Violence is Preventable
This blog is an opportunity to advance my own healing through service by taking part in what is a growing movement to end violence. This new movement is global and urgent. The movement says simply – we believe we can and must live in a world with far less violence, and we know effective short term and long term ways to achieve it. There is still more room for research, but largely, we know what to do.
Background on My Perspective
Before I get to the meat of the matter, let me provide a little background. I grew up largely on the South Side of Chicago and in South Jersey. I am from a regular family with plenty of positive attributes and our share of normal problems. But I did well in school, thanks to strong and steady encouragement from my parents and excellent teachers, and was fortunate to get scholarships to good schools. I started a family while still an undergraduate student, and with the help of a close community of friends, I graduated and began a lifelong career in service.
For many years I was active in any number of community groups and worked for local organizations and my local city to make our community a safe and nurturing place for families to thrive. My work focused on the provision of decent and affordable housing, parent education, leadership development and economic development. In the late 80’s and early nineties, our town earned the moniker, on and off, as the nation’s murder capital. Our little city of about 25,000 experienced far too many murders. The impact on all of our lives of this terrible state of affairs demanded action.
Today I am a diplomat with the Department of State. Beginning in August 2014, my employer, in partnership with the Uma Chapman Cox Foundation, afforded me the opportunity to spend a year learning about, and then acting upon what I learn, toward the reduction of violence in our nation and world.
I am what is called a generalist diplomat. My work is more broad than narrow. I am expected to be able to work anywhere in the world, doing most anything. I have been assigned to aid American citizens overseas in distress, to ensure the operations of our embassies are functional and efficient, to monitor elections in foreign countries, to negotiate agreements that govern our oceans, to bring American artists and authors and academics to other countries, and bring those countries’ people to America to promote mutual understanding. My work has included dealing with the aftermath of violence – including the aftermath of violent crimes committed against American citizens abroad and xenophobic attacks against foreigners in South Africa – the victims of which sought refuge in our Consulate.
But the demands of my day to day work were not the impetus for this project. What brought me to this project was that my beautiful, happy, intelligent, loving and successful son was murdered on the 4th of July 2013. (http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/crime/howard-university-student-shot-and-killed/2013/07/05/9ee1c052-e55c-11e2-80eb-3145e2994a55_story.html ). Too many of us know what I mean when I say that I was, and still am to a certain extent, completely hollowed out. I was unable to sleep. I broke out in hives. There were days, for months on end, when literally, my legs would not let me walk. Devastated was not even the word. But my feelings of personal grief and pain kept being interspersed with thoughts about what I knew to be true: that this killing of people happens many many times a day every day, all over the world. So while my pain was acute, my anger was very dispersed and generalized. The perpetrator could not receive all of the blame, because there is just SO MUCH of this senseless violence going on. I knew there has to be a bigger reason for the death of our Omar than one misguided and unwise young man. So I requested that I might take some time to embark on this year’s journey to learn more and to see what I could do given my past experiences and current position.
Some of What We Know About Violence
In this essay I relay some of what we know, provide some examples of why we know it, and then charge each one of us to determine what actions, what role, we will play to contribute to healing our communities of violence.
Violence is a learned behavior. It is learned the same way people acquire most behaviors: primarily through mostly unconscious copying. This “social learning” occurs from person to person, or group to group, within families and in and across communities. It is a disease that can be diagnosed and cured.
We cannot keep doing what we have been doing. Violence is a result of patterns of thought and behavior which are highly resistant to change. Yet we keep thinking that more of the same will solve the problem, when in fact, evidence shows that it is worsening the problem. The common response to violence is to turn to our politicians and leaders and ask, indeed beg, them to do something about it. They pass laws and vow to “crack down” on those who would cause harm to our loved ones. This begins a positive feedback loop.
As tighter legislation is passed and arrests increase as police crack down, the incarceration rate rises. This damages our communities. This damages our families. This damages our overall economy. Fear and despair increases. Drug use and crime increases. Violence increases. When violence goes up we go back to our leaders and once again beg them to do something. The pattern continues. We must act to interrupt the pattern, to interrupt the spread of this disease, this epidemic, which is destroying our country.
