Community Healing and Reconciliation
Community Healing and Reconciliation
- Joshua KirvenJoshua KirvenWinthrop University
- and George JacintoGeorge JacintoUniversity of Central Florida
Community healing and reconciliation have been a focus of many nations in response to civil war, genocide, and other conflicts. There also has been an increase in the number of high-profile murders of young African Americans at the hands of law enforcement in the United States. In 2020 this problem was even more real and growing with the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, and Ahmaud Arbery. These tragic incidents have led to public outcry, civil unrest, and police protests for social change moving from a threshold of peaceful assemblies to violent confrontations across the United States causing the world to take notice and posit the question, “do Black lives really matter?” To answer this question a critical overview of gun violence, a reflective aftermath of the killings of two African American youths in Sanford, Florida and Cleveland, Ohio, and the community’s voice and reaction and the community’s resiliency towards healing and reconciliation are examined. Community model initiatives are introduced of the two cities affected in bridging police-community relations through acknowledging and addressing historical injustices with police and systematic racism and how they attempted to bring positive change, healing and reconciliation.
- Children and Adolescents
- Criminal Justice
- International and Global Issues
- Mental and Behavioral Health
- Race, Ethnicity, and Culture
- Social Justice and Human Rights
Updated in this version
Content and references updated for the Encyclopedia of Macro Social Work.
There has been a growing global focus on community healing and reconciliation over the past few decades (Ackerly, 2018; Harris & Lappin, 2010; King, 2011). Prior to the recent series of high-profile crises in a number of U.S. cities around violence and an underlying history of injustice, policies and events such as apartheid, civil wars, genocide, and torture led to global efforts (Leonard et al., 2016; Quintiliani et al., 2011). Each community and geographic location has unique antecedents that lead up to the violence, whether it is national, regional, or local institutional structures and policies that precipitate the emergence of conflict. Often, recurring violence results from long-term injustice that leads to desensitization and an inability to fully empathize when a tragic event exposes racism and discrimination (Shen, 2020). Each situation is unique and requires a specific response. While global responses offer ideas for structures and interventions, national crises also require attending to the details of the local environment. Unfortunately, there is no single successful approach to community healing and reconciliation, but rather approaches must be carefully crafted to address each local, regional, or national crisis.
This article explores the recent series of high-profile violent incidents involving African American youths. This paper begin with providing an overview of youth violence the external variables to contribute to it. Secondly as part of the literature review explores a range of issues associated with young African Americans living in areas where pervasive violence is an everyday experience with potential for long-term symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. As a follow up, a global perspective is introduced in looking collective assets and efforts towards reconciliation. Third, successful model approaches and examples looks at two cities in response to high-profile community crises. Finally, implications of the lessons learned from these tragic events are described in its efforts towards healing and reconciliation.
After high-profile murders of Black males, the response of many city, county, and state agencies has resulted in public outcry, unrest, and violent responses further extending the crisis (Mazumder, 2019). Cover-ups, the unjustified use of force, and the mishandling of investigations, whether perceived or actual, has resulted in further harm to citizens and the destruction of property (Goff, 2019). The magnitude of violence against African American males that has become a national public health problem in the United States (Laurencin & Walker, 2020). Gun violence in America is a growing epidemic, and while it affects everyone, it has a disproportionate impact on Black Americans (Laurencin & Walker, 2020). Gun violence destroys lives, tears families apart, traumatizes entire communities, and disrupts the public’s feeling of safety (Smith et al., 2020). Increased crime rates in communities of color coupled with citizens’ mistrust and anger toward police due to senseless killings of young African Americans contribute to an oppressive system and an “us versus them” culture (Burke, 2013; Kirven, 2020). To address this epidemic, prevention policies, programs, and practices must be adopted, with the entire community taking interest in and ownership of the problem.
Normally, the onset of an event leading to civil unrest and outrage often occurs in an environment that lacks structures that involve citizens’ active participation in the response. Structures offering community dialogues and mediation have not been regularly added to places where differing groups can come together for civil dialogue and resolution of problems. When institutional racism is closely examined, it becomes clear that it is embedded in the institutional laws and protocols’ explicit and implicit bias, and discrimination toward Blacks, particularly Black boys and men (Wilson, 2012).
In the current environment, Black boys and men are stopped by police and interrogated even when they are not under suspicion for unlawful activity (Lucas, 2019). More Black men reside in prisons in the United States today than the total population of slaves living in the United States during the 1800s (Lucas, 2019). This is a clear indication that within the institutional consciousness, racist understanding, beliefs, accompanying bias, and discrimination have not ended. Institutional and systematic racism must be addressed by changing laws and attitudes in order to remove historical racist practices and approaches.
