Uncovering Safe Spaces

Cure Violence interrupters in the field are often put in dangerous, stressful, and traumatic situations – situations that take a mental and physical toll, both immediately and long-term. In an effort to effectively address the needs and trauma of its workers and clients, Cure Violence Chicago has partnered with Shambhala Chicago to launch a mindfulness training program entitled Uncovering Safe Spaces Within and Without. The program will be funded by a grant awarded by the Lenz Foundation to the Shambhala Center, and will focus on training 150-200 Cure Violence Chicago staff, as well as 150 Chicago high school students, in the practices of mindfulness and meditation, intended to offer mental healing and reprieve.

In the first portion of Uncovering Safe Spaces, theories and practices of mindfulness and meditation will be shared with Cure Violence staff members in small-group training sessions set to occur over the course of the next two years. These mindfulness meditation sessions will be a required portion of Cure Violence’s annual staff training program. In order to assess the program’s progress and effectiveness, staff members’ stress levels, mental state, self-esteem, etc. will be recorded immediately before, after, and one month following each training session. The resulting data will be used to construct useful changes to the program for the following year.

For staff members, the training sessions will ideally provide strategies for remaining present and calm in emergency situations, as well as maintenance of mental health and overall emotional stability. Learned meditation techniques will provide individuals with safe internal spaces as a means of escape from external stressors. They will offer workers moments of peaceful escape designed to foster continued mental strength and clarity. Mindfulness practices will reinforce the good and positive aspects of human nature that are crucial to the Cure Violence mission. Moments of meditation will allow for renewed perspective and focus that will increase the mental well-being and effectiveness of the Cure Violence staff. Finally, the allotted program meetings will provide a much-needed safe space for staff members to both discuss and internally reflect on the stressful and traumatic experiences and situations they regularly face.

Cure Violence is not the first group to attempt to use meditation practices in anti-violence work. In 1993, over 4,000 individuals travelled to Washington D.C. for six weeks in hopes of using meditation to decrease violent crime[1]. Today, studies have shown that increased national crime is directly linked to increased national stress rates, and many grassroots organizations, most notably the “Invincible America Assembly” in Iowa, propose the collective consciousness, harmony, and calmness resulting from meditation as the solution[2]. The Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin recently published a study asserting that meditation practices even affect their practitioners at the genetic level. Although study participants would show no gene differentiation at the beginning of the study, those who practiced intensive meditation would, by the end of the day, show lower levels of pro-inflammatory genes, which indicate more rapid physical recovery from high stress[3].

Eventually, in the course of the 2014-2015 school year, Shambhala’s Mindful Schools curriculum will extend into Cure Violence’s Changing Behaviors and Norms course, and the resulting curriculum will be taught to 150 freshman students at Orr Academy High School on the city’s west side. Students will attend weekly Uncovering Safe Spaces sessions as a fulfillment of the social and emotional learning requirement mandated by the Illinois Education Standards. As with staff training sessions, the stress levels, mental state, self-esteem, etc. of student participants will be tracked from the beginning to conclusion of the course. Additionally, violence within the school will be tracked as a way to assess the programs’ effectiveness and as a basis for making needed changes.

Based on the demonstrated past success of meditation and mindfulness practices as coping mechanisms for stress and trauma, Cure Violence is hopeful that the practices will continue to prove effective in providing its workers with a positive outlet and mental health preservation techniques. Cure Violence’s methods have proved extremely successful, and this new program is a way to ensure continued worker effectiveness, health, and happiness.

[1] http://www.nytimes.com/1993/08/01/nyregion/meditating-to-try-to-lower-crime-rate.html

[2] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jeanne-ball/a-thanksgiving-blessing-f_b_788053.html

[3] http://www.news.wisc.edu/22370