It Takes a Village

(This article appeared in the Summer 2014 issue of SSA Magazine.)

Chicago’s Little Village is one of the largest Mexican-American communities in the Midwest, with a busy commercial strip and one of the youngest populations in the city. It’s also a neighborhood that’s fighting crime and gang violence. In 2010, the Chicago Police Department’s 10th District, which includes Little Village, ranked in the top ten for the city in terms of juvenile arrests.

It Takes a Village

The Chicago Center for Youth Violence Prevention, housed at SSA and headed by Professor Deborah Gorman-Smith, has recently become a partner and consultant to a coalition of organizations in Little Village that has been working for years to address the social-emotional needs of local youth with a robust set of coordinated services as a way to prevent crime and violence. Headed by local nonprofit Enlace Chicago, the coalition has launched the Little Village Safety Network, an extension of a comprehensive community development program sponsored by LISC Chicago called Testing the Model (TTM ). The center’s role will include piloting GREAT Families, an intervention for middle-school children and their families, at two schools and evaluating the results.

Gorman-Smith spoke with Enlace’s executive director, Michael D. Rodríguez, AM ’07, and its director of violence prevention, Kathryn Bocanegra, AM ’09, about how to measure impact, choosing evidence-based programs, and community/academic partnerships.

Gorman-Smith’s research is focused on development, risk and prevention of aggression and violence, with specific focus on minority youth and families in urban neighborhoods. Rodríguez is the former director of field operations at the United States Hispanic Leadership Institute and a member of the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission. Before joining Enlace, Bocanegra provided mental health services in and near Little Village. She is starting the doctoral program at SSA in the fall.

Gorman-Smith: Do you want to start by talking about putting together the plan for the community?

Bocanegra: When we started the network, we thought about how we engage a diverse set of stakeholders—in mental health, in parent engagement, faith-based partners, sports-based programming, youth leadership development—and energize all these different people involved in the community. We’re focusing on fifth through eighth graders because that was an age group in the neighborhood that our community partners indicated wasn’t really being reached currently.

Gorman-Smith: So you picked fifth through eighth graders in part because it felt like that’s where there was a gap in services?

Rodríguez: Yes, but also I think there’s a lot of evidence to support working with this population. Robert Balfanz over at Johns Hopkins has done some really interesting work identifying early risk factors of the fifth through eighth graders who he’s working with who had the highest propensity to be the future victims or perpetrators of violence. And work by Stephen Raphael and criminologists found, I think, about 50 percent of those incarcerated committed their first crime before the age of 14 and about 75 percent by the age of 16. So this is a very critical age group.

Gorman-Smith: And middle-school age is a really critical developmental period. Our research and others’ finds this is a time of increased risk for youth involvement in delinquent activities and violence. Youth spend more time away from home while increasing time out in the neighborhood and with friends and peers. They are often more susceptible to negative peer influence.

Bocanegra: Exactly. So we convened a network of partners interested in supporting at-risk fifth through eighth graders and their parents. And then we had to decide on shared outcomes to track over several years amongst the youth who were engaged in the Little Village Safety Network, which was a challenge because of the variety and diversity of programs. We also realized that our partners approached the application of these tools very differently as well—a mental health practitioner and a boxing coach have different perspectives.

Deborah, that’s where our collaboration with you became extremely helpful. You understand why we’re engaging youth at this critical timeframe, and you come from a youth development perspective, which was really what we prioritize. Collaborating with you, we were able to determine which outcomes we wanted to track across all of these programs: connection with caring adults, future aspirations, attitudes towards interpersonal violence.

And that’s being layered with tracking some of their school outcomes—their GPA, attendance level, misconduct—and, through a great partnership with the Tenth District police, we’re getting data on rates of juvenile violent crime victimization and perpetration in the neighborhood. Three, five, ten years from now we’ll see if there’s a decline in the rate in which juveniles are victims of violent crime or perpetrating violent crime.

Gorman-Smith: I’ve been so impressed that you are focused on these individual kids and looking at individual outcomes. But you’re also trying to build this collaboration and network, so that you have an impact at the population level. You’re trying to change the behavior of the kids you’re working with and working to change the context so that others’ behavior changes as well. Working to have an impact at the school level and at the neighborhood level is a really different approach than simply evaluating an individual program and seeing whether or not it’s effective.