Overview of the Problem of Youth Violence
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2012), homicide disproportionately affects persons 10–24 years old in the United States. One of the central questions that has often been raised by many experts in the fields of social work, criminal justice, and sociology centers on why the African American youth population (especially young males) is overrepresented in such violent fatalities. One possible answer is directly associated with the communities in which these youths reside, which have higher rates of violence.
Cooley-Quille et al. (2001) indicated that African American youths from economically distressed communities are more frequently exposed to risky behaviors and community violence compared to their peers of other races. According to Gaylord-Harden et al. (2011), exposure to community violence has been designated a public health epidemic for adolescents residing in economically disadvantaged urban neighborhoods. Although there have been some successful initiatives and efforts made to reduce the incidence of violence in urban areas, African American youths who reside in such communities often remain vulnerable to violence (Motley et al., 2020; Shen, 2020). Black males who reside in low-income neighborhoods are at further risk for victimization and community violence exposure (Cooley-Quille et al., 2001; Motley et al., 2020; Smith et al., 2020), placing them at significantly higher risk for physically and psychologically traumatic experiences (Gaylord-Harden et al., 2017; Wical et al., 2020). Many survivors of gun violence return to their communities without appropriate treatment for mental health conditions such as acute stress disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD; Purtle et al., 2013; Wical et al., 2020). There has also been research showing that anxiety is a significant outcome of violence exposure (Cooley-Quille et al., 2001; Margolin & Gordis, 2000; Motley et al., 2020). Youths who are living under the constant threat of community violence may demonstrate physiological arousal due to hyperactivation of a neurological structure that manages threat (Lovallo, 2015). As a protective mechanism, physiological arousal may continue to increase or remain higher as violence exposure increases (Flannery et al., 2019). According to Lucas (2019), males and females report exposure to the same forms of community violence. However, males experience higher levels of violence exposure than females, including both direct victimization and witnessing. Research in the area of gender socialization theories mentions that females are more inclined to internalize their problems and males to externalize them (Harter, 2016; Spano & Bolland, 2013; Turnage et al., 2003). Males are likely to report self-protective (carrying a firearm) and aggressive behaviors in response to witnessing violence, while female adolescents report more depressive symptoms (Motley et al., 2020; Shen, 2020). According to Gaylord-Harden et al. (2017), male adolescents may be more likely to be desensitized to violence as compared with females.
Navigating Unsafe Communities
Although the issue of violent encounters between police and young Black men has received greater national media attention in recent years due to the convenience of and access to cell phone cameras, there has been limited attention to this issue in the published literature. This issue can no longer be minimized because these incidents occur everywhere. Research supports that nearly all urban youths are exposed to some form of community violence in their lifetimes. According to Fagan and Davies (2004), violence does not occur in isolation; it is strongly associated with concentrated neighborhood disadvantage. Growing up in violent neighborhoods can evoke stressful responses with physical, psychological, and social consequences, such as placing youths at high risk for future victimization and injury along with interfering with healthy development (Chen et al., 2016; Kirven, 2020; Rosenblatt et al., 2019; Shen, 2020). In addition, research on the impact of violence has consistently found that the more people are exposed to violence on television and in video games, social media, and real life, the more they become desensitized or habituated to future violence (Lucas, 2019). With the desensitization of violence people’s natural negative responses to such stimuli are reduced, along with the amount of empathy and sympathy they have for victims of violence (Williams & Clarke, 2019). Some researchers have noted that America’s trending desensitization has resulted in the development of proviolent and less humane attitudes that can be linked to increasingly violent media (Peterson, 2017; Williams & Clarke, 2019). The effects of exposure to ongoing violent events can lead to acute stress and trauma. However, one violent event cannot always be circumscribed to a specific incident and at times must be considered within the larger context in which the incident occurred (Galovski et al., 2016). The concept of continuous traumatic stress represents situations in which danger is pervasive and recurrent and has been identified as a contributor to compromised mental health and functioning (Galovski et al., 2016).
Despite these important advances and the continuing resolution of a range of economic and social disparities (e.g., employment, education, and housing), sectarian division is still highly symbolic and psychologically real, and the conflict still pervades people’s everyday lives.
Local to Global: Leveraging Collective Assets and Strengths
Within the context of a global pandemic such as COVID-19, people in and from conflict-affected states experience unique vulnerabilities associated with protracted sociopolitical instability, high rates of individual and collective trauma, and barriers to healthcare access. Reconciliation between groups after violence can help people heal and lead better lives, and it is essential to make renewed violence less likely. During disasters, resilient communities tend to suffer fewer consequences and recover faster than nonresilient communities under the same conditions.
