Disciple: Community Violence Intervention Programs
Work decades in the making is gaining traction in addressing today’s issues
By Christine McTaggart
If you’ve spent any time reviewing the resources compiled by the diocesan Gun Violence Prevention Task Force, you may have noticed “get involved in a community violence intervention program” as a suggested way to engage with the work. But what are they, exactly?
The truth is, there is no single answer or simple definition. Community violence intervention programs can take myriad forms and approaches, but they do have some factors in common. They generally emanate—as their name implies—from members of the community, as opposed to programs administered by government entities. The work done by these programs has the goal of reducing gun violence. And most, if not all, of them seek to do so not simply by removing guns from the equation but by addressing the underlying issues that can lead to gun and other forms of violence, such as poverty, resource scarcity, systemic barriers and health-related behavioral challenges.
Even the people the programs seek to assist can fall into different categories, such as those directly involved in gun violence, those affected by it, those who have not yet been involved in gun violence but may be at risk, and those who live in communities where violence tends to occur. For many who live with gun violence as a part of their reality, interacting with law enforcement or social services is not an effective option. It is for this reason alone that many effective community violence intervention programs are rooted in a peer-to-peer model.
THE IMPORTANCE OF PEERS
“There are a number of different models that have popped up in major cities around the country,” said the Rev. Justice Schunior, associate priest at St. Martin’s, Charlotte, and Gun Violence Prevention Task Force member. “People are trying to see what works and what doesn’t. [Many] community organizations make use of people who have clout in the community, who understand the lives of those who live in it.”
One peer-to-peer model that has proven effective is the Cure Violence® Approach. Founded in Chicago more than 20 years ago, its method is rooted in identifying violence clusters and their causes, working directly with those most at risk of engaging in violence, and then working with members of the community to establish new norms. Much of that work is done by people familiar with the history and circumstances of the community, who are in the best position to understand where the violence is coming from and what might be likely to succeed in terms of intervention.
“If you look at the numbers around people who have been shot, a significant number of them are likely to become either victims or perpetrators again in the course of their lives,” said Dr. David Jacobs, a Charlotte-based trauma surgeon and member of the Gun Violence Prevention Task Force. “In a lot of these communities there is a code, and so finding people who understand the rules of the streets and the dynamics of the communities are probably the best, and maybe only, people who can de-escalate and diffuse, and that is the Cure Violence® model.”
As can be easily imagined, the work is not easy. One of the great challenges faced by those doing it is providing an alternative that is better than the reality, whether something immediately tangible or a visible path to a different way.
“It’s hard work,” said Schunior. “It is sometimes dangerous work. What’s being offered has to be a viable alternative and a more lucrative option than what’s currently available.”
“If you can’t move from a socioeconomic class,” said Jacobs, “if you can’t move out of poverty, if you can’t see yourself being successful, nothing else matters. If you don’t think you’re going to live past the age of 22, you’re going to make choices and decisions that may advance where you are today, but certainly not in the long term. So we’ve got to get people to see, somehow, that they do have a future. They have to be able to see that.”
While Cure Violence® has a proven track record, the efficacy of other programs is not as easy to measure, largely due a lack of funding and research in support of the work they do. For more than 20 years, there was a freeze on government-funded violence prevention research that had a
chilling effect on other forms of funding for prevention research. The consequence of that trend is now, with the escalating number of incidents of violence happening today, those trying to address it are at a distinct disadvantage of knowing exactly what has and hasn’t proven effective for those who have been actively involved in the work all along.
When crime was lower, the reasons behind it were not questioned. “People just sort of accepted the fact, patted themselves on the back and said ‘whatever we’re doing is working,’” said Jacobs. “Now we’re sort of scrambling because we didn’t take advantage of the opportunities that we had to understand what was and wasn’t working. So now there are a lot of theories, but we don’t have the results and are 25 years behind in knowing what we should be funding and what we should be studying more.”
THE PUBLIC HEALTH APPROACH
One of the dominant theories that has gained traction is the public health approach to reducing gun violence. It is not a one-size-fits-all approach but rather a multipronged method that works to address the deeply entrenched root causes of violence such as poverty, crime, racism, systemic inequity and others.
“I think people are finally coming around to the notion that everything else is probably just a Band-Aid,” said Jacobs. “We’ve tried the incarceration approach, and that doesn’t seem to be working. We tried the war on drugs; that didn’t work. It was too easy. You can lock up the people who do wrong, but it doesn’t address what got them there in the first place.
“I think the focus is now turning from what’s wrong with individuals to what’s wrong with the environments in which they live. We’re finally asking how we can fortify the environments to be more resilient to things that tend to occur in underinvested communities.”
One of the ways that is happening can be seen in hospital-based violence intervention programs that have developed in cities in which major trauma centers are found. In North Carolina, those areas include Raleigh, Durham, Winston-Salem and Charlotte. The premise of the approach is that if a person is injured badly enough to seek medical attention in a hospital, there is an opportunity to redirect energies and identify new paths that might be helpful to that person. On staff at these hospitals are violence intervention specialists, individuals who understand the dynamics and stressors of the communities from which the injured come. They have a very small window in which to connect with the injured person—in some cases only a few hours—but that connection is critical. For when it is made, it can become the start of a support network that assists the patient with resources they may not even know are available to them.
“It’s very much an asset assessment,” said Jacobs. Whether it’s assistance with education, housing, or healthcare for the patient or their families, the violence intervention specialists stay connected to the patient long after they are discharged from the hospital, sometimes for months or even years, to ensure the support is there to provide a path that does not lead back to the trauma center.
WE CAN ALL PLAY A PART
In reading this, it is understandable to think that if you do not live in a community in which violence is a risk, or work in a hospital or related resource industry, there’s not much you can do to be a part of community violence intervention. But that is not necessarily the case, and churches are certainly in a position to provide forms of intervention.
Some programs, like those highlighted here, are organized and structured approaches with very specific needs. But other offerings, like after-school programs, tutoring programs, mentoring programs and even sports programs, can have an impact. Simply offering a place to go and redirect energy can be a way of reducing gun and other forms of violence.
Especially in cases where connections with the youth of under-resourced communities have been made, providing a look at what can be possible for them is a form of intervention. Having a speaker from a local university may show a path to higher education. Introductions to people of various professions may spark a new dream of a different future.
If members of the community with which you’d like to connect aren’t likely to come to you, partner with a church within that community to ensure they have what they need to be able to open literal and proverbial doors for their neighbors. Be the bridge between the gifts, connections and resources available through your church’s parishioners and those who might need and want them.
When it comes to community violence intervention programs, there is no single or simple definition. But there are countless ways in which all of them can be supported.
Christine McTaggart is the communications director for the Diocese of North Carolina.