Tackling Urban Violence Begins by Addressing Root Traumas
Disrupting the Cycle
The past year has been a difficult one in many ways, Dr. Alisha Moreland-Capula said.
“It’s been a tough time with COVID. We’ve had a lot of uncertainly, a lot of loss, and we’ve also had a rise in racial tension and a disruption in the relationship between law enforcement and the community,” the psychiatrist and author of Training for Change noted.
But when addressing an issue like urban violence, what many people — even those working to solve the problem — often don’t understand is the impact of fear. Not occasional fear, but long-term, lived-in fear.
“If you can imagine a life that is completely consumed and shaped by fear, then it is not absolutely outside the realm of possibility to understand how toxic that can be on someone’s life,” Moreland-Capula said.
The occasion for her words was the keynote address of a virtual forum last month hosted by Roca, an organization that aims to disrupt incarceration, poverty, and racism by engaging young adults, police, and systems that impact urban violence.
Fear can be a positive, she noted, when it heightens one’s senses in order to escape a dangerous situation or seek help.
However, “being afraid is meaningful until it’s not,” she said — when it’s a constant presence in a young person’s life, due to stressors like racism, poverty, and violence. That’s why Roca aims to tackle the issue of violence by addressing the causes of other traumas first — engaging not only with young people, but with the systems that impact them, from education to law enforcement to child welfare.
“Roca has been a relentless force in disrupting incarceration, poverty, and racism by engaging young adults, law enforcement, and systems at the center of urban violence and relationships to address trauma, find hope, and drive change.”
“We know from brain science that the external environment around us impacts who we are and who we become,” Moreland-Capula explained. “What Roca says is that we have to work with those environments, change the systems, and help to change the trajectory of the young adults we seek to serve.”
Mike Davis, vice president of Public Safety and chief of Police at Northeastern University, as well as a Roca board member, understands that concept.
“We have before us a moral imperative to be better as individuals and collective members of society,” he told forum attendees, adding that, too often, people lose hope because change hasn’t happened fast enough or, worse, believe working for change is someone else’s responsibility.
“Both of these thoughts are not only wrong, but but if they serve as the guidance for our behavior, they will guarantee failure,” Davis went on. “Substantive change is everyone’s responsibility, without exception. What needs to animate our actions now is a sense of urgency based on a vision for what is possible.”
Roca has such a vision, he explained, based on the premise that all people have intrinsic value and potential to contribute something unique to their society — and has not only helped steered young people away from prison and toward better outcomes, but also worked with police to see their roles differently.
“The loss of life to homicide or prison not only not only impacts that individual, that community, or that city, it impacts all of our society,” Davis said. “Loss of life is loss of possibility.”
In a brief address to the forum, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker noted that “Roca has been a relentless force in disrupting incarceration, poverty, and racism by engaging young adults, law enforcement, and systems at the center of urban violence and relationships to address trauma, find hope, and drive change. I’ve seen firsthand that Roca and its programming works.”
Fortunately, Moreland-Capula said, Roca has been ahead of the curve in paying attention to the relationship between root traumas and their societal impact.
“They understand that, for whole communities to heal, for people to heal, there has to be keen attention paid to specific things like community violence, like trauma.”
Some of the chronic fear she mentioned earlier stems from a lack of basic needs, from food and water to shelter, safety, even love and belonging. By helping young people access education and employment, those cycles can be broken as well, she noted. “We know there are complex and structural challenges that require a complex and structural approach.”
Molly Baldwin, Roca’s founder and CEO, said the proliferation of drugs, violence, and guns in communities requires innovative approaches.
“Our old methods won’t work. Incarceration is expensive and a failure. Jobs and GED programs are not enough, and even the most credible messenger cannot convince a young person to do differently if that young person is living in a state of fight or flight and cannot access the thinking part of their brain for healthy decision making,” she said. “If we don’t address the impact of lived trauma, we can’t hope for healing and change.”
That philosophy is behind the recent establishment of the Roca Impact Institute, which works with communities and institutions that have a clear commitment to addressing violence by working with young people who are at the center of local incidents and trends.
“Even the most credible messenger cannot convince a young person to do differently if that young person is living in a state of fight or flight and cannot access the thinking part of their brain for healthy decision making.”
Unlike a typical training approach, the Roca Impact Institute is an intensive coaching approach that works with police departments, criminal-justice agencies, and community-based programs in sustained, collaborative partnerships over a 12- to 24-month period. Experienced Roca leaders engage these partners to learn new, trauma-informed strategies and apply them in their local context.
The idea, Baldwin said, is to change together. “If we hope for change for young people, we must change, too.”
At the virtual forum, Baldwin presented Roca’s James E. Mahoney Award to Peter Forbes, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Youth Services (DYS), which has implented some of the concepts Roca promotes. Back in the 1990s, he noted, juvenile justice was in a different place, using terms like ‘predator’ and ‘offender,’ and concepts like boot camps and scared-straight programs.
But those thing didn’t work, he said, instead generating poor outcomes for individuals and communities. “Since that time, our work at DYS has evolved. We’ve embraced the principle that young people can make positive change in their lives, that we as an agency can be part of that change, and that our investment in youth development actually contributes to community safety.”
He cited national studies demonstrating that therapeutic approaches to justice-involved youth drive lower recidivism than punishment strategies. “If we run a coercive system, we actually run the risk of young people being worse off for their contact with the system.”
It starts, Forbes said, with meeting young people where they are. “People who work with adolescents see disrespect, non-responsiveness, impulsivity, defiance — behaviors that are typical of adolescents. Those are not descriptors of juvenile delinquency; that’s typical adolescent behavior. So it’s really important, as adults working with young people, that we respond to the behavior, but not overreact.”
The event featured a brief address by former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords, who has been an ardent gun-control advocate following her assassination attempt in 2011. Her message struck a different, more activist tone than the rest of the program.
“These are scary times — racism, sexism, lies, coronavirus. It’s time to stand up for what’s right. It’s time for courage,” she said. “We must do something to stop gun violence and protect our children, our future … to make our country a safer place, a better place.”
It will be a better place, Baldwin said, through the kind of relationship building, mutual understanding, and personal accountability that lie at the heart of Roca.
“We are humbled and honored to work with the young people at the center of urban violence — those who are traumatized, full of distrust, and trapped in a cycle of violence and poverty that traditional youth programs alone can’t break,” she said. “Today is a celebration of those who make this work possible, from young people to Roca teams and our partners committed to sparking new thinking about working with young people who are traumatized and stuck.”
Getting unstuck is a decision, she noted, offering a George Bernard Shaw quote: “Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.”
Roca is doing its part to create change, Baldwin said, but it can’t achieve its goals alone. “There is an opportunity for all of us to begin again.”
Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]