For example, for Somalis at home and abroad, community resilience has been catalyzed by common values and long-standing shared adversity. Somalis around the world draw upon a sense of hope provided by Islam and social support provided to each other in difficult circumstances. Consistent with deeply held Islamic values, Somali communities have responded to the global pandemic by rallying around those who are most vulnerable.
Profound trauma can permeate all dimensions of an individual’s reality, and along the way previously secure positive beliefs can be fundamentally shaken, or even shattered, and replaced by debilitating and damaging negative beliefs and fragmented perceptions of reality that color all aspects of life from that point forward. If unhealed, the underlying meaning an individual attaches to the experience can galvanize into a system of beliefs about themselves, others, the world, and their place in it that perpetuates the wounding and a victim narrative into their future, and potentially that of their children (Olweean, 2019). On a communal level, the process is more complex. Trauma at this large scale, penetrating all levels of a society and remaining unhealed, can become embedded in the group ethos to create shared and socially reinforced legacies of unresolved communal trauma and victim identities that extend into future generations as transgenerational trauma (Lovallo, 2015; Olweean, 2019).
While disastrous psycho-emotional trauma can be triggered by a variety of events, both natural and human-caused, such as COVID-19, the most devastating and lasting are those intentionally perpetrated at the hands of others. When such disaster is inflicted on an entire society it can permeate all levels of the community to place its members at even greater risk of prolonged and debilitating suffering (Olweean, 2019). Particularly in societies with massive and growing at-risk populations and underdeveloped or seriously compromised mental health service systems, the challenges are monumental. Further complicating the situation are issues that are not uncommon when dealing with catastrophic events impacting entire communities, especially in developing societies. Humanitarian aid to communities suffering from such catastrophes historically tends to focus on the most visible and concrete needs, such as food, clothing, shelter, medical and economic support. These efforts often neglect less immediately visible psycho-emotional wounds (DeBari, 2018), which over time can become embedded in the personal and collective consciousness and identity and passed on to future generations as inherited trauma (Lovallo, 2015; Motley et al., 2020).
Research on transitional justice (TJ) focuses on reconciliation in other countries. For example, scholars researching identity politics in postgenocide Rwanda observed that as a consequence of abolishing the Hutu-Tutsi distinction, these group identities did not disappear but merely moved underground (DeBari, 2018).
A prominent objection to TJ mechanisms—be they domestic, hybrid, or international—is that digging up the past might reopen wounds and inhibit reconciliation and peace building. However, some experts on Burundi believe that the opposite is true. Seah (2019) noted that it is precisely this lack of accountability for mass crimes that has emboldened would-be perpetrators and made repeated cycles of violence possible. In addition, if left unaddressed, it will lead to further violence in the future: “the argument that re-opening past wounds would not be appropriate misses the point that such wounds have never healed and will not heal unless ‘historical silences’ are broken as they do not serve the victims” (Seah, 2019, p. 5). Cooperation at the micro level, by contrast, which lacked this coercive character and which enabled intimate social contact between the former antagonists, seems to have been rather effective in reconstructing social identities and promoting reconciliation (Binagwaho, 2020; Olweean, 2019). The preceding analysis also indicates an ambivalent role for TJ in postgenocide societies. It seems that it can only be effective if perceived as being applied in an even-handed fashion and if the political environment is supportive of accountability seeking (DeBari, 2018; Zartman, 2019). Both conditions are rarely found in postgenocide societies.
Strategies Toward Community Transformation
Case Example: Community Youth Violence Prevention Work Group
To help address youth violence and community safety, the Healthy Cleveland Initiative in collaboration with the Cleveland, Ohio, Mayor’s Office created the Community Youth Violence Prevention Work Group (CYVPWG) to help make Cleveland a healthier city. The CYVPWG’s primary purpose was to bring together major stakeholders in Cleveland and the northeast Ohio region to research, review, discuss, and address this major epidemic of urban youth violence, which is seen as a threat to the public health and safety of the local community, as well as the entire region. The CYVPWG was also seen as an opportunity to enable local and regional stakeholders to jointly and cooperatively develop creative public and private partnerships in order to plan, develop, and implement major public policy solutions that can effectively address the major epidemic of youth violence that is taking place in the urban community.
The goals and objectives of this working group were to develop a holistic collaborative approach to preventing youth violence in the city’s neighborhoods through public policies and working partnerships among the various organizations that devoted time and effort to youth violence prevention. The aim was to develop a public health and safety model that reduced the occurrence of youth violence by actively promoting healthy lifestyle behaviors that lead to improved health. The prevention efforts, if properly planned and implemented, would ultimately reduce such risk factors and promote protective factors at multiple levels of influence, which included individual, family, peer relationships, community, and societal components.
