Ending Teen Violence

Ending Teen Violence

Immortalized by filmmaker Michael Moore as a locus of poverty and violence, the city of Flint, Michigan, gets a “bad rap,” says Marc Zimmerman. “Flint is also the birthplace of the UAW. It has a strong history of community organizing and building.” It’s that history Zimmerman and School of Public Health colleague Tom Reischl hope to tap during the next four years as they work to find new ways of curbing youth violence in the Michigan city.

Zimmerman, professor and chair of the Department of Health Behavior and Health Education, is the principal investigator, and Reischl, an associate research scientist in the department, is the co–PI of Youth Empowerment Solutions for Peaceful Communities (YES), a community-academic partnership project whose basic premise is that community efforts to prevent youth violence will be most successful if young people themselves are key players in the process. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is funding the four-year, $1.3 million research project.

Because aggressive and violent behaviors typically become more significant in early adolescence, say Reischl and Zimmerman, YES will focus on middle-school students in an area of Flint that has both high levels of youth violence and crime as well as a history of community activism and vital neighborhood organizations. A second middle school in an adjacent area will serve as a comparison community.

Zimmerman, who has published a number of studies on empowerment theory, says one way to bring about positive community change is to empower young people to turn their ideas into reality, and YES is designed to do exactly that.

As members of a YES advisory council, approximately one-dozen students in Flint’s Holmes Middle School will train four YES teams, each with as many as 15 Holmes students, who will work with community organizations to develop neighborhood-specific projects designed to reduce youth violence. Projects might include park cleanup and renovation programs, street fairs, community gardens, arts events, and crime watch initiatives. Complementary after-school programs will foster an understanding of African-American traditions and heritage. Annually, some 60 Holmes students will take part in YES.

The idea, says Zimmerman, is that young people who participate in the project will make important intergenerational connections—which may have a broader influence on their relationships with older members of their community—and will develop a strong sense of ethnic identity and civic pride.

To measure program outcomes, Zimmerman and Reischl will evaluate student behaviors and attitudes as well as data from Flint’s Youth Violence Prevention Center, such as emergency room injury data and police incidents. They’ll also use data from a collaborative survey of neighborhood residents to see whether residents’ fear of crime diminishes in the neighborhoods where young people have launched community projects.

In choosing to fund YES, the CDC was seeking strategies for community change. Zimmerman points out. “They did not simply want researchers to focus on changing kids’ behavior, but on changing the community in which the kids lived.”

“I’m very optimistic about this project,” says Jennifer Wyatt, a behavioral scientist in the CDC’s Division of Violence Prevention and science officer for the YES project. “We know a lot more about interventions and prevention programs that focus on individual and family factors and less about intervention and prevention programs that address community-level factors.”

With Michigan’s YES project, Wyatt and her colleagues at the CDC see “good potential for sustainable change,” she says. “I’m certainly thrilled to be the science officer working with this group of really collaborative, really insightful folks with a vision and with the science.”

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Because aggressive and violent behaviors typically become more significant in early adolescence, YES will focus on middle-school students.