A Call for a Cultural Approach to Violence Prevention

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For decades, research has shown that the most effective violence prevention programs for African Americans focus on cultural transmission. Black scholars like Robert Jagers, Phillip Bowman, Nzinga Warfield-Coppock, myself, and others have written extensively about the importance of violence prevention programs cultivating tools of self-sufficiency, self-empowerment, and ethnic pride among African Americans especially young, Black males. Still, most anti-violence initiatives lack cultural elements.

              Today’s violence prevention programs need to incorporate activities that highlight major events of oppression of African people, e.g., the Transatlantic Slave Trade, the middle passage, the dehumanizing process of African people being sold as chattel, Jim Crow segregation, and police brutality. Young Black males must be educated on the atrocities committed against their people to better appreciate their ancestors’ strength, who endured such human suffering so that the knowledge is transferred to them to stress the resistance of institutional racism and oppression. There is overwhelming evidence that a stronger sense of self-sufficiency, self-empowerment, and ethnic pride are protective factors against violence-related behaviors among young Black males. Anti-violence programs, especially those led by whites, are uncomfortable, including pro-Black elements because they perceive them to promote anti-white sentiments. This type of thinking is misguided as being pro-Black doesn’t necessarily mean being against any other ethnic group.     

                        Another critical but often missing component of violence prevention work is establishing strong bonds between the participants and their community. There is a need for the violence prevention community to intensively engage its participants in leadership training and community service projects. Further, these programs must actively engage participants in becoming activists for social change in their community. Not only must the participants become engaged in community service in their communities, but they also must become intricately involved in community service projects in Africa, thereby connecting these youth to a global community. As Black youth begin to become more active in working for social change in their community and perceive themselves to be community builders, the less likely they will be involved in behaviors such as violence that destroys the community. Again, many white-led initiatives don’t incorporate these tools because they see them as being too provocative. They are more comfortable seeing Black youth as apolitical, docile, and followers than being prepared to be strong leaders of their communities working for self-determination.

In what must be a natural and planned response to the socioeconomic dilemma urban Black youth find themselves in, violence prevention programs must foster the spirit of entrepreneurship among their participants. Preparing them for jobs isn’t enough. An entrepreneurial spirit is a tool to reduce Black youths’ job role strain and prepare them to overcome the economic devastation in their communities. The programs’ leadership must provide a range of other alternatives that help their participants to overcome involvement in the underground economy that often involves selling drugs, theft/fencing, and robbery. A job does little to break that cycle, but entrepreneurship has potential.

Many violence prevention programs use various approaches to help their participants cope with stress, frustration, and rage, which ultimately lead to violence-related behaviors. Right now, cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), a psycho-social intervention that aims to improve mental health, is the latest fad in violence prevention programming. All over Chicago, anti-violence groups are boasting about the use of CBT to help their clients become less violent. However, those who advocate CBT have been accused of supporting a victim-blaming perspective of health-related behavior. Many experts on violence-related behaviors warn that “there is a risk of a paradigm emerging for health promotion activities which neglects the social causation of disease by its emphasis on individuals and individual choices.” According to its critics, the ideology of individual responsibility as a solution to decrease violence haphazardly neglects the environmental and sociocultural influences on health.

Furthermore, critics of CBT claim that this model is an oversimplification of behavior. Based on an incomplete analysis of the complexities of the social causation of disease, individual-oriented models like CBT are limited in explaining health-related behaviors. CBT is limited in its effectiveness because it focuses on individuals’ capacity to change themselves (their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors) and does not address broader problems in systems or families that often significantly impact an individual’s health and well-being.

Fortunately, some in Chicago’s violence prevention community are beginning to incorporate cultural activities in their work. John Zeigler, a pioneer in the African rites of passage international community, is currently working with Daryl Howard of Chicago CRED to implement a rite of passage initiative at CRED that Black scholars have consistently called for. Likewise, John Hardy of Acclivus Inc. is in the process of implementing a culturally-based professional development process that inducts its outreach and hospital response staff into the field of violence prevention using traditional African and Native American initiation rites.

            These efforts can bring about a movement beyond cognitive behavior therapy, a job, and general education.  These activities can make a significant effort to re-establish a cultural base complemented with instruction on spiritual and emotional issues. If successful

traditional African and African American values, morals, and ethics will be imparted to those, who need them most.  The traditional societal African values of we, cooperation, and the internal, will be instilled instead of the Euro-American societal values of, competition, and the external.  A cultural approach to violence prevention will highlight the Black value system by stressing the importance of commitment to our ancestors, the Black community, the Black family, self-discipline, and self-respect.  Violence prevention must promote a dedication to the pursuit of excellence and education and the disavowal of the pursuit of middle-classness to be effective.

            In these violence prevention programs, an effort to instill empathy and compassion for others must be cultivated in the participants.  There also must be an effort to teach collective efficacy.  By teaching collective efficacy, these programs must help the participants understand the importance of interdependence and increased communal values, thus, decreasing antisocial behavior. Finally, efforts must be made to promote social cohesion among the participants. Social cohesion or the lack-thereof is associated with the degree to which violence is present at the community level.  Interpersonal conflict leads to the most significant degree of fatal social deterioration among young African American males.  To address these problems, considerable time must be given to intensive culturally based problem-solving, not just conflict resolution and anger management skills training.

            Culturally based violence prevention programs are likely to build comradeship among African Americans based on prosocial values that can be highly influential in reducing antisocial behavior and violence.

 Dr. Lance Wiliams is a professor of Urban Studies at Northeastern Illinois University’s Bronzeville campus.