Implications From Lessons Learned
Case Example: Community–Police Collaboration
With the emphasis on policing and promoting safety, a community–police collaboration aimed to demonstrate police responsiveness to residents. While strategic enforcement has been proven to make communities safer, especially from violent crime, it was discovered through the assessment process that residents are not always aware that strategic enforcement has occurred (law-abiding homeowners steer clear of “known” trouble areas, and media only reports “major” busts so targeted traffic enforcements can go unnoticed, etc.). The issues that troubled residents in the target area were mostly related to abandoned properties and other quality-of-life issues.
This strategy follows a community-oriented policing (COP) approach. Applying this approach stimulated engagement, which blended innovative (police–citizen academies) and traditional methods (foot patrol, bike patrols, community events promoting relationship building) to build an open and constructive relationship between police and citizens as well as proactive policing postures (Grimaldi, 2011; Segrave & Ratcliffe, 2017).
The Fourth District of the Cleveland Division of Police already employed some COP best practices, including a citizen police academy, monthly open meetings with the commander, and email list serve. However, the community–police collaboration broadened these practices and tailored them specifically to resident concerns—piloting a focus on abandoned properties in the target area, freeing officers from directed patrols to walk the neighborhood, instituting a bike patrol, and allowing the commander and zone officers to tour the neighborhood to hear and respond to resident concerns. This strategy also allowed for some officers to devote time to interfacing and collaborating with several identified agencies working to address abandoned property issues (e.g., boarding, mowing, demolition, sale to residents, and rehabilitating).
Community Engagement, Education, and Empowerment
The adoption of the Community Engagement, Education, and Empowerment (CE3) model was added to the COP initiative. CE3 builds on the ability of residents to connect with one another and with the police to establish a network of interconnected programs that are created, managed, and implemented by residents (transitioning over time) to address needs as they arise in the targeted area. A community efficacy framework is adopted to promote a willingness of local residents to intervene for the common good based on trust and relationships among residents (Koslicki & Willits, 2018). This framework dictates that strategies center on the continued empowerment of youth and adult residents, finding a role for existing grassroots neighborhood collectives and leveraging the pride residents feel for their community—both in its historic roots and in the new and multigenerational relationships formed there.
Innovative in the way the program elements are woven together, CE3 incorporates intergenerational programming and neighborhood pride to help establish positive social norms emphasizing safety, neighborhood advocacy, and engagement. This reflects elements of trauma-informed community building as established by Kirven (2014, 2020) and Rose (2014).
CE3 capitalized on the existing system of block clubs in the targeted neighborhood to draw together residents to discuss community concerns and mobilize for change. Models like this have a deep history in neighborhood preservation and revitalization of urban neighborhoods, with active block clubs working to acquire resources, maintain local areas, and build systems of informal social control.
Plans for Ongoing Research
Working with CE3, the community implementation team conducted an annual community perception survey focusing on residents’ perceptions of police, community safety, and livability. Researchers worked with residents to distribute the survey and compile results, with the intention that the efforts would be sustained within the neighborhood block clubs after the main period of the grant. Measures were selected (Flannery et al., 2019) to be short, easily understood, and easily interpretable (police legitimacy/satisfaction questions). Residents also participated in community-based research (e.g., counting park users to assess livability and conducting brief surveys along business renewal corridors). There were reports completed biannually and communicated to residents and youths living in the targeted zone. The team not only recorded residents’ input but also provided a meaningful avenue to strengthen residents’ communication with law enforcement, local government, and their business community. Community engagement was imbued within the proposed strategies; however, three important community roles were central to success:
Focus on Youths
Residents in Research
Case Example: The Community Action Reinforcing Empowerment® (CARE) Model
In response to the needs surrounding a university in the southeast U.S., the development of a field education placement site was considered for a community across the street from the university. The process included the chair of the department of social work and the dean of the college. A meeting with the mayor and police chief led to the development of a field education site in the community. The students conducted a community needs assessment by completing a windshield survey and interviewing residents about their perceptions of the community and its strengths and needs.
Other departments in the university were invited to offer services in the community as well. Eight departments were interested in collaborating with the department of social work. The first collaboration was with the digital communication students who assisted in developing an online directory of social and economic service providers in the northeast section of the state. One year after the establishment of the CARE unit, a member of the social work department left the university and relocated to central Florida where a new CARE model was launched.
