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'Peace Academy' Graduates Are Trained To Break Cycle Of Street Violence

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And finally today, over the past few weeks, we've been asking how Americans can overcome the deep divisions that have been on display this year with the election, social unrest and the pandemic and figure out a way to heal and find common ground. So far, we've heard from people who've participated in commissions and other formal community meeting-type experiences.

Today, though, we're going to hear from people who take a more one-on-one approach - people who engage in street outreach, often called violence interrupters. Although these projects may be known by different names in different cities, the goal is the same - to break the cycles of violence and retaliation that typically end with people being hurt or killed.

The Metropolitan Peace Academy in Chicago is a training program that professionalizes this type of outreach work. And this summer, they graduated their fifth cohort of street outreach workers. So we've invited two people involved in this training so they could hopefully offer us some insights about their philosophies and methods for healing these kinds of deep divides. Troy Harden helped to develop the curriculum for the Metropolitan Peace Academy. He's also a professor of sociology at Texas A and M University.

Professor Harden, welcome. Thank you for joining us.

TROY HARDEN: Absolutely. Thank you.

MARTIN: And Tyree Head graduated from the academy this summer.

Tyree Head, welcome to you as well.

TYREE HEAD: Thank you. How are you doing?

MARTIN: Good. And congratulations to you.

HEAD: Thank you. Thank you.

MARTIN: So the Peace Academy program, as I understand it, is no joke. I mean, it's 18 weeks. It's 144 hours of training, and it's training for something very difficult, frankly - to persuade people to make a choice other than a choice that they might be kind of primed to make based on their own experiences or based on what they see kind of around them. So I just wanted to ask, Tyree, as briefly as you can, how did you get into this? How did you get into this work?

HEAD: I grew up basically like every other Chicago kid. My father was a police officer, and my mother was a schoolteacher, so I had a lot of free time. So, long story short, I grew up rough like many kids that we are now trying to help.

So when I came home from being incarcerated, I think that there was a need. Even though I felt that I didn't owe anything to the streets or to the penitentiary system, and then I could just leave and start my life new, I felt that I owed it to my community to come back and teach them and try and change the norm and let them know the flipside to the coin, to the life that they're living now.

MARTIN: What's one of the most important lessons you learned during your training at the Peace Academy? Tell me a little about, like, something that really clicked for you.

HEAD: Well, the very first thing - because it's almost - man, the Peace Academy is like a very well-baked cake.

So the very first thing that I learned is a lot of the things that I was going through while I was trying to help people, it was names for them. Just from that aspect alone, putting a name on some of the things that I see or that I'm feeling or that I even know or don't know how to deal with - that meant the world because now I can put everything in its proper perspective. I can categorize everything, and I can attack it with more oomph than not knowing, like, what I'm dealing with and being confused.

MARTIN: So, as I understand it, now you're at the Institute for Nonviolent Chicago.

HEAD: Yes, ma'am.

MARTIN: And so how do you do your thing now? Like, what do you do?

HEAD: Well, first, like, if it's an incident of violence, and then the shooting of someone occurs in the community, the very first thing we are trying to do is gather information. So we gather information, and whatever side that's the victim or the aggressor, we try to create doubt. While we're dealing with the immediate problem at hand, we want to create doubt so another problem won't occur while we're dealing with this one - meaning, retaliation. And then we go help the victim and see what it is that they need. That's the first initial steps.

MARTIN: How do you get people to talk to you? Because I could imagine that if you've been hurt - you're angry, and you're hurt - chances are, if you hurt somebody, you have what you think is a legitimate reason. So how do you get people to listen to you to begin with?

HEAD: The institute teaches that hurt people hurt people. And there's a lot of hurt people walking out here in society for whatever reason. So just recognizing that and understanding that because now it's more psychological, so now that I understand that, I know how to approach them. So me working with these individuals on a day-to-day basis, I've built a rapport and a bond. So that helps, and nothing is a facade, so my heart is open.

So the way I come to them, they understand, they relate because they know I walked the same path they walked. So I'm now trying to divert the path so it won't be identical to mine. So that - like, that pays dividends.

