Is Chicago’s Violence A Learned Behavior?

Dr. Kimya Barden (left) is a professor of inner city studies at Northeastern Illinois University. Rev. Pervis Thomas (right) works to stop shootings by uniting neighbors.
Dr. Kimya Barden (left) is a professor of inner city studies at Northeastern Illinois University. Rev. Pervis Thomas (right) works to stop shootings by uniting neighbors. Maggie Sivit / WBEZ
Dr. Kimya Barden (left) is a professor of inner city studies at Northeastern Illinois University. Rev. Pervis Thomas (right) works to stop shootings by uniting neighbors.
Dr. Kimya Barden (left) is a professor of inner city studies at Northeastern Illinois University. Rev. Pervis Thomas (right) works to stop shootings by uniting neighbors. Maggie Sivit / WBEZ

Is Chicago’s Violence A Learned Behavior?

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How does Chicago’s gun violence ripple through communities and what can residents to do come together? WBEZ investigated those questions with two people who have different approaches on how to slow down the pace of shootings in the city:

  • Dr. Kimya Barden, a professor of inner city studies at Northeastern Illinois University, said the city’s gun violence has left many young people without the tools necessary to process traumatic experiences — and that pent-up anxiety and pain has long-term effects.
  • Rev. Pervis Thomas, pastor at New Canaan Land Missionary Baptist Church in Englewood, works to stop the shootings by uniting neighbors and communities.

As part of WBEZ’s monthslong series on gun violence, Barden and Thomas joined Morning Shift host Tony Sarabia to discuss the idea of “collective trauma,” the spread of violence and ways to stop it.

Tony Sarabia: Can you explain how this idea of “collective trauma” continues through generations?

Kimya Barden: Let me juxtapose post-traumatic stress disorder with collective- or historically-based trauma. When we think about post-traumatic stress disorder, we think about individualized, life-threatening events. It could be through combat, through war, sexual assault or through community-based violence. PTSD can be a series of symptomatologies: hyperarousal, not getting sleep, feeling depressed or etcetera.

“Collective trauma” thinks about group pain. If we think about Native American folks — and how genocide perhaps impacted them collectively — there’s a term that’s given called the “soul wound.” And so Native American scholars may talk about the soul wound and how genocide has impacted them intergenerationally. Jewish scholars think about it with regard to the Holocaust. There’s this term called “survivor syndrome,” and this idea that the pain and anxiety could manifest. And then in the African-American community, scholars who think about these things oftentimes think about it with regard to enslavement. So, several hundred years of enslavement, inclusive of those legacies, and how this trauma can manifest intergenerationally. And it’s not to suggest that all blacks or all natives or all folks of Jewish descent are a monolith — but it’s a way to kind of orient us to think about trauma collectively.

Sarabia: So if you go back and make that connection between slavery, is part of Chicago’s violence that the group that is living in this environment is more susceptible to the continuation of collective trauma?

Barden: I’m a South Sider, born and raised. But when we think about young folks on the North Side — if there’s a violent act in the schools, social workers, psychologists and mental health professionals are all there. But when we’re thinking about kids in the black community, when we talk about violence, we talk about homicide rates, we talk about trends and we don’t necessarily assign this kind of loss component [to address the fact that] a human life has been taken away. There aren’t those interventions or services to support these coping mechanisms that come with community-based violence. Hearing it, seeing it and even being victimized by it.

Sarabia: What do you make of the idea of violence as a disease, something that doctors like Gary Slotkin have talked about — this concept of violence as social contagion?

Pervis Thomas: I think it begins in the household, or because of peer pressure, and then it breaks out into violence. I grew up on 16th Street in Lawndale. It was eight of us. One mother, two bedrooms. Kids called me and my siblings bums because we didn’t have the shoes they wore and couldn’t afford the clothes and toys that they had. It created an anger in me where I lashed out in grammar school and then I began to lash out in high school. And then I began to gangbang. I began to run with the Vice Lords. I began to steal. I began to snatch purses because mom couldn’t give me two dollars to get some ice cream. I wasn’t getting what I needed to get from home — that teaching, the learning. Some behaviors are learned behaviors. And if it’s a learned behavior, it can be unlearned. But it takes the right teaching, and the right instructor that earns trust.

Sarabia: Pastor, you do something called Battle of the Blocks, a basketball tournament that brings together members of 10 different gangs. Tell us about it. What your goals and limitations?

Thomas: Battle of the Blocks was organized 10 years ago in the Englewood area. I just got tired of the killings and all these kids not going to school and dropping out, doing nothing. So I decided to walk block by block and tell the guys, “Hey, listen here, let’s stop killing. We don’t have to fight. Let’s find a way to create peace and love.” So I’ve gone from Normal to Western, from 54th to 64th, that whole radius. I got together all the gangbangers, all the dope dealers, everybody came to the parking lot just to play basketball. And it’s been very helpful.

Sarabia: Do you think your past helps convince them?

Thomas: It gives a testimony, like hey, listen here, I’ve been here before. I’ve sat on the same porch. I had a single parent. My mom was on food stamps. I know where you’re at. If I could create some type of way to get you a job, would you leave these streets?

Sarabia: Do you think, professor, though that more social workers more mentors. It’s that simple?

Thomas: It’s so amazing that you have a lot of mentors or counselors that just don’t have the funding. It’s the funding — and then you have people like me and a couple of pastors, young pastors, that do it because this where we came from.

Barden: I think that it’s a start. At Northeastern Illinois University, the Bronzeville campus where I am, the Center for Inner City Studies, there’s a couple of youth programs — Project Orange Tree being one … And these programs are devoted — not necessarily to counseling kids, but providing them a space to process what’s going on as a black teen living in Chicago. And let’s not be remiss and forget about CPS. Social workers, oftentimes they’re overworked, but they are engaging in kind of new practices of restorative justice. So yeah, I think definitely to your point Pastor there needs to be more social workers, more mental health professionals. Funding needs to be dispersed to support community mental health centers. And even in the black community we probably need to be a little bit more willing to listen to each other and how we can perhaps process pain. Because that’s a story that comes from the trauma, just being so tough oftentimes can manifest in so many other ways that are maladaptive.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. Click the “play” button above to hear the entire segment