I have done a lot of reading. One quote from a great philosopher and champion of peace, Daisaku Ikeda really stuck with me. He wrote: “The surest and most effective way to make the world a better place – for peace and the dignity of life – is to take practical steps in the here and now, sowing and nurturing the seeds for a new culture of peace in our communities and in the lives of those with whom we come into daily contact.”
The World Health Organization
I began my journey to learn about those who are taking practical steps today to sow and nurture the seeds for a new culture of peace. I started with what I am most familiar: international affairs agencies, and discovered that the UN World Health Organization has a practical program of action for building and sustaining peaceful societies through the reduction of violence. And all forms of violence, including violent crime, must be urgently reduced. Crime’s impact on we mothers and our children extends to other interpersonal relationships, to our community and neighborhood, to the institutions in our state and region, and ultimately to the larger society and structure.
WHO has developed the ecological framework, which is based on evidence that no single factor can explain why some people or groups are at higher risk of interpersonal violence while others are more protected from it. This framework views interpersonal violence as the outcome of interaction among many factors at four levels—the individual, the relationship, the community, and the societal.
We are reminded daily of the the scope of the problem in this country. But let me help put it into a world perspective with some facts from the World Health Organization:
- Violence accounts for nearly 1.4 million deaths per year worldwide
This corresponds to over 3 800 people killed every day. Violence is a significant health, human rights and human development problem.
- Suicide and homicide account for more than 80% of violence-related deaths worldwide
Of those killed by violence, 58% die by their own hand, 36% because of injuries inflicted by another person, and 6% as a direct result of war or some other form of collective violence.
- 90% of deaths due to violence occur in low- and middle-income countries
Countries with higher levels of economic inequality tend to have higher rates of death due to violence. Within countries, the highest death rates occur among people living in the poorest communities.
- Violence mainly impacts young, economically productive people
Homicide and suicide are heavy contributors to global death rates among men aged 15–44 years. For every young person killed by violence, an estimated 20–40 receive injuries that require hospital treatment. Among people under 25 years, for every suicide, 100 young people attempt to take their own lives.
- The health impact of violence is not limited to physical injury
Long-term effects can include depression, mental disorders, suicide attempts, chronic pain syndromes, unwanted pregnancy, HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections. Children who are victims of violence have a higher risk of alcohol and drug misuse, smoking, and high-risk sexual behavior. This may lead, even decades later, to chronic diseases such as heart disease and cancer and sexually-transmitted infections.
- Violence is preventable and its impacts can be reduced
Proven and promising violence prevention strategies address underlying causes such as low levels of education, harsh and inconsistent parenting, concentrated poverty, unemployment and social norms supportive of violence. Outcome evaluation research has already shown that these strategies work in countries such as ours.
Violence is predictable and therefore preventable. How can we prevent and thereby reduce violence?
The World Health Organization says the following must be our priority at each level: the individual, family, community and society:
Violence prevention programs in schools and communities focused on individuals work
Proven and promising violence prevention strategies include pre-school enrichment programs during early childhood (ages 3-5 years), life skills training and social development programs for children aged 6-18 years, and assisting high-risk adolescents and young adults to complete schooling and pursue courses of higher education and vocational training.
Promoting positive, nurturing relationships within families can prevent violence
Proven and promising violence prevention strategies focused on families include providing training for parents on child development, non-violent discipline and problem-solving skills; promoting parental involvement in the lives of children and adolescents through programs to develop home-school partnerships; and mentoring programs to develop attachments between high risk youth and caring adults in order to build social skills and provide a sustained relationship.
Community-wide programs can play a role in preventing violence
Proven and promising violence prevention strategies focused on communities include increasing the availability and quality of childcare facilities, in and out of school programs to address gender norms and attitudes, and improving school settings, including teacher practices, school policies and security.
Societies can prevent violence by reducing risks such as alcohol, guns, and economic and gender inequality
Proven and promising violence prevention strategies that address societal factors include reducing alcohol availability and misuse through enactment and enforcement of liquor licensing laws, taxation and pricing; reducing access to lethal means, including guns, knives and pesticides; and promoting gender equality by for instance supporting the economic empowerment of women.
