Chicago anti-violence workers need help

In 2012, when Kathryn Bocanegra was anti-violence director in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood, she dealt with an employee who was struggling to do her job.

The employee was a street worker, responsible for connecting with gang members, trying to prevent shootings and removing youth from the streets. In March that year, she saw one of the young men she worked with bleed to death from a gunshot wound to the stomach.

She was devastated and “totally destabilized” by the young man’s death, Bocanegra said. The practitioner has developed a fear of attachment to her clients. She retired from work.

So Bocanegra fired her.

“I was so focused on us being able to continue providing a service, to be in compliance with our grants, but also to help the community at a time when the violence was increasing, that I neglected the well-being of this worker. And when they could no longer perform a task, they were fired,” Bocanegra said.

As Chicago and the country invest more in violence prevention efforts that do not involve the police, there is growing awareness that this growing anti-violence workforce needs support to deal with the violence into which she is thrown every day. These outreach workers face similar levels of distress as police officers or paramedics, but without any institutional support or social esteem.

Bocanegra, now a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, has pledged to ensure people working to prevent shootings get more support than she gave her employee there. 10 years ago. To this end she just conducted an investigation of about three dozen front-line anti-violence workers in Chicago.

His conclusions are striking. Workers feel undervalued, undersupported and overexposed to trauma. Lack of support, Bocanegra said, could destroy the lives of people dedicated to bettering their communities and poses a serious threat to anti-violence efforts that Chicago is increasingly relying on to reduce shootings. .

“You forget yourself”

Street outreach, or street intervention, in which members of the community with criminal records or formerly involved in gangs travel to neighborhoods to attempt to intervene in disputes and remove people from the streets , has become a key part of the government’s approach to gang violence in recent years. The City of Chicago and the State of Illinois have committed millions to this effort. Former street workers have been promoted to positions in city, state and federal government. President Joe Biden talked about the value of hard work to the White House.

“It is expected that street intervention can provide the neighborhood safety that we desperately need,” Bocanegra said. “But the question that has haunted me… for a decade is at what price? And by saving one life, are we destroying the life of another person?

One worker interviewed described having nervous breakdowns on the way to work, another shared his fear after a co-worker’s car was shot, another spoke of his trauma-fueled nightmares soaked in blood.

More than three-quarters of survey participants said they had witnessed a traumatic death. About 80% have at least one symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

Orlando Mayorga said his anti-violence work has strained his relationships with friends, family and partner. He lost sleep and gained weight.

Before taking up his new position as back-to-school policy coordinator in the office of the lieutenant-governor of Ill. Juliana Stratton, Mayorga worked on prisoner re-entry at the Precious Blood Ministry in Chicago’s South End. He was one of the people who took part in Bocanegra’s investigation.

Mayorga’s work at Precious Blood, which he began shortly after returning from prison himself, forced him to constantly grapple with his own past of violence and incarceration.

Every day he had to work with people traumatized by prison, traumatized by what they had done to get locked up, traumatized by the violence in the neighborhood they were returning to and by the lack of options they had for themselves. ‘get out. He spent every day working with people teetering between life and death.

“You’re so invested in trying to have a positive impact on the community, to impact one life at a time that you forget about yourself,” Mayorga said.

Mayorga said his colleagues and friends encouraged him to seek therapy. He finally made it, but he suffered without help for years. He remembers thinking, “How can I talk to a therapist, if I’m the one who’s supposed to be everyone else’s therapist?”

Bocanegra said that’s why organizations that employ street workers need to do much more than just encourage workers to seek therapy. They need to make mental health and trauma support part of their core identity, such as running group wellness exercises, modeling good mental health, and giving workers time to decompress and take care of themselves. ‘themselves.

“You know death will come”

Tony Salaam, outreach director for READI Chicago in the Englewood neighborhood, said organizations should have on-site therapists who exclusively serve their anti-violence workers.

“These brave men and women doing this work on the ground, we need to provide them with the resources,” Salaam said.

READI is one of the largest anti-violence programs in the city, and until recently it was run by Bocanegra’s husband. He seeks to give jobs and therapy to men most likely to shoot someone or be shot. It requires workers to travel to Chicago’s most violent corners and connect with the people at the center of the bloodshed.

Salaam said READI does not have a clinician on site for its workers in Englewood. Instead, he said, workers can get help at a nearby site connected to Heartland Alliance, which funds READI.

Salaam said READI has a plan in place to support workers if one of their participants is killed, an occasion not uncommon due to the people they serve. This involves healing circles, constant check-ins and encouraging the worker to take time off, although he acknowledged that workers must tap into their own PTO bank if they want to be paid for their days off. recovery.

Professor Bocanegra said most anti-violence organizations have no plan or procedure in place to support employees after the murder of someone they work with, even if it is a sad fate. She said it is a symbol of how few organizations think about the welfare of their workers.

“If you know you’re working with people trying to kill each other, you know death will happen, you know shootings will happen,” Bocanegra said. “And that it will impact your staff at a very basic level. I think you can plan for this rather than react to it.

Bocanegra said it depends on the organizations doing this work — but also the government agencies and large nonprofits funding it.

As the city and the country turn more to street outreach to try to prevent shootings, those in control of the money need to make sure they’re not demanding unrealistic results, Bocanegra said. They need to make sure there is money in budgets for therapists for workers, workloads that allow real time for healing, and pay rates that give workers financial security.

Bocanegra said frontline anti-violence workers are “stopping the bullets with their bare hands” and need a lot of support to do so.

Patrick Smith is a reporter at WBEZ’s Criminal Justice Desk. follow him @pksmid. Email him at [email protected].

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