The CARE model was considered in response to the murder of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, and the community crisis it had precipitated. In similar high-profile civic crises, no institutional mechanisms were in place in city governments to facilitate mediation of conflict and reconciliation among differing community groups. The CARE model was revised to include an approach to a city in crisis. The following key ideas were shared with an official in the Sanford city manager’s office. The adaptation of the CARE model included a proposed coalition of partners composed of residents, city officials, faith-based and nonprofit organizations, members of the business community, social service providers, law enforcement, university professors, instructors, and students. The intent was to develop a vision that would transform the targeted community and its neighborhoods into an inclusive and united city that welcomes many diverse communities. The CARE reconciliation coalition would provide ongoing opportunities to foster healing for the citizens of Sanford through (a) dialogue about past and present community issues; (b) reconciliation across all communities; and (c) a coalition of government officials, faith-based organizations, civic groups, business owners, Seminole County schools, Sanford residents, academic researchers, students, and practitioners to facilitate healing and reconciliation in the city of Sanford and surrounding communities.
A reconciliation plan was proposed that included (a) a school of social work (SSW) asset and needs assessment of the city with a focus on the at-risk communities; (b) SSW faculty and students consultation with residents regarding the development of the asset and needs assessment questions; and (c) implementation of the asset and needs assessment that involved partners in the City of Sanford, the local university, and others, were invited to join in the change efforts based on the focus and expertise of coalition members that could be shared with the community. In addition to the reconciliation plan, several measures of success were recognized, including an increased ability of citizens to appreciate differences, a reduction in community violence, opportunities to celebrate diversity, and an increase in the use of mediation services within the community.
After a mission was established, two community engagement efforts were proposed: First, a number of services offered to residents of Sanford by public, faith-based, and private individuals. The Sanford reconciliation coalition worked with these groups in their commitment to community development, seeking vital input from citizens to address the social and economic needs of the community. In addition, the coalition partnered with residents and existing providers to develop additional resources to improve the quality of life for those living in the area. Second, a community action team (CAT) was developed consisting of residents within the area who acted as key informants. The CAT members are valuable as a bridge between the reconciliation coalition and the community. The proposal involved the development of a student field education site to address the social and economic needs of the citizens of Sanford.
The CARE model can be adapted to fit the unique characteristics and nature of a community. The key ideas associated with the CARE model include:
assessing and identifying individual and family needs;
conducting focus groups to assess the needs of the community;
identifying natural leaders in the community in order to partner with them to discuss and plan for community development;
exploring the needs of all citizens in order to plan for effective ways to provide residents with resources to meet their needs;
linking residents with agencies that can offer them assistance to address current problems; and
developing and conducting educational groups that can provide support for local residents who are experiencing a number of life issues.
The CARE model was not implemented as outlined in its original form because a high-profile murder had occurred and Sanford had already embarked on a plan of action that was in the implementation process. Sanford had already applied several of the components of the CARE model in its response to the crisis. The Nine-Point Plan in response to the murder of Trayvon Martin and historical issues of discrimination in Sanford sought to transform the community through opportunities for civil dialogue and citizen participation in the planning and transformation of the city. The type of collaboration with existing governmental, community, private, faith-based, and nonprofit organizations varied by community. The CARE framework was developed in a community that was at risk, not in response to an event that enveloped the community in crisis. As the future unfolded, use of the steps were applied when assessing community needs, engaging citizens to participate in the change process, and implementing services for the citizens of Sanford.
A Case Example of a Community Response to Civil Unrest: Sanford, Florida
In 2012, a Latino neighborhood-watch volunteer shot and killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin (Teasley et al., 2018; “Trayvon Martin Shooting,” 2013). Unaddressed anger surfaced that led to public protests. Sanford residents were concerned with the number of young African American men murdered over the past several years (A. Thomas, pers. comm., December 2012). While George Zimmerman did not work for the Sanford Police Department, the department did not have good community relations throughout the city. Parents, siblings, and concerned citizens called for a change in the way the Sanford Police Department conducted policing efforts.
In assessing the situation, Sanford officials noted that previous high-profile killings did not engage the community in the healing process, and they determined that addressing healing and reconciliation prior to a high-profile trial would be an important approach to the crisis. In listening to the concerns of local citizens and parents who had lost young men, it was important for the city to develop a proactive plan to address dispute resolution between citizens and government entities in the future. The development of a Department of Community Relations would be a long-term solution to historical problems that had not been resolved in the past.
