Curing the violence
CeaseFire Halifax. Photo: Randal Tomada
It’s an autumn evening and the CeaseFire team is on a mission to stop violence. Community mobilizer Carlos Beals organizes the group, sending Nathan Talbot and Lason Johnson, two violence interrupters, off in Talbot’s truck to canvass at Lahey Road in North Dartmouth, one of the area’s hotspots for violence. Beals, along with Vicki Samuels-Stewart, the project manager, Kevin Brooks, outreach worker, and Miranda Cain, outreach worker and violence interrupter, head down Albro Lake Road.
It’s hot and sunny and yet no one is on their front porch to greet the canvassers as they leave flyers and posters detailing CeaseFire’s mandate. Samuel-Stewarts notices it, too, commenting how when the group was in Preston, one of three communities where they work, residents joined them as they canvassed. Another community mobilizer Pauline Byard, trails behind, spending as much time as she can with the few residents who are outside. “She tells all the information,” Brooks says. “She’s the best.” Brooks drops a poster off at Farrell Hall where just the weekend before 28-year-old Daniel Pellerin died from stab wounds. A makeshift memorial of flowers and cards hangs from the yellow guardrail in front of the hall.
Beals grew up in North Dartmouth and still lives in the neighbourhood. A young woman sitting in front of a convenience store on Windmill Road remembers his brother from school. He points out the small church where Pellerin’s funeral was held days before. “I know everybody,” he says. “I can point to any house and tell you who lives there.”
In 2012 after several shootings, including several in the Preston area, leaders in the black community decided they needed to take action. Yvonne Atwell, current executive director with the Community Justice Society and former MLA for Preston, remembers it well. “It was a nerve wracking time,” she recalls. “Everyone was on high alert and the community was angry, scared and frustrated and didn’t know what to do.”
She was looking into a youth restorative justice program when she remembered a video Sobaz Benjamin, the founder and executive director of In My Own Voice (iMove) Arts Association, showed her just a year before. The film was about a program called Cure the Violence, formerly CeaseFire Chicago, an organization that started in 2000 out of a research project from the University of Illinois. Its mandate is to stop violence by using methods similar to those used to eradicate disease: interrupt the transmission, work closely with those at the highest risk and change community norms. Violence interrupters, outreach workers and community mobilizers serve as workers on the ground in the target communities.
A working group that included Atwell, the Crime Prevention Unit, social worker Robert Wright and late lawyer and human rights activist Rocky Jones invited officials from the Chicago program to Halifax. More than 80 people, including the Halifax Regional Police, RCMP, youth from the community and other stakeholders met at the Dartmouth Cultural Centre to learn about CeaseFire and how it could work in Halifax.
After visiting Chicago to see the model in action, the team prepared proposals and secured $2.1 million funding through the National Crime Prevention Strategy and the province, CeaseFire Halifax, got its official start on May 1 this year. It’s the first time for the program in Canada. Although the police were part of the original working group that brought CeaseFire to the city, they don’t have a part in its management. Dalhousie’s Resilience Research Centre will evaluate the program’s results. Officials there say they will have a better idea of actual results about a year into the program.
Cure the Violence has programs in cities and countries around the world, including Baltimore, New York, Honduras, Colombia and Basrah, Iraq. According to Brent Decker, Cure the Violence’s chief program officer, while Halifax has the lowest homicide rate amongst cities that host the program, there still are similarities in the way in which violence spreads. “I think when you have neighbourhoods that have economic depression, not a lot of jobs, not a lot of education, it feels very similar in Halifax, as it does in Kansas City as it does in Baltimore,” he says.
Decker and other staff from Cure the Violence have been back to Halifax to recruit and train the staff. The first training started in April with a second round following in June. Decker will be back this month for a third training session. All of the training is based on a combination of classroom time, role playing and working out in the community to see how the staff works with clients. Roleplaying comprised most of the training time. “I think many of the staff were doing this in an informal way anyway,” he explains. “You can’t train the wrong worker.”
Miranda Cain grew up in North Preston but left the province when she graduated at 18 to study social work and criminology and work with at-risk kids. She says between 2007 until last year while she was out of the province 12 young men were killed in her community. She couldn’t attend any of their funerals. She returned last year.
