By Benjamin Chambers, January 05 2010
It's safe to assume that we'd all like to see youth violence reduced if not eliminated. And there's plenty of work going on in this area.
But there are some major obstacles to successfully addressing youth violence in a systemic, effective way, argue Lori Dorfman, DrPH, and Lawrence Wallack, DrPH, authors of a fascinating paper called, "Moving from Them to Us - Challenges in Reframing Violence Among Youth." [Dr. Wallack is a colleague of Dr. Laura Nissen, the national director of Reclaiming Futures.]
One of the most important obstacles: violence is almost always framed -- especially in the media -- as the responsibility of an individual. And while it's true that individual choice is part of the explanation, it's not the whole explanation. By talking about violence only in terms of individuals, we subtly suggest that there's nothing that can be done to prevent it. That makes it difficult for anti-violence advocates, who know that violence can be reduced and prevented by a broad-based focus on the environmental factors that contribute to it.
In fact, many people who work in fields that actually help to address and suppress violence don't realize it. As the authors of the report say,
Preventing violence before it happens means ensuring that young people have, at minimum, sound education, job opportunities, outlets for recreation, safe neighborhoods, supportive adults in their lives, protection from guns and alcohol, good nutrition, and stable housing. But do those working in education, economic development, affordable housing, or alcohol prevention see themselves as working to prevent violence among youth?
In other words, what's needed is a paradigm shift. We need more people to realize that the most effective approach to violence prevention is comprehensive and broad-based - and that investments in those apparently-unrelated fields, in addition to addressing other issues, actually make our communities safer.
One troubling implication of this, however, is that when we attempt to combat negative images of youth in the justice system by telling the stories of youth who've been successful at turning their lives around, we actually hide the more complicated truth that these young people's behavior is also heavily influenced by so-called "protective factors," such as having a stable living situation, caring adults in their lives, and so on. Those individual success stories make it seem as though all the investments we make as a society in affordable housing, education, and so forth aren't relevant. As though policy decisions had nothing to do with why youth commit violent crime.
The authors' paper is complex, and I've only touched on one aspect of their argument. (Another important thread has to do with the way white people's attitudes about race (e.g., believing it's no longer an issue) reinforce the dominant idea that success in life is merely a matter of individual initiative.)
I recommend that you review the entire paper -- it's clearly written, engaging, and relatively short -- but if you've time for nothing else, I urge you to read the summary that begins on p. 15. Lots of food for thought.
Updated: February 08 2018