Meet Andre Thomas, a CeaseFire Illinois Hospital Responder/health worker who grew up in the Englewood neighborhood on the south side of Chicago. Andre joined CeaseFire Illinois in 2013. Anytime someone is shot, stabbed, or otherwise violently injured, Andre responds when called by the hospital and begins to talk with the victim, his/her family and friends in an effort to avoid further retaliatory violence. CeaseFire Illinois currently has formal partnerships with three Level I trauma hospitals in Chicago (Christ Advocate, Northwestern and Stroger) and informal partnerships with Mt. Sinai, Masonic and Loyola.
“We are trained health workers, so our job is to try and improve community health by educating the community on violence prevention, to convince the victim, family and friends that violence is not the answer and retaliation not the solution,” Thomas stated. “By talking about the consequences from violence and the effect these actions have on families and friends, we work hard to change the mindset associated with the accepted use of violence to resolve conflict within our communities.”
In 2014, CeaseFire Illinois health workers intervened in 1228 shooting events in Chicago, and hundreds and hundreds of potentially lethal retaliatory acts of violence were interrupted as a result of the work of the CeaseFire Illinois hospital and neighborhood violence interrupters.
Although many acts of violence are prevented through the efforts of these health workers, one particular young man stands tall in Thomas’ life and keeps him motivated.
“I’d been working hard with a little guy name Kamal, a brilliant kid. I even took him up to the hospital with me to observe me in some of my work with people who had been shot. I was trying to get through to him, because he was starting to become submerged into this culture of violence in the streets, and I didn’t want that for him,” Thomas recalled. “Two weeks after I took him up to the hospital, Kamal was shot and killed. I’m really close to his grandmother and his father who is currently incarcerated, so this hurt bad because I felt like I could have and should have done more. I live with Kamal’s memory every day. Little guys like him keep me motivated to continue the work I’m doing.”
CeaseFire Illinois is a Cure Violence program partner. The Cure Violence model is a health model with the goal of preventing shootings and killings in high risk communities before they occur and change individual and social norms within high risk communities as to existing beliefs regarding the acceptable use of violence, in particular lethal violence, in order to resolve perceived slights, disrespect or other forms of interpersonal conflict.
Thomas believes strongly in the Cure Violence model and in the work CeaseFire Illinois workers are doing. “As a community we have to stop waiting for someone else to come along and save us from us; we have a responsibility to save our kids and to make our communities vibrant. No one is going to do it if we don’t stand up and do it ourselves,” Thomas emphasized.
Andre Thomas has seen firsthand the effects of poverty on conflict and violence. “Violence is a byproduct of poverty. These cats that are on the streets committing violent offenses in the communities, some of them are doing it because they don’t have anything to eat. No one would choose to live this type of lifestyle if they had options and opportunities. So the economy is going to remain stagnant as long as you have violence in the community because the community cannot be vibrant. No one wants to bring business into a community that is at war.”
Violence within poverty-stricken communities can be successfully eradicated, and Thomas has the answer. “EMPLOYMENT, educational outreach and group-level interventions led by trusted, credible messengers of the community, designed to challenge, attack and ultimately change the mindset associated with using violence to resolve disputes – these are the tools needed to successfully revitalize high-risk neighborhoods and communities.”