MARTIN: So let me turn to Professor Harden. Troy Harden, you were the lead curriculum developer for the Metropolitan Peace Academy. Can I ask you the same thing? Like, how did you go about developing a curriculum for street outreach work? Was there sort of a template already out there that you could build on? Or did you have to start from scratch? Could you just help us get a sense of how you even thought about this?

HARDEN: Well, I think the most important thing was just always to remember that people have been dealing with how to deal with harm in many of our communities for a very long time. About 20 years ago, an organization called Cure Violence really crystallized what's called a public health approach to addressing violence. And so they became one of the major trendsetters, not just in our city, but across the globe.

So many of the methods and techniques have been out there but have been crystallized from a street perspective. So we took some of the best of what's been out here and really pulled that together, along with some of the issues that were unique to the Chicago area.

HARDEN: But can I ask you the same question I asked Tyree Head, which is, how do you get started when people are already, you know, hyped?

HARDEN: Well, I think Tyree laid it out. There's something called a credible messenger - which he is, right? And Tyree works to establish relationships before the incidents actually happen. And many of the relationships go back very long time - people who've know him in both his former and current life and have seen the change that he is. We have - one of our core philosophies is, be the change that you want to see.

MARTIN: So this is very interesting because I - part of what I hear you saying is that some of the people who are most effective at doing this outreach are people who come from their own. Like, you're not necessarily going to be interested in what somebody distant from you has to say. But somebody who you identify with sharing a message is most important.

I do want to wheel around, though, and ask how you think the work that the two of you are doing might translate into other situations because, as I said, part of the reason we're having this conversation now is because of deep divides between people in the U.S.

Many people are divided politically. They're divided over race. And as we have seen, some of these divides are escalating into violence. And it seems like people are kind of dug into their positions, and they really don't want to hear about what anybody else has to say - or, at least, it seems that way.

So now I just wanted to wheel around and ask, you know, what advice you have about how your work might translate into other situations. And, Tyree, do you mind starting? Like, how do you, like, open the door?

HEAD: Well, first of all, love cures all that. But in my opinion, the divides and the biases and the stereotypes always been there, right? And you have the most powerful man in the world throwing flames on stuff that was already there. Instead of healing, he wants it ignited. So our job translates because recently, I had to talk to a whole room full of officers, and I let them know they're - like, they're a major piece in this because they have to change the narrative and the norm of how the community looks at them like a credible messenger.

MARTIN: Professor Harden, what about you? What would you say?

HARDEN: I think Tyree said it earlier. One of the problems that happens out here is a lot of misinformation. You know, recently, we started calling it fake news, but fake news has been going around for a long time in the hood, and it starts a whole lot of problems. And so one of the first things that is a tenet across street outreach is gathering information, gathering factual information and making sure that people are clear about what's really been said, what's really happened, what real issues are in order to really deal with it in a factual way.

And I think that's a huge part of what we have to do, is be able to promote and support real information out there, and that people who folks trust have to be able to share it, not spread misinformation in a way that ends up hurting people, which is what we see on the national sphere.

MARTIN: If you could put on your violence interrupter hat, and if you would imagine, for example, the United States as being, like, two people on the street who've had a bitter fight that could get worse, is there something you could give us to sort of start us off? Like, what would you say to start, like, breaking this cycle of kind of violence and mistrust and kind of mutual animosity?

HARDEN: I think part of it is acknowledging the harm that's happened and really being able to see that there are different interests that people might have, but they're also mutual interests that people have.

And then, you know, going back to what Tyree shared is making sure that people understand those issues and that there's a lot at stake. So I would argue that we're at a turning point in our society where we can begin to recognize the harm that's been created historically and really begin the process of healing that through realizing that every human being not only has a right to exist but has certain rights on this earth.

MARTIN: Troy Harden is a professor of sociology and the director of the Race and Ethnic Studies Institute at Texas A and M University. He was the lead curriculum developer for the Metropolitan Peace Academy in Chicago, which trains street outreach workers, also known as violence interrupters. And Tyree Head is a recent graduate of the Metropolitan Peace Academy. He's now working as an interrupter at the Institute for Nonviolent Chicago.

Thank you both so much for talking with us and offering us these inspiring words.

HEAD: Thank you.

HARDEN: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF ODDISEE'S "WHEN EVERYTHING CHANGED") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.