Chicago Anti-Violence Groups Build Up Mental Health Support For Workers Who Are ‘Exposed To So Much Trauma’

Anti-Violence Workers
Tony Raggs, far left, is the manager of the Safe Streets program for ALSO, an anti-violence organization. He stands with some of his coworkers in Humboldt Park. Raggs said the work of violence prevention can be taxing, and there's a high risk of burnout. Patrick Smith / WBEZ
Anti-Violence Workers
Tony Raggs, far left, is the manager of the Safe Streets program for ALSO, an anti-violence organization. He stands with some of his coworkers in Humboldt Park. Raggs said the work of violence prevention can be taxing, and there's a high risk of burnout. Patrick Smith / WBEZ

Chicago Anti-Violence Groups Build Up Mental Health Support For Workers Who Are ‘Exposed To So Much Trauma’

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Steven Rucker starts everyday at work like a lot of people, by chatting with his coworkers.

“I get here … then I take the time and I go around to each staff member, ask them how they feel, how their day’s going,” Rucker said.

But Rucker’s not doing it to just make idle chit chat or put off the start of the workday for a few minutes. Checking in on his colleagues, looking out to see if they seem distracted, sad or quieter than usual is a huge part of Rucker’s job.

Rucker is a wellness ambassador for the Alliance of Local Service Organizations, or ALSO. Rucker and his coworkers try to reduce the violence in Humboldt Park by offering alternatives to the people doing the shooting. Every day, they see trauma, violence and death up close. Rucker is responsible for making sure everyone is taking care of themselves.

“We’re trying to make the community healthy, but yet we have to do that within, and in the workplace that doesn’t happen too often,” Rucker said.

Rucker’s position as wellness ambassador is relatively new. He’s soft-spoken and deliberate. He doesn’t immediately seem like the office social butterfly. But he’s a good listener.

Anti-Violence Workers
Steven Rucker, a wellness ambassador, at ALSO’s office in Humboldt Park. Part of Rucker’s job is to check in frequently with his coworkers who could be at risk of being re-traumatized by their anti-violence work. Patrick Smith / WBEZ
“I interact with everybody. I’m forward but respectful of everyone,” Rucker said. “That’s who I am. You know, and I’m generally concerned with people around me because our lives are in each other’s hands when we’re out in the street.”

Rucker’s new role with ALSO is a sign of a growing understanding among Chicago anti-violence groups that they need to do more to monitor and support the mental health of their workers, especially as the city leans even more on frontline prevention workers to try and reduce Chicago’s staggering levels of gun violence.

“They’re exposed to so much trauma”

There have been about 2,500 shootings in Chicago already this year, a 50% increase compared to the first nine months of 2019. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s plan to address the problem relies heavily on street outreach organizations.

These organizations send men and women out to shooting scenes and gang corners where they try to connect with the people closest to the city’s gun violence.

“The outreach workers are our boots on the ground. They’re exposed to so much trauma,” said Tina Cooper, a behavioral health specialist for Metropolitan Family Services. “So we’re just making sure that they know that we’re here … to listen.”

As part of her job with Metropolitan Family Services, Cooper works with ALSO and five other partener anti-violence organizations on Chicago’s West Side. Her main job is providing counseling and support to the clients who’ve been talked off the streets and are looking to change their lives. But she said a crucial part of her job is serving the anti-violence workers who are out on the street everyday.

Cooper relies on people like Rucker to let her know when someone is struggling, and she does her own personal wellness checks, encouraging outreach workers to take advantage of counseling services.

“Sometimes it is really therapeutic just to be listened to,” Cooper said of her pitch to the outreach workers.

Even if they don’t take up therapy, Cooper pushes them to take care of themselves as best as they can. She said many of the outreach workers have lost someone to gun violence or been shot themselves, and that makes tending to their mental health especially important.

“Because of their experiences, it makes them that [much] more qualified to do the work. However, because of what they’ve experienced, and then to really be reexperiencing it by doing the work … burnout can be quicker,” Cooper said.

Then there’s the fact that many of the outreach workers used to be the people doing the shooting.

“You hear a lot of them say that ‘I used to be out here terrorizing the streets. Now I feel like it is on me to fix it,’ ” Cooper said. “Some of them are so gung-ho in trying to fix things that you can almost become lost in it and you could hurt yourself.”

Tony Raggs, the manager of ALSO’s safe streets program, said he recently felt overwhelmed and burned out by the work. It hit him one evening in July.

Raggs was in the middle of talking to someone who had just lost a brother in a shooting. He was trying to comfort them when his voice began to crack and his eyes welled up with tears.

“The person came to me for comfort and ended up giving me comfort as well,” Raggs said. “So I had to step back and say, ‘Hey, you know, I need … to get this out,’ or something. The first person who came to mind was Tina [Cooper].”

There’s a reason Cooper immediately came to mind for Raggs when he was struggling — she’s always there, offering support, checking in and pushing people to take care of themselves.

There’s a term that street outreach organizations use a lot: relentless engagement.

The idea is that you just keep showing up, keep reaching out. The guys on the corners carrying guns will turn you down over and over again. But you need to make sure you are there for that moment when they decide they want to try something new.

The mental health professionals in this world take the same approach with their coworkers.

“They had to build this wall to protect themselves”

Outreach workers interviewed by WBEZ said they believe they have enough mental health support available to them.

The problem is that many of them don’t actually take advantage of it.

“I’ve been putting it off. I’ve been putting it off,” said Ashake Banks, a victim advocate with the Institute for Nonviolence in Austin.

Banks’ job is to respond to shootings and murders, comfort grieving mothers, and help figure out funeral arrangements and other logistical issues that arise.

Banks has been shot before, and she lost her own young daughter to gun violence. It’s hard to think of a job that could be more traumatizing considering Banks’ history.

And she said Cooper is on her all the time about getting help. But she just keeps putting it off.

Cooper said this happens a lot. People know they’d be well-served by spending some time talking with her but just never agree to actually do it.

“For some, you know, they might not want to feel vulnerable, because in counseling it does require, in order for you to start the healing, you do have to let down your guard and be vulnerable,” Cooper said. “And I think from them being in the streets for so long and having to learn how to survive, they had to build this wall to protect themselves and their feelings.”

Cooper said she understands, and it doesn’t help to push. Her job is just to keep checking in and making sure to be there whenever they are ready.

To help her are people like Rucker, who are there everyday to backup the message of wellness and self care.

“The same commitment we have for the community. That’s my job to make sure that that happens within the agency,” Rucker said. “Because how can we tell somebody to be healthy and be proactive and advocate for a healthy lifestyle, and yet we’re not living it?”

Patrick Smith is a criminal justice reporter for WBEZ.