Inside the academy working to train D.C.'s violence intervention workforce The Peace Academy's curriculum — taught over 13 weeks – includes lessons in mediation, negotiation, and public speaking and advocacy, with D.C.-based violence interruption experts and activists.
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Inside the academy working to train D.C.'s violence intervention workforce

Inside the academy working to train D.C.'s violence intervention workforce

Students listen to a session of the DC Peace Academy in an Anacostia conference room. Jenny Gathright/DCist/WAMU hide caption

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Jenny Gathright/DCist/WAMU

William Johnson has always taken care of his neighbors.

The 29-year-old grew up in D.C.'s Bellevue neighborhood, where he assumed a role early on that felt natural.

"I'm always making sure everybody in the neighborhood good," Johnson says. "We used to throw a lot of cookouts in the summertime. I'm always the one on the grill. I'm the type that'd give the shirt off my back if I could. That's how I was raised."

It was exactly that instinct that led to his eventual career. Johnson is one of dozens of violence interrupters across the city – skilled workers that build trusting relationships with people at risk of perpetrating violence in order to help mediate it.

These violence interrupters work for multiple organizations across the city, and they're tasked with a huge responsibility, especially as the rate of violent deaths in the city has ticked steadily upward for several consecutive years. It's a job that violence interrupters say requires support — some argue, more than the city is currently providing — and continuous education.

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That's why Johnson applied for The DC Peace Academy, a new, privately-funded training program for D.C.'s violence intervention workers.

This summer, Johnson and about 20 other students have been attending classes twice a week in Anacostia. The Peace Academy's curriculum — taught over 13 weeks – includes lessons in mediation, negotiation, and public speaking and advocacy, with D.C.-based violence interruption experts and activists. All of the students work for the city in some form, through programs like The Office of the Attorney General's Cure the Streets program, the Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement's violence interruption program, and others.

In addition to helping train these workers on how to better address the kinds of crew-related conflicts that drive a significant portion of the city's gun violence, the training academy is also a chance to gather D.C.'s peacemakers to think through big questions about what they want out of their careers. The D.C. government offers trainings of its own to the violence interrupters it employs — but the Peace Academy is the only training that brings violence intervention workers from across different city agencies and community-based organizations together for an intensive course.

(The D.C. government is also partnering with the University of the District of Columbia to launch a four-week class of their own for violence interrupters.)

The hope is that better equipping D.C.'s violence intervention workers — and fostering collaboration and coordination among them — can help them address the city's rise in killings. Homicides in the District are up 14% from this time last year, when the city saw more murders than any year since 2003.

On a Tuesday in June, the students gathered for class. Their discussions were a glimpse into the curriculum, which ranges from analysis of specific incidents to bigger-picture examinations of the field of violence prevention.

The day began with a discussion of how trauma affects the human brain — and how those lessons could be applied to two high-profile shootings that occurred the previous weekend: One that killed a 15-year-old boy and injured three others at an outdoor go-go event in Northwest D.C., and an incident at Tyson's Mall where popular local rapper No Savage allegedly fired a gun (no one was injured).

Both incidents occurred in public, crowded places. And both, according to clinical social worker Mywen Baysah, were examples of conflicts that quickly escalated to violence because someone became too agitated to think clearly, and no one was around to calm them down before they reached for a gun.

"Those two are very strong examples of poor impulse control," Baysah said as she led the session. "We want to give people options of alternative ways of behaving in the community, and that's what you guys do every day."

In a class discussion about how they would work to prevent these types of incidents, several students brought up the importance of consistent mentorship: A mentor has the ability to constantly remind someone of the positive things in their life, so they're less tempted to throw it all away in the heat of an argument.

One student emphasized the need to let the young people he mentors know that "they could lose their life just by publicly addressing certain things."

"We've got to show them the pros and cons" of acting that way, he said.

Many of the students also emphasized the role of social media and the need to coach people to have a different relationship with it: The incident involving rapper No Savage, for example, occurred after a person taunted him and recorded it to post online.

Johnson said the recording was an example of one of his cardinal rules: "don't open doors to stuff." When the person antagonizing No Savage pulled out his phone, he was opening a "big ass door" for the situation to escalate.

"Teach them critical thinking," added Johnson. "Teach them what to do in this scenario ... teach them how to think for the next person."