Sanford’s Nine-Point Plan to Address Community Concerns
In the summer of 2012, a collaboration was proposed to Sanford’s City Manager’s Office between the local university and the city government in efforts regarding the high-profile Zimmerman trial. In the discussion of the idea of a reconciliation coalition, it became clear that Sanford had already begun a similar process; therefore, the CARE model had to be adapted to fit the framework outlined by the city. There was great concern about the high potential for civil unrest in Sanford. The main observation was that other cities did not establish an office to address citizen differences and grievances. This concern had already been addressed in Sanford with the Office of Community Relations. This entity could address the need for mediation and, down the road, reconciliation between citizens with grievances. The Office of Community Relations is a major step and an elegant model for reversing institutional racism. The City Manager’s staff had already been working on a Nine-Point Plan in response to issues that preexisted the murder of Trayvon Martin. The Nine-Point Plan involved:
Department of Justice (DOJ) investigation of the Sanford Police Department
Development of an Office of Community Relations
Creation of a Director of Community Relations
Creation of a Police–Community Relations Blue-Ribbon Panel
Development of an Interracial Interfaith Alliance
Establishment of an Anti-Violence Campaign
Reactivation of the Sanford Neighborhood Action Partnership
Continuation of the DOJ Community Relations Services with the DOJ and the local major university
Increase of youth training and employment opportunities with the City of Sanford
Case Example: Implications from Lessons Learned
Schools of social work may find the Community Action Reinforcing Empowerment Intervention Process a helpful model when reaching out to at-risk communities. It is helpful to work in communities prior to civic unrest that has resulted from a long history of social injustice. Serious budget cuts to social programs have reflected the kind of thinking caused by earlier forms of institutional racism embedded in archaic laws that have existed from the time of slavery. Racism and racial profiling must be deconstructed, and outmoded laws and policies must be changed so that justice for all is realized in the United States. A move in this direction was reflected in the City of Sanford’s commitment and ongoing implementation of best practices regarding community policing. These significant efforts and the establishment of the Office of Community Relations started to reverse institutional racism, thereby providing a prosocial institutional structure and model that can be replicated to build a foundation for an even playing field for all citizens.
Implications of the Lessons Learned from Cleveland and Sanford
The development of institutional structures that begin to reverse institutional racism are of utmost importance in assisting community healing by allowing citizens from all parts of the community to enter into dialogue. Government officials, citizens, and faith-based and civic organizations are among the key informants that need to be engaged in the change effort and participate in policy and development of programmatic responses to historical injustices. Healing is not a one-time event but rather an ongoing journey where citizens can discuss and dream of a future that involves different ways of relating where social justice is a key focus of concern.
Evidence regarding the effectiveness of peers in influencing youths to adopt healthy behaviors is limited, and more research is needed to determine the overall impact and effectiveness of these programs. More research is also needed to determine if these behaviorally oriented programs are indeed effective in reducing gun violence. The first step includes community-based approaches that focus on reducing gun violence and require an initial assessment of community needs. Residents should also be involved in the planning and implementation of the program, and a means for evaluating the program must be developed (Abt, 2017).
The second step involves addressing the false beliefs that parents often have in regard to keeping a loaded gun in the home. Hardy (2002) mentioned that parents must come to understand that their children are at risk for serious injury if a loaded gun is in the home.
The third major point is that physicians need to be better trained to discuss the issue of firearms with youths’ families. Hardy (2002) mentioned that more effective counseling might include an emphasis on the increased risk of having a gun in the home, assessing and reducing the fears that prompt parents to keep guns, and alternative solutions to keeping firearms in the home (encouraging families to purchase safety devices instead).
The final point is that researchers, policy makers, and practitioners should question whether children are the appropriate targets for intervention before attempting to develop such programs for this targeted population. Hardy (2002) commented that believing that children can learn to make life-or-death decisions regarding their safety around firearms may provide parents with a false sense of security and lower their state of vigilance.
The challenges to social and behavioral development as a result of violence exposure may be most perceptible in the social functioning of youths. Potentially, community-based outreach programs may be a critical point of access in disrupting the progression of long-term maladaptive behavioral patterns, provided their implementation is at the appropriate stage of problem behavior development and expression. Social workers, educators, public health practitioners, and police officers could substantially improve the effectiveness of violence prevention programs by addressing the behavioral and emotional consequences of exposure to local neighborhood conditions (i.e., gang activity and gun violence). If schools situated in communities with high crime and gang activity can address the specific needs of their students by teaching techniques that reduce tension or frustration in social situations, they might substantially improve successful participation in prosocial interactions, reduce susceptibility to negative peer influences, and discourage future gang involvement. Although interpersonal violence is attributed to a confluence of factors, prevention and intervention approaches that provide youths with an opportunity to openly address their feelings and reactions in family and community contexts could bolster resilience and social support among youths exposed to multiple risk factors and fears.
A Global Response to Reconciliation
The necessity of antiracist praxis demands that global racism cannot be understood without understanding the struggle against its oppression and violence (Batur, 2018). Opposing and resisting racism globally requires exposing and confronting the complex synergy of global racism and capitalism.
