Resilience and Resolve: Community-Led Efforts to Target Youth Violence

Resilience (\ri-ˈzil-yən(t)s\): an ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change.

Our class discussion this week poked around at definitions of and impact of resilience on victims of crime—particularly for those in the youngest stages of their lives. Having grown up in a single mother household in a relatively non-affluent suburb of Indiana, I have often felt that my upbringing brought with it a sense of self-reliance, hardiness, and street-sense that I feel many others in my demographic often lack or underestimate. While I would have likely considered myself “resilient”, growing up in an environment relatively free from violence ensured that I had very little understanding of what true strength or experience could ever truly entail.

After my graduation from college and during my work with disadvantaged youth as a youth advocate for a major educational non-profit in Harlem, New York, resilience became a word that I became intimately familiar with. In fact, “resilience” became the central coordinating theme of a creative writing course offered through our non-profit’s after school program, in which students participated in weekly writing sessions focused on their experiences, challenges, and overcoming adversity. Unsurprisingly for anyone familiar with the historical crime rate of Central Harlem, many of the students’ writings focused on personal experiences dealing with violence, both within the community and at home.

In often heartbreaking fashion, each of my students could recount times in which they had been bullied, beaten, or otherwise victimized by members of their families or by neighbors in their communities. While the patterns of violence and perpetrators were unique to each student, all were able to recount stories of how instances of violence presented them with trials and tribulations for which they had to endure and overcome. However, all students—without exception—shared a common thread of strength and resilience that prevented their entry into an all too real world of crime that lurked—quite literally—on every street corner.

Resilience, however, does not appear to result merely from exposure to adversity or violence, indicating that other mechanisms must be in play for misfortune to lead to an increase in resilience and self-efficiency. During my other work with paroled adolescent and teenaged gang members living in Brooklyn, the attribute of resilience was all too rare. As individuals who had fallen into hands of the juvenile detention program early in their lives, education levels remained low and interrupted and economic resources were scarce and not easily and often not legally accessible given a dearth of education, hard skills, and social capital invested in those who have been previously convicted of crimes. Without the availability of these social supports and personal encouragement, resilience and opportunity were staunched and a life resigned to depending on crime for survival seemed almost inescapable.

However, a series of efforts have been undertaken in order to improve youth resilience in the highest risk communities through education, mentorship, and through the building of social capital and community support. Over the past two decades, a series of grassroots community-led outreach initiatives have been developed in order to encourage resilience in youth as well as to quell the rising tide of youth violence in many American communities. A particularly successful Southside Chicago initiative was showcased in PBS’s raw and emotive 2012 documentary “The Interrupters”.  In order to reduce the number and intensity of crimes in their community as well as to build resilience in young adults at risk of participating in violence, a group of tireless and dedicated peace advocates have taken to the streets in order to reach out and encourage local youth to make smarter, safer decisions about their actions and reactions to everyday threats of physical violence.

The Interrupters

Such efforts to build resilience among those affected by tragedy and violence have the potential to have lasting positive affects throughout the life course of the individual and encourage often cyclical patterns of violence to be broken. However, we must ask ourselves about the nature of resilience. Can one be taught resilience or is it an innate quality? Does one choose a path toward resilience or is one guided to it by the pressures of circumstance and the support of others in one community?

If resilience can built, what are our best mechanisms for doing so? Are educational efforts the key to supporting our youth and preventing their participation in crime and delinquency? Is ensuring that strong, relatable leaders are available in communities in order to provide mentorship our best bet for reducing crime and improving social resilience? Or are investments in social and economic capital that target those most at risk of violence perpetration and victimization the most fundamental way to improve the livelihoods of at-risk youth, thus reducing the pressure to commit crimes and improve self-efficacy? Thoughts? Opinions?

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