Clinical social worker Mywen Baysah leads a class discussion at the DC Peace Academy, with Peace for DC Executive Director Lashonia Thompson-El behind her.

There is a long history of violence intervention in the District: in the 1990s and 2000s, groups like Cease Fire: Don't Smoke The Brothers & Sisters and Peaceaholics took on violence intervention work in a more formal capacity. But in recent years, D.C. government agencies have formalized violence intervention in the District and increased the amount of money directed towards it.

Now, an estimated 300 people work in some form of non-police violence prevention capacity through city contracts, through programs like: The Office of the Attorney General's Cure the Streets program, the Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement's violence interruption program, the Department of Youth and Rehabilitation Service's credible messengers initiative, and the Department of Parks and Recreation's Roving Leaders Program. The Office of the Attorney General's Cure the Streets Program is expanding to four new neighborhoods, and the Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement is adding three new sites this year as well.

The programs don't often collaborate with one another, and that lack of coordination has been a critique of the city's broader violence intervention strategy in the past. But at the Peace Academy, workers from across organizations (and across the city) have the space to seek support and to ask questions of one another and their work.

Later that June day, the class got into an animated discussion about gender and healthy masculinity in violence intervention work.

Lashonia Thompson-El, the Executive Director of Peace for DC — which funds the academy – led the session. She posed a question: "Can somebody tell me what is the role of women in the work?"

"The same role as everybody," answered one male student.

"I actually think they're better," chimed in another.

The students talked over each other, the discussion sometimes growing contentious (but mostly just cacophonous). Nneka Grimes, one of only several women in a classroom full of mostly men, made a point about how most of the learning materials violence intervention workers receive and pass out focus on how violence and incarceration affect men.

"Most of the [public education] and the conversations we have are geared towards men, and the women are just trying to figure it out," she says.

Speaking before class the following week, Johnson said the healthy masculinity session made him rethink the language he uses to talk to young boys in his neighborhood. He said he planned to avoid using gendered language from now on, like telling them they "throw like a girl," for example.

He also told DCist/WAMU that the Peace Academy is helping him acquire more specific skills — skills that have already proved useful. One striking example? In class, Johnson learned how to use Naloxone, a drug that reverses opioid overdoses — and shortly afterwards, he actually used it on someone in his community.

"I felt great," he said. "I was like, 'Dang, I saved a life.'"

And in addition to highly specific, concrete skills, Johnson says the program has also been useful in helping him learn about and navigate his own traumas so that he can better serve his community and family. He has access to a therapist through the academy, for example.

"I do counseling with him and it's been productive," Johnson said. "I'm learning [that] some things that I went through is trauma. And the last thing I want to do is give it to my son to inherit."

In addition to therapy, the program's instructors also say they want to give the Peace Academy students tools to navigate their careers for the long-term, since many of the city's violence interrupters and credible messengers are formerly incarcerated and do not have extensive experience with formal employment.

Fierra Green, who is managing a new team of violence interrupters in Northwest D.C.'s Sursum Corda neighborhood, adds that the mental health resources and career development resources are a key component of the program for her. She plans to enroll in school for social work in the fall.

"No one ever worries about the violence interrupters," says Green. "They just want us to interrupt the violence. So I'm glad that Peace Academy is here to help us with things like that."

Violence intervention workers like Green are exposed to ceaseless trauma — and they're also under immense pressure.

Residents are desperate for solutions to gun violence. And while Green says she sees the way her work changes lives every day — for example, she recently hired some of the young people she once mentored to work under her — she knows that some people are skeptical about whether the city's violence intervention programs are really working. A recent report from the D.C. Auditor found that while some city violence intervention programs show promise, D.C. has not adequately evaluated them; in response, the Bowser administration agreed to further study the impacts of its violence prevention programs.

Green herself, like many other violence intervention workers in the District, is an example that people once involved in violence can turn their lives around: While she once helped to drive violence in the District, Green has now dedicated her life to ending it.

"They don't understand the blood, sweat and tears as we go through, the trainings we go through, the things that we have to listen to from outsiders who don't believe in the work that we do," says Green. "And we are fighting every day to let the people know that what we're doing works and if they just support us, it'll work even more."

This story is from DCist.com, the local news site of WAMU.

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