“I am ready to give back,” she says. “I am ready to come back and contribute.” Cain now works as a CeaseFire violence interrupter and outreach worker in North Preston. The job has her scheduled to work 30 hours a week, but she says she works up to 60 hours per week. Like Johnson and Talbot, and Shawn Parker, who works as an alternate when needed, she’s out in the community Wednesday to Saturday for several hours each night. She talks with her clients and mediates if a conflict arises, working to get them to “stand down” and drop the gun.
During her off hours, she answers emails, phone calls and texts from her clients, the young men who are the most at risk to be involved in violent conflicts in these communities. After months of working with them, she now knows why they reach out. “I feel like they are waiting for me,” she says.
When CeaseFire launched in North Preston in July, the plan was to have a barbecue to introduce the community to the program and its staff. But Cain wanted to make it more, so she organized a memorial service for those 12 young men who were killed when she was away. “I wasn’t expecting the whole community, but the church was full,” she says.
* * *
It’s a Monday night and Lason Johnson is officially off duty. But at 5:30 he’s on the air at Youth Now, a program at CKDU hosted by Seth Glasgow and El Jones, and facilited by Sobaz Benjamin who introduced Atwell to the CeaseFire program a few years ago. Johnson’s here to tell listeners about his job as a violence interrupter with CeaseFire. He works in Uniacke Square and Mulgrave Park. But first he and the hosts listen to poems from inmates who call in from the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility in Burnside.
Hit up my drug dealer, exchange goodies for herb
To get what I needed, I had to do dirt
Johnson gets these men. “I was a product of my environment growing up in Uniacke Square,” he tells listeners. “I’ve seen violence that affected me. I’ve lost friends to the street. I’ve got friends who are lifers and shit. One thing I realized is when they are doing time, not only are they doing time, their family is doing time. It’s tough.”
Johnson says it was letters he received from his kids while in jail that set him on the road to rehabilitation. “You guys stay positive, keep your heads up, better days ahead,” he tells them during the show. Then the hosts find out the correctional facility has blocked the station’s number, preventing inmates from calling in.
But the callers’ poems strike a chord with Johnson. “That’s what I realize about our communities,” Johnson tells listeners. “There’s so much potential. Young brothers are so articulate, right? They just don’t know how to go about it to get their voice out there.”
At 24, Beals is the youngest member of the CeaseFire team. But he’s not young in experience. “I’ve lived long enough to understand what the issues are,” he says. He remembers coming home one night, parking his car and finding himself in the middle of gunfire. Or the time his parents hid him and his siblings in closets as shots rang out on the streets.
But Beals says he always wanted to give back to the community. He started working with HRM recreation when he was 14. He worked as an intern with the RCMP in Cole Harbour and the Halifax Regional Police with their day camps. Then he left for Toronto where he got a degree in criminal justice from the University of Guelph-Humber where he first heard about CeaseFire. Now as an outreach worker and community mobilizer with the program he knows where these young men are in their lives and he wants to steer them in a different direction. They can do that, he says, with education and understanding their roots.
Beals says these young men often don’t see their options or understand why there are often limits to those options for them: “You then turn to violence and crime because you don’t know how to deal with it.”
CeaseFire sticks to the same model everywhere it operates. The officials in Chicago provide technical and outreach support, as well. The Halifax team has a conference call with Chicago every Thursday. But many cities find ways to adapt the model to their particular situations. In the case of Halifax, that included working with what it regards as the highest-risk group, young black men between the ages of 16 and 24.
The team also wanted to include an Afrocentric component, focusing on African American culture and history. This takes the form of including these men in cultural events in the community and showing them there is a positive history for black men. For Samuels-Stewart teaching them their history shows them there’s a future and gives them a sense of self-confidence. And that means options besides violence.
“Within the African Nova Scotian community there has been, and still is, a feeling about not being included,” she explains. “Culturally, they are coming from a place that is isolated. [We’re] giving people a sense of who they are in a place where they feel comfortable.”
Decker says shaping the model for a particular community simply gives it credibility. “In any city we work in, we want to workers to have credibility within whatever context they are working,” he explains. “Anything that can make understanding the right language is important. They are one of them.”
Just five months in, and Atwell, who was there from the beginning, says while the hard numbers aren’t in yet, she can see and feel the change.
She wants communities to focus on leadership, not just from community leaders, but in each other. She’s learned, too, that some community members are looking out for incidents that might escalate into violence. They are changing the norms, like the model’s goal. “That is such a good thing that people are watching out for these things,” she says. “If this program only brings awareness at the end of the day, it’s been a success.”
This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.