So yes, the UN has outlined a practical program of action for building and sustaining peaceful societies through the prevention of violence.
I have also taken a good look at how our US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention approach the phenomenon. They have an excellent brief on-line course in violence prevention I highly recommend to anyone. (http://www.cdc.gov/features/preventviolence/).
Violence prevention is commonly undertaken using an evidence‐based health approach that targets the root causes and risk factors underlying the likelihood of an individual becoming involved in violence, and that recognizes the need for improved services to mitigate the harmful effects of violence when it does occur. The approach consists of four steps:
1. Defining the problem
2. Identifying causes, risk factors and protective factors
3. Designing and testing interventions aimed at minimizing the risk factors and promoting protective factors
4. Disseminating information about the effectiveness of interventions and increasing
But what about in places where violence is raging? Where the disease has taken hold in a heavy way at every level? In those places, the cycle of violence must be interrupted through the concerted effort of key people in the lives of those who would perpetrate violence. There is one leading model, promoted by an organization with whom I have begun to work, called Cure Violence (http://cureviolence.org/).
The Cure Violence Model is a health approach to violence prevention that understands that violence as a learned behavior that can be prevented using disease control methods. The model prevents violence through a three-prong approach:
1) Interrupt transmission
2) Identify and change the thinking of highest potential transmitters
3) Change group norms
The Cure Violence model employs people recruited from the community who are trained as professional health care workers called violence interrupters. They use a specific method to locate potentially lethal, ongoing conflicts and respond with a variety of conflict mediation techniques both to prevent imminent violence and to change the norms around the need to use violence. These interruptors live in the community, are known to high-risk people, and have possibly even been gang members or spent time in prison, but have made a change in their lives and turned away from crime. Interrupters receive specific training on a method for detecting potential shooting events, mediating conflicts, and keeping safe in these dangerous situations. Their role is to Identify and change the thinking of highest potential transmitters
Cure Violence employs a strong outreach component to change the norms and behavior of the highest-risk individuals. Outreach workers act as mentors to a caseload of participants, seeing each client multiple times per week, conveying a message of rejecting the use of violence, and assisting them to obtain needed services such as job training and drug abuse counseling. Outreach workers are also available to their clients during critical moments – when a client needs someone to help him avoid a relapse into criminal and violent behavior. The participants of the program are of highest risk for being a victim or perpetrator of a shooting in the near future, as determined by a list of risk factors specific to the community. In order to have access and credibility, Cure Violence employs culturally appropriate workers, similar to the indigenous workers used in other public health models.
In order to have lasting change, the norms in the community, which accept and encourage violence, must change. At the heart of Cure Violence’s effort at community norm change is the idea that the norms can be changed if multiple messengers of the same new norms are consistently and abundantly heard. Cure Violence uses a public education campaign, community events, community responses to every shooting, and community mobilization to change group and community norms related to the use of firearms.
Three additional elements are essential. First, with all of these components, data and monitoring are used to measure and provide constant feedback to the system. Second, extensive training of workers is necessary to ensure that they can properly carry out their duties. This includes an initial training before they are sent out on the streets, follow up trainings every few months, and regular meetings in which techniques for effective work are reviewed. Third, the program implements a partnership with local hospitals so that workers are notified immediately of gunshot wound victims admitted to emergency rooms. These notifications enable workers to respond quickly, often at the hospital, to prevent retaliations.
New York City has recently tripled the Cure Violence program in New York City, because it has worked to move. They are spending $12.7 million (a small fraction of what is spent on policing and courts and prisons) to expand the Cure Violence model from 5 to 14 precincts accounting for 51% of shootings in the city.
“While New York remains the safest big city in the nation and crime has continued to drop citywide, gun violence remains a challenge,” said Mayor Bill de Blasio. “With this initiative, we are creating a focused effort incorporating mental health services, legal services, after-school programs-using models of proven success and targeting the communities where nearly half of the city’s shootings occur-into our effort to reduce gun violence and create a safer New York.”
The Cure Violence model is currently active in 25 cities in the United States as well as several international cities. This new initiative will establish New York City as the largest implementer of the Cure Violence model.