The synergy between capitalism and racism creates a process, a continuous chain of cross-cultural and cumulative actions and interactions, setting the terms of oppression globally. This synergy emanates violence. This global racism permeates economic, political, social, and cultural production, distribution, and consumption; racial violence that once built colonial empires is now essential to the technocratic ideology of liberal modernism of the capitalist state (Ackerly, 2018; Batur, 2018). The question then becomes how do we challenge and defeat racist (oppressive) structure and frame of reference? Antiracism must be conceptualized as an assumption of confrontation of the dominant paradigm that enables and perpetuates systems of oppression (Batur, 2018). Struggle is also a continuum, with a cumulative and humanizing synergy of its own that must be acknowledged.
A community’s reliance on a stable resource of skilled and capable members available to maintain civil society systems and social structures, and to reflect the community identity are key to creating equity, empowerment, and sustainability. One humanity framework for reaching this community goal is Steve Olweean’s (2019) Catastrophic Trauma Recovery model. This praxis highlights an integrated, whole-person training and treatment approach to addressing large-scale, communitywide trauma and loss due to global catastrophic occurrences, particularly in regions where the local human service infrastructure is absent, underdeveloped, or compromised, and where skill and hard resources are scarce (Olweean, 2019). The model’s central principles are local capacity building, cultural adaptation, and community empowerment. Communities become the predominant source of their own repair, utilizing both proven skills and cultural strengths to regain, support, and maintain a confident, positive, and resilient community identity.
Rather than being limited to any one particular specialized treatment method, this model promotes an interdisciplinary, eclectic, and culturally adaptive approach that employs a variety of therapeutic practices and modalities tailored to the needs and character of the individual and community, addressing both psycho-emotional-bio-spiritual needs and interrelated concrete socioeconomic needs necessary for achieving stability and recovery. It also incorporates traditional aspects of the culture as it supports and promotes strategic collaboration with indigenous stakeholders and human services to benefit from group strengths and promote community ownership of the system (Ackerly, 2018; Olweean, 2019).
Truth and Reconciliation Commissions in Building Forward
There are several international approaches to the concept of truth and reconciliation commissions. Most commissions have not produced positive outcomes ending in reconciliation. The most prominent one is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa. Many of the survivors of the apartheid government have yet to receive reparation, reconciliation has not taken place in communities, and many citizens believe justice did not prevail since none of the perpetrators were prosecuted (Boraine, 2000; South African Department of Justice and Constitutional Development, 2021). In 1997, U.S. President Bill Clinton initiated a national initiative on race with the intent to have a national dialogue on the state of race relations. Part of this initiative included establishing a seven-member advisory board. The commission held town hall meetings, developed educational projects, promoted community discussion, and offered recommendations. Unfortunately, the initiative was dismissed as symbolic, and it lost attention with other political events of the time distracting from the initiative on race (Carcasson & Rice, 1999; Shen, 2020).
In the United States, recent commissions have completed their work with mixed results. First, the seven-member Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission was formed by private and local individuals in response to a massacre that occurred in 1979 (Inwood, 2012). After 2 years of work, the commission recommended that the Greensboro Police Department and the city government apologize. The mayor rejected the report and refused to apologize and instead offered regret for the incident (Spoma, 2012; Magarnell & Joya, 2008).
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission on racial inequality was established in Detroit, Michigan, in 2011. The focus was on housing policies. The commission was concerned with institutional racism, encouraged industries to address their own histories of white privilege and oppression, and offered suggestions about healing and reconciliation. After 2 years, three of the nine board members resigned, citing a lack of clarity regarding the commission’s mandate. The commission was disbanded.
A review of the State of Maine regarding the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 resulted in the formation of the Maine-Wabanaki State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The act focused on the high rates of Indian children being placed in nonnative adoption homes (Beck, 2018; National Indian Child Welfare Association, 2018). Some of the findings included: (a) public and institutional racism and cultural genocide, (b) the need to respect tribal, state, and federal rules, (c) the need to honor the Wabanaki healing practices, and (d) a lack of support for nonnative adoptive or foster care families. The commission’s recommendations led to lasting policy changes regarding the implementation of federal and state laws. Survivors were able to share their stories and revealed the depth of trauma suffered by the children.
Maryland House Bill 307 established the Maryland Lynching Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2018. The commission was charged with the following tasks:
Hold regional hearings in areas where lynching of African Americans by a white mob has been documented.
Receive from the public recommendations for addressing, engaging, and reconciling communities affected by racially motivated lynching, including erection of memorial plaques or signage at or near the site of a racially motivated lynching.
Make recommendations that are rooted in restorative justice to address the legacy of lynching. (Maryland Lynching Truth and Reconciliation Commission, 2021).
