us as we walk through these eerie streets?
We all carry postcards and bumper stickers urging the community to use their influence and for conflicts to be handled without violence. We put them through letter boxes and on people's doors but more importantly we stopped and talked with people.
Before long, a man came over to talk to us; he looked broken. He explained that he was a close relative of the man that had been shot the day before and that the family were struggling to comprehend why he had been shot as well as questioning how they were going to cope. The team rallied round him, offering comfort and exploring what support could be offered. Sadly the 54 year old died in hospital a few days later.
The UCAN team, as well as other teams delivering the Cure Violence model, know that the prevention of further violence is far from just a law enforcement issue. It is acknowledged that the police have a job to do but that does not concern the Violence Interrupters; they work entirely independently and so maintain the confidence of the community, who are at the heart of the issue and the solutions.
The Cure Violence model works, some would say much more so than incarceration where according to the National Institute of Justice, recidivism sits at about 77%.The Cure Violence model actually reduces violence; in some areas by up to 70%.
Key to the impact of the UCAN team and the Cure Violence model, is that community outreach is just one element of intervention and that all the support offered is trauma-informed. This means that all staff are trained to recognise the impacts of emotional trauma and to respond sensitively and supportively when it manifests in those being supported. The UCAN outreach team includes culturally competent trained
clinicians able to respond there and then to those in crisis and to offer ongoing support where needed.
The wider UCAN team includes school based mentoring, therapeutic day schools, therapeutic housing provision, mother and baby units, youth leadership development and training for professionals.
We know that hurt people hurt people and so, in my opinion, this therapeutic approach to healing these hurts is essential to violence prevention and reduction. My work with a range of Chicago based not-for-profit organisations, including the Primo Centre for Women and Children will continue in 2017 and will include events to bring best practice in trauma-informed care (TIC) from Chicago to the UK.
If you would like to know more or would be interested in sponsoring an event on trauma-informed work here in the UK then please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org