Violence prevention shouldn’t be a political football

I have dedicated my life to preventing violence in Chicago, and I am deeply shocked to see how violence is exaggerated in commercials by politicians and used to fuel voter fears. These weary tropes about Chicago are not only offensive to the people who live in our city, but also counterproductive to the essential goals of holistic, community-based, and trauma-informed approaches to curbing gun violence.

Our mainstream discourse on violence is becoming increasingly divorced from sensible policy solutions that we know can make a difference in our communities – policies that reckon appropriately with the history of structural racism, the misalignment of resources on the communities most affected tackle and envision a brighter future for every city dweller regardless of their zip code. The discourse on violence is not only detached from politics, but also aims to separate those affected from their own humanity.

For the past year, I have been Director of the Violence Recovery Program at the University of Chicago Medicine. Before that, I was director of the Center for Youth Violence Prevention, also located on Chicago’s South Side. And while I have held many responsibilities in these roles, I feel my primary responsibility is to listen to community members and provide channels for our Southside neighbors to reach the resources they need, whether that be through access to programs at the U. of C. or through meaningful, empowering programs in the community for the community.

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The Violence Recovery Program exists because our hospital leaders recognize that the care needed for gun violence survivors and their families far exceeds the time it takes us to treat their physical wounds in an emergency room. The Violence Recovery Program model includes around-the-clock violence recovery specialists in the emergency department, chaplains, social workers and child life specialists. Through this multidisciplinary approach, we are able to forge trusting relationships and connections with outpatient facilities that recognize the trauma of survivors and help them navigate the challenges they may face upon discharge from the hospital – from mental health resources to financial ones Support.

When I meet with elected officials to discuss my work — as I will do Wednesday in a field hearing chaired by US Rep. Robin Kelly — I openly describe the survivors we release from acute care as “living.” Wounded”. And while “walking wounded” often describes their physical condition, it almost always describes their spiritual and emotional state — not just from interpersonal violence, but also from the structural violence associated with generations of divestments in South Side communities.

This individualized, holistic approach to our patients is a critical part of making a difference in the communities we serve, but it’s just part of a much larger strategy of bringing together external partners of all sizes and roles to contribute to transformative change Chicago and for Chicago.

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We’re using healthcare as an entry point into, and correction for, a much broader conversation about systemic disinvestment in Southside communities. When a hospital or clinic pulls out of a community, it’s symbolic of other lifelines being pulled from the same communities, whether they’re public housing, public schools, grocery stores, or employers.

Here we return to make the conversation about the “social determinants of health” concrete for people to understand. We will have healthier communities, quite literally, when we can connect those communities to the financial and social safety net resources they deserve. For this reason, the U. of C. Medicine is working with the Metropolitan Peace Initiatives and Advocate Health Care of Metropolitan Family Services to facilitate a comprehensive and coordinated public health approach to violence prevention on the South Side.

Over the past 12 months, the Violence Recovery Program has brought together coordination meetings between street violence reduction organizations and law enforcement agencies, two groups on the front lines of the response to the violence. I am inspired when I hear law enforcement praise street outreach strategies and street outreach organizers promote approaches that treat local residents with respect and dignity. These listening sessions require us to be transparent about our understanding of the traditionally strained relationship between an overly punitive, broken criminal justice system and the communities targeted by that system.

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It also requires an acknowledgment that violent intervention should be led by individuals who have beneficial community relationships and an understanding of the best strategies to intervene in and prevent violence. Most importantly, in these sessions we need to listen, not teach, so that people with the power to effect change can respond, not blame. Coordination and cooperation ensure effective violence prevention.

This difficult work is still ongoing, and there is still so much room for us to improve the quality of life for South Side residents. And that work is made even more difficult by politicians who carelessly vilify our city and our people for quick political points.

As we head into the general election this November and the Chicago municipal election in 2023, we should be calling for a better conversation and asking for cooperative solutions from the people who can join us in not only saving lives, but saving lives to help shape our entire city, a place where every inhabitant can thrive.

That’s a lofty goal. The beginning of the journey to that goal is general recognition that the goal is worthwhile.

Franklin Cosey-Gay is director of the Violence Recovery Program, part of the Urban Health Initiative at the University of Chicago Medicine.

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