Chicago’s plan to bring down its staggeringly high levels of gun violence leans hard on an anti-violence strategy known as street outreach.
The outreach workers, often former gang members, try to intervene in ongoing gang conflicts by convincing young men to put guns down, to forgo revenge. They have “lived experiences” that give them the perspective and reputation needed to gain entry into the groups driving the city’s gun violence.
Judy Moskowitz, a professor of medical social sciences at the Northwestern Feinberg School of Medicine, said most of the people doing the work have been exposed to extreme trauma. Many have been victims of violence or committed acts of violence themselves. They’ve lost friends and loved ones. On top of that, all of the workers experience “extreme stress” being exposed to trauma through the clients they work with day after day as they mediate disputes and respond to shootings.
That’s why Moskowitz is starting work with the anti-violence program READI Chicago, training its workers in something called “resilience skills.” She said the training will help anti-violence workers “avoid the burnout and secondary trauma that’s so common in people doing this work.”
Moskowitz will be trying to give the READI workers “a toolbox of coping skills that focus on increasing positive emotion.”
Moskowitz said traditionally, psychologists focus on negative feelings and techniques for reducing them. This program focuses instead on proactively building up positive feelings, so that there is a “reservoir of resilience” to draw on when workers are confronted with trauma and stress.
“They’re simple skills, nothing earth shattering,” Moskowitz said. “But when you practice them consistently, they can help you have more positive emotion, which then helps you cope with whatever stress you’re [facing].”
A $400,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health will fund the training for two years.
Illinois U.S. Senator Dick Durbin announced the funding at a recent press conference and pledged to keep bringing more federal funds to help in Chicago’s struggle with gun violence.
Moskowitz’s colleague, Northwestern Professor Andrew Papachristos said Chicago was in the early stages of building an anti-violence workforce, and it was a crucial time for making sure the workforce was being properly cared for.
“We have to build this workforce, we have to invest in this workforce, we also have to understand them and make sure they have what they need to succeed,” Papachristos said.
Moskowitz said supporting that workforce will be essential to reducing Chicago’s gun violence.
“Without the workers being able to do their jobs well, which they can’t if they’re suffering under the crush of this stress … then the program is not going to work,” Moskowitz said. “So you’ve got to have the workers in a place where they can do their best work to deliver this program.”
Soren Larsen-Ravenfeather, the director of learning and performance at READI, said they believe Moskowitz’s training is essential to ensuring their workforce has the tools needed to thrive.
“When you have individuals working on the front lines, intervening in violence, working with some of the most at risk individuals, they will be exposed to traumatic and difficult situations. And there’s no way to avoid that due to the nature of the work that we’re doing,” Larsen-Ravenfeather said. “But by teaching positive emotion skills, you don’t have to take away those difficult things. But you give people skills that they can use to kind of offset those, and power through those.”
Efrem Chillis works at READI trying to keep men off the streets and out of danger. He said the men he works with are especially vulnerable, and it’s essential that workers like him are emotionally stable enough to support them.
“A lot of our participants are dealing with trauma. And I don’t think a lot of people know what trauma is …The trauma these guys are dealing with is trauma like being homeless, being shot at, seeing people get shot,” Chillis said. “ Just hearing like a firecracker pop may trigger them and they may go haywire on the worksite and it is my job to try to bring them back and keep them in line.”
Chillis said he spent some time running the streets when he was younger. He took the job at READI to try and be a positive force in his community - and model an alternative for his teenage son.
But then, this summer his 16-year-old son Dorian McGee was shot and killed.
“He was a happy kid, go lucky kid … just like normal kids do, they come home, you know, they go play with a friend, and a lot of times, what they see in the streets is attractive … they gravitate to stuff like that,” Chillis said. “That’s why I took the job at READI because the guys that we’re dealing with are from the streets. … So I was trying to save him and trying to save these guys at the same time because they were like the role models for him.”
Chillis said he got therapy sessions through READI after his son was murdered.
And he said it’s essential that he be mentally healthy, if he’s going to be working with the READI participants who are always just one step away from falling back into danger.