We have seen time and again, in the scientific research on this, that there is every reason for hope. We know that violence is contagious, just like any other disease. And like any other disease of the individual, family, community and society, it can be interrupted in its tracks and then prevented from further spread.
A unified effort, collaboration, is key. There are a number of non-profit organized groups, plus grassroots efforts, active in the non-violence cause within most U.S. jurisdictions. Then there are the institutions charged with guarding our health and safety and positive human development: health departments, police departments, schools, religious organizations, and so on. That being said, divided initiatives for a common cause may have some form of relative success but fall short in comparison to tiered initiatives combining efforts. A multilateral framework for non-violence should involve all the major key actors acting on a common consensus on what progress toward nonviolence looks like. They would create prioritized tiered goals towards a safer community in order to have a far more observable rate off success in reducing the number of the violent incidents. (See https://dub124.mail.live.com/mail/ViewOfficePreview.aspx?messageid=mgm_2WXiBA5BGWc6wWLb4oTA2&folderid=flsent&attindex=0&cp=-1&attdepth=0&n=82272803)
The movement to treat crime and violence as the disease that it is has just begun with the recent building of evidence. However, while evidence is growing, there are several strategies we can implement now, without waiting on policymakers to accept the evidence.
Any strategy must include directly addressing individuals who are most at risk of perpetrating violence, and instituting programs of individual and collective actions to change the norms to prevent further violence now and in the future. These actions can include tolerating no more games of violence whether it’s toy guns or video games that teach that killing is a sport. Are we promoting a society that says watching others in pain and suffering is entertainment? Why not give our kids play crack pipes? How about letting them play a video game of how many drug deals they can score to become the best drug dealer? We used to think play bubble gum cigarettes were cool. They are not any more. We can change the culture around violence in our own homes and lives. The building of a peaceful society is in our own hands in the here and now in our use of words to build up or tear down.
There is hope. There is a way out. Violence is not a random, sporadic casualty of being human. Our sons’ deaths should never be accepted as tragic consequences of the inevitable. There are catalysts of violence, and rather than condemning them, they can be understood and treated. We must understand that systematic reform stems from ourselves; and that change can only be achieved when we recognize that this is am epidemic which can be cured.
While we certainly need more resources made available to communities that seek to undertake violence intervention and prevention where violence has been reframed as as a health problem that results in a crime problem rather than a criminality problem that needs to be policed, the Department of Justice does provide significant support and there is reason to hope for more ahead. (http://ojjdp.gov/enews/14juvjust/141021b.html)
The International Centre for the Prevention of Crime ( http://www.crime-prevention-intl.org/) has developed an International Compendium of Crime Prevention Practices (http://www.crime-prevention-intl.org/en/publications/compendium-of-practices/practices/article/international-compendium-of-crime-prevention-practices.html) to inspire action across the world. It contains crime prevention and community safety practices gleaned from North America, Europe, Africa, the Caribbean, Central and Latin America, Oceania, and South Asia “to inspire action across the world.”
Victory Over Violence
Since the resolution to violence ultimately relies on human development and in some cases human personal and cultural transformation, I would like all of us to participate in the Victory Over Violence pledge (http://www.vov.com/). It has been taken by millions of people worldwide as a way to begin, here and now, to promote a new culture of peace by getting at the root of it all, and for each of us to accept our responsibility to create peace:
I Will Value My Own Life: Today, again, I will reach beyond my doubts, taking concrete steps to uncover my unlimited potential. Recognizing that a lack of self-identity and hope for the future are at the root of all violence, I will strive to realize my dreams, even if they seem impossible.
I Will Respect All Life: While protecting and celebrating diversity, I will endeavor to see beyond superficial differences. I will awaken to a deeper sense of interconnectedness with those around me by reflecting on the common humanity I share with all people.
I Will Actively Pursue Dialogue: With care and consideration for the dignity inherent in others, I will make continual efforts to reach out to people each day, especially those different from myself. Through genuine friendship, I will break through feelings of isolation and hopelessness that can lead to acts of violence.
I Will Inspire Hope In Others: With courage, I will resolutely stand up against violence, be it passive or physical and teach others through my own example. I will support others and encourage them to follow their dreams.