Rodríguez: Another great outcome is that our partners at the small organizations now understand what it is to be evidence-based and outcome-oriented and how to track young people. And I think the important part about achieving scale is that we’ve identified certain risk factors in young people. There are 600 young people in our neighborhood with those factors, and we’re working with more than half of them now. I think that’s tremendous.

I also want to talk about our burgeoning partnership around GREAT Families. We were really excited to learn of a community-centered, school-based approach towards engaging at-risk young people and their families. It’s a missing component in our TTM model for fifth through eighth graders, really engaging a certain subsection of at-risk young people, bringing in their families for what we know in the mental health field that works with risk factors and creating protective factors within a family unit.

Gorman-Smith: When we were having that first set of discussions about the existing programs, parents and families kept coming up. Certainly the community schools model has some components of this. But this program targets those higher-risk families. And the research shows that the most sustained impact on kids’ lives is to be able to work with their families.

A lot of funding agencies ask community organizations to partner with universities. And I’m just curious about your initial thoughts about having to do that and then what that experience has been like.

Rodríguez: We happen to have an excellent intermediary in LISC Chicago, which is really a partner to us, and presents us with some of the best folks in academia and helps us build those relationships. But they can also be flexible. And they work closely with the funder, the MacArthur Foundation, which has also been very much like that.

Bocanegra: For me, I think it’s been a learning experience to understand the framework within which the university partner is approaching us. So someone from the psychology department, or a criminologist, or a social worker—they all engage with us in a different way and have a different way of understanding community processes.

Rodríguez: Deborah, from your perspective, what do you expect out of neighborhood partners?

Gorman-Smith: I think part of what has been really different about this partnership is we think similarly that there isn’t a single answer to this problem, that all the research shows that there are multiple risk factors, multiple protective factors, and no one program is going to solve the problem of youth violence.

So how do we understand what those risk and protective factors are in a particular neighborhood? How do you start from the strengths of the community? And how do we move what we know works from the evidence base into a community in a way that people can essentially accept it? How do you get people to evaluate what they are doing and move beyond just believing their program works or trusting the example of that one kid who benefited?

And through all our conversations, I see you want programs that are based on the best available evidence and you are serious about evaluating what you’re doing and change it if the evidence tells us that it’s not effective. And I think that’s really brave. We want to believe that we’re making a difference in kids’ lives, and that can make it hard for us to say that what we’re doing isn’t actually helping. And we know from the research that the large majority of what we’re doing may not be making a difference, but we also know that there are programs that make a positive difference. We want to be delivering those programs.

Bocanegra: When you say the large majority, are you talking about over-incarceration, or are you talking about community-based programs?

Gorman-Smith: Both. Certainly, the research is becoming increasingly clear about that. The way that we’ve dealt with juvenile offenders has often only increased risk and it certainly hasn’t done anything to decrease their likely involvement. Sometimes I use the example of DARE. Literally billions of dollars [have been spent] implementing a program that has been shown now in multiple randomized controlled trials to not have an effect. And there are lots and lots of examples of programs that are ineffective or worse, cause harm, and unfortunately many continue to be used.

Sometimes a program could be effective, but it’s being delivered poorly or not being implemented fully. And those factors are often ignored. It takes a workforce and supervision and training to deliver a program well.

The following conversation is available online only

Gorman-Smith: So can you talk a little bit about Testing the Model?

Bocanegra: Some of the communities that are involved in the LISC New Communities Program were invited by LISC to participate in a new initiative called Testing the Model. The local [lead agency and partners] chose one domain of community work and then had to partner with a university and talk about how they were going to use data to measure their impact.

So we decided our domain was youth development as a vehicle for public safety, which we’ve been working on. Our Testing the Model includes two hospitals, Mount Sinai and St. Anthony, and university partner, Marquette University. They do violence prevention programming in the form of conflict-resolution and peace work training in Catholic schools.