In reviewing the task of the commission, one is struck by the directive that commissioners construct recommendations rooted in restorative justice. If few if any lynching perpetrators have not been arrested, incarcerated, convicted, or sentenced to prison over more than 100 years, it is difficult to understand what restorative justice might include. An important strength of the commission’s work is that it will place memorials at the sites where lynchings have taken place in the State of Maryland.
During 2020, the cities of Boston, Philadelphia, and San Francisco created commissions to address racism and police brutality (Dwyer, 2020). Boston has labeled its initiative the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission (Becker, 2020). The commissions were tasked with determining directives and organizing structures to implement the initiatives.
Congresswoman Barbara Lee proposed a U.S. commission on Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation that was backed by 146 Democrats during 2020, but it received no bipartisan support (Gandhi, 2020). Truth, racial healing, and transformation is a logical process that allows for transformation born out of recognizing truth and working through racial healing. This type of transformation suggests that all citizens treat each other as subjects, and not the past configuration in which humans were targeted as objects of others’ oppression. Cobuilding community transformation includes all voices working together to improve the social and economic well-being of all citizens.
There have been a range of commission types with different focuses. The one common element of the efforts is the terms used: truth, restorative justice, and reconciliation. The word truth has experienced tortuous attempts to redefine its meaning over the past several years. Having meaningful conversations about what we can agree is true has been frustrating and perplexing. Fantastical lies are unacceptable and fall out of the bounds of protected “free speech.” We are at the point of asking the age-old question: “What is truth?” Another term that is used freely is restorative justice. In examining literature about restorative justice, one finds that it is an approach to those who have been convicted and incarcerated. For instance, the Maryland commission is examining lynching. For years white mobs have lynched African Americans. How will the commission recommend administering restorative justice in this situation? A more challenging concept is that of reconciliation. Examples of truth and reconciliation commissions lack evidence that the intended reconciliation ensued from the effort. These are difficult and perplexing terms that must be clearly defined in the context in which they are used. A large effort is needed to provide education about these ideas, and the effects of racism on individuals, groups, organizations, and societal institutional.
We are at a fork in the road with several options before us. One direction would be to move forward with truth and reconciliation commissions, which have had mixed results. Perhaps part of the problem is that it seems one cannot leap from truth to reconciliation. There needs to be another iterative process that involves forgiveness. Unless one forgives a wrong, healing and reconciliation is not possible. Likewise, in many cases of forgiveness, reconciliation is not inevitable. The Greek root of reconciliation is allasso, meaning “change” or “exchange in the relationship among two individuals” (Woodruff, 2021). This connotes a relationship with the perpetrator prior to the offense. In many cases such as genocide or massacres the perpetrator may not know the victims, ergo reconciliation is not possible since there was no prior relationship. The issue of choice and safety are elements that need to be included in this discussion. Truth, forgiveness, and reconciliation may be one way to frame the process. Truth, forgiveness, and reparations may be another approach since reconciliation is often inappropriate and elusive. Congresswoman Lee offered yet another label—truth, racial healing, and transformation—which is rich with opportunities to frame local, regional, state, and national efforts to cobuild transformation by working together and listening to all citizens’ voices.
Another method to address grievances would be to focus on grassroots local initiatives and cobuilding community transformation. Beginning to develop and use sustainable macro community transformation models provides a structure that can encompass multiple iterations to reach community goals. There are several common dilemmas that affect all citizens, and this provides a rich seed plot for developing community transformation one neighbor, one town, city, and one region at a time. There are growing problems associated with the COVID-19 epidemic that involve social and economic concerns that can be approached in every community. By working together to address the national crisis, citizens can get to know each other and understand things about their community that they may not have known. Successful transformation of a community requires that all voices are heard. In this process, addressing truth, forgiveness, reconciliation, and reparations can be viable goals.
Although pervasive communal trauma, and the prospect of transgenerational trauma it can lead to, poses significant and mounting challenges to the field of mental health globally, through shared knowledge and concerted efforts these challenges can be increasingly and effectively addressed. The most practical and responsible path with the most promise involves a willingness to engage and collaborate with all stakeholders; learning from our mutual efforts to complement, support, and build on each other’s work, and engaging with organizations that effectively provide essential pieces of the larger humanitarian assistance puzzle, we can accomplish more in service to those in desperate need.
It is important to carefully define what a commission is meant to provide. What sustainable elements can be sown into the process so that the commissions provide recommendations and clear direction on how to attain their findings? Sustainable macro community transformation models can be important links in supporting the change process. Exercising a logic model that includes the forgiveness stage may be helpful in more tightly framing the meaning and purpose of a commission’s work.
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