ROCHESTER — Is the key to curbing violence treating it like a disease?
That is what Action for a Better Community is looking to discover as it replicates an anti-violence model that has been successful in Chicago and other cities around the world.
The Cure Violence model was initially developed to deal with Chicago gangs, explained Naimah Sierra, ABC’s deputy director for the division of youth and community services.
"It really is based on the philosophy that violence is like an epidemic," she said. "If you interrupt transmission, you can make behavioral changes."
Frank Pérez, Cure Violence’s national director, said that the model was in fact created by Dr. Gary Slutkin, an epidemiologist who spent years studying contagious diseases. Slutkin even worked on the African continent studying the spread of cholera, AIDS, tuberculosis and typhoid fever, Pérez added.
When he returned to Chicago in the mid-1990s, Slutkin decided to start work on the treatment of violence in the city the way the diseases he studied were treated, Pérez explained.
"We need to deal with violence not just from a criminal justice perspective but as a contagious disease," Pérez noted. "Violence mimics contagious disease: It has hot spots. It affects a high-risk population of IV drug users with multiple sex partners. … Let’s deal with violence from that perspective; as a contagious disease and learned behavior perspective."
The model uses the same three components used to reverse epidemic disease outbreaks, according to http://cureviolence.org/the-model:
* Interrupting transmission of the disease.
* Reducing the risk of the highest risk.
* Changing community norms.
Paul McFadden (left), Youth Intervention Services Coordinator for Action for a Better Community, runs Milestones, a program that aims to keep at-risk youths out of trouble. Above, McFadden talks to 18-year-old Barrington Price during a May 27 Milestones meeting
To be the catalyst for change in Rochester is why ABC decided to apply for a state anti-violence grant earlier this year and received $280,000 for implementation of a "Save Our Youth" initiative, Sierra said.
Pérez said that while Cure Violence provides training and 24-hour support to each community that it assists nationally and internationally, each community is asked to come up with its own name for its program.
The model, however, is similar, as each program has a program director, outreach workers and violence interruptors. Rochester’s model will target the northeast neighborhood bordered by Joseph Avenue and Norton, Wilkins and Carter streets, Sierra said.
When the model was first employed in an area of Chicago with the worst record of violence, the police district in that area saw a 67-percent reduction in shootings and killings in the first 12 months, Pérez said.
Those numbers were seen as a fluke, so Cure Violence staff put the model to work in three other districts and saw reductions of 30 percent to 35 percent, he added. Now, Cure Violence models are in place in 18 communities around Chicago, six others in Illinois, several cities in other states, and even in Iraq, Afghanistan, South Africa and London.
He said that whether violence is tied to groups called gangs or tribes, often such incidents are the result of simply "disrespecting" someone else, from trying to steal another’s girlfriend to fighting over property, Pérez said.
"It’s nonsense," he said. "Because you disrespected somebody, you have to save face and react. And that results in the death of somebody."
The staff will engage with other community organizations to interrupt such incidents, including Pathways for Peace and churches, as well as area residents, Sierra said. The two violence interruptors will have their ears to the ground for potential incidents, while the two outreach workers will connect youths with resources such as jobs, schools or even victims’ services, if needed.
Alfredo González has been hired as the program’s director and Pedro Franco as an outreach worker, she added, and full implementation of the model by this fall.
The model not only intends to curb violence, but also will serve to mobilize a community and its residents to change their thinking about their own neighborhoods, Sierra said.
"That means people don’t just accept violence as part of living in the inner city," she said. "The idea is to prevent violence as part of living in the inner city."
The key to success for Save Our Youth will be that community buy-in, noted Ray Mayoliz, director of the city of Rochester’s office of youth outreach and violence prevention, which oversees Pathways for Peace. Pathways has been working on violence prevention strategies since 1998, he said.
"Residents (must) feel comfortable so when gun violence takes place, people speak up on what they see," he said. "That is one of the toughest things to do."
The most recent efforts to do so — which were part of Operation SNUG, a statewide program to reduce violent crime and gang activity — had some success, he said, with a 40 percent drop of shootings in a six-month period during 2011. But the funds for such efforts are now being allocated to Save Our Youth, Sierra explained.
ABC’s new effort is important because it not only looks at gang violence but is a holistic approach to youth violence, Mayoliz said. That includes ensuring safety on the El Camino walking trail or for students walking to and from school or from home to the city’s recreation centers, he added.
"My office is geared toward safe passage and building relationships," Mayoliz noted.
Pathways will work with the Save Our Youth staff to build those relationships in the target area as well as in the wider community.
He is currently working on re-invigorating the Pathways program, which is left without a bilingual staff person now that his job has shifted to the recreation office, Mayoliz explained.
Other local organizations say that they expect to be part of the ABC initiative but are on hold until the agency completes its staffing.
Sgt. Jacqueline Shuman said that the Rochester Police Department is waiting for ABC to finish hiring and training staff to determine what its role will be. Carlos Garcia, executive director of Partners in Restorative Initiatives, said that his organization is in line to assist in the training process for those ABC staff members when they are hired.
"We have trained some of their workers in restorative practices in the past and I hope we can do it again this time around," he said.
Whoever is hired for this initiative must be someone that youths can relate to, someone with a shared experience, concurred Mayoliz and Pérez.
Pérez said that Cure Violence assists agencies in bringing in the right kind of person for the job. That person may live or have family in those neighborhoods and be invested in the community, he said.
They could even be ex-convicts or former gang members, said Pérez and Sierra. Those kinds of people can relate to what’s happening in the lives of youths and give them the straight story on what happens in they don’t turn things around, added Pérez.
"They must be credible messengers who have skin in the game," Pérez said. "If you need heart surgery, you’re not going to get a podiatrist. You’re going to get a cardiologist."
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Editor’s Note: For more information about Save Our Youth, visit www.abcinfo.org or contact Niamah Sierra at 585-325-5116, ext. 1725.