We have two sports-based youth development programs: Chicago Youth Boxing Club and Beyond the Ball. And then several youth mentorship programs run out of churches: New Life Center and St. Agnes Catholic Church. One program on domestic violence. And then broad youth development street intervention work: YMCA Youth Safety and Violence Prevention.

Gorman-Smith: So you're working with over half of [the local at-risk youth] through your direct service and through the partnerships that you've been able to achieve. Which isn't always very easy to do because when there are really scarce resources, there is also a lot of fighting for those resources. I assume that there are stories about some of those struggles as well, but somehow you've been able to work through many of them.

Rodríguez: You know, it's been really smooth.

Gorman-Smith: How do you think that has happened? How have you been able to manage that neighborhood relationship? Because it's so critical to the work that we're doing.

Bocanegra: Well, all of this is not something new to the organization. It's building off of a foundation that was laid by all of the coalitions and convening that we do within the neighborhood. So when we approach a partner around a specific initiative like Testing the Model, they already know how we present a collective voice as a neighborhood when we're in different forums and how we keep in contact with their people so that there's always that trust and that relationship.

And then the second thing is that this network is in the self-interest of [our partner] neighborhood organizations that wants to sustain and expand their programs. We're not just burdening them with data collection so that we can have data—let us help you learn how to track outcomes so that you can be a better advocate for your program and demonstrate impact, whereas previously maybe all you've been able to report is program attendance.

Gorman-Smith: Now they can actually show how they’re having an impact on the kid's life.

Bocanegra: Right. They all do have that impact, but having the tools and the ability to communicate that and create a narrative of the work that they do as an individual organization, but also collectively as a neighborhood, is what I think creates a lot of buy-in and strengthens relationships through Testing the Model.

Rodríguez: Enlace is a Spanish word. It means to bring together or connect. And we're very clear about our mission. Our mission is to improve the quality of life of Little Village residents. Our board of directors is 100 percent individuals who have lived in the neighborhood for at least 10 years. People know who we are and what we're trying to accomplish. I think that helps when you're talking about collaboration. People know exactly what we're in for and what we're trying to do.

The other thing, I think, is that the money going towards the programming has been subcontracted outside of our organization. We haven't taken any of it ourselves.

One of the things that we wanted to stress in this conversation was the importance that communities can. Communities can come together to create comprehensive plans and initiatives to move the needle on specific issues. I feel like we're an excellent example of that in the Little Village community. Think about the homicide numbers: In the last seven years, we've gone from 19-21 murders to 16, 15, 13, 10 last year. It's continuing to go down. There's something to that as far as interventions here in the neighborhood and collaboration here in the neighborhood. I'm wondering if you have any thoughts around that?

Gorman-Smith: I absolutely think that communities can. I think what I see in Little Village is kind of the marriage of the knowledge from the community with what we know from research about these problems, and putting those two things together to develop a plan. And then to be open to testing and evaluating and based on that, making decisions along the way about what to keep and what to get rid of.

I think that's unusual. In my biases, I have a little bit of disdain for the idea that only the people in the community can have any knowledge about how to help solve this problem, without using science in any way or what we know from research. Do you know what I mean?

Rodríguez: How [can community groups] not leverage the expertise and the countless hours of digging that happens in academia? Apply it. Be creative about how you're applying it, but also be ready to change it. Right?

Gorman-Smith: Yes. And [academics shouldn’t] sit in their offices and never have any conversations with the people who are actually affected and who represent the data. I think the university-community partnership has the best chance of really making a difference. It feels like that's what is already built here and I think is continuing to build.

I think you're doing both. Some programs have grown out of the conversations that you have had in the community, recognizing the need. And some are programs—I’m using the term “programs” kind of loosely—that have been evaluated in other studies. So, for example, we're starting to think about implementing GREAT Families as a program that does have some evidence base. But it fits a need, a gap, in the services that are already being provided.

Rodríguez: As an institution, Enlace is about comprehensive community development for any particular issue to bring down the needle. You know, that sounds expensive, but comprehensive doesn't have to be.

Gorman-Smith: But if you're putting together a coordinated set of programs that are based in evidence, or you're at least continuing to evaluate whether or not they're actually having an impact, it's probably less expensive.

Rodríguez: You're creating efficiencies on programming implementation and outcome evaluation.