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CVI work is like running a marathon at a sprinter’s pace

Attendance at second Breakthrough Conference in Memphis doubles from 2023. 

In a large ballroom at the Memphis Hilton, almost 500 people had gathered for the 2024 Breakthrough Conference dedicated to community violence intervention (CVI.)

Facing them was Anthony Smith, executive director of Cities United. Standing behind a lectern on stage, Smith would have a lot to say about CVI work and the necessity of cooperation and collaboration.

But first, Smith wanted to remind everyone why they were here. So, he asked for a moment of silence in honor of the city’s nearly 400 homicide victims in 2023.

“We need to recognize that,” Smith said, his voice strong and steady.

Next, Smith asked those working on the CVI front lines – staff from Memphis Allies, Heal 901, the City of Memphis’s Group Violence Intervention Program (GVIP), and 901 BLOC Squad – to stand up and be recognized.

“Without them,” he said, “that 398 number would have been more.”

Next, Smith asked those working on the CVI front lines – staff from Memphis Allies, Heal 901, the City of Memphis’s Group Violence Intervention Program (GVIP), and 901 BLOC Squad – to stand up and be recognized.

“Without them,” he said, “that 398 number would have been more.”

‘Urgency’ and ‘patience’

In 2016, Arne Duncan, a former U.S. Secretary of Education under President Obama, founded Chicago CRED: a nonprofit gun violence intervention project that he has called the hardest work of his career, a career that included a stint as CEO of Chicago Public Schools.

Answering questions from Youth Villages CEO Patrick Lawler, who had the vision to launch the nonprofit gun violence reduction initiative Memphis Allies in 2021, Duncan told the audience that this work requires “huge urgency.”

But also, patience and humility.

“It’s like trying to run a marathon at a sprinter’s space,” Duncan said.

Even better is the community that can form a relay team for this marathon. In a sense, that was the message of the Breakthrough Conference.

The official theme: Recharge, Realign, Reimagine.

Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris and Memphis Mayor Paul Young were the first speakers on day one and their presence was not merely ceremonial.

“That really sets the tone,” said Sandy Bromley, deputy director of Justice Programs for the Shelby County Division of Community Services. “If next year we had every mayor from every jurisdiction in this county, can you imagine?”

Said Young: “I don’t want us to gloss over the name of the conference. The energy is shifting in our community – from a place of feeling hopeless to hopeful.”

‘Learning by doing’

Upscaling collaboration and coordination will require significant investment in time and money. In a way, it is like building a new world.

“This is about having a comprehensive ecosystem to engage those who are most at risk,” Smith said.

In developing Memphis Allies, leaders studied Chicago CRED, which stands for Creating Real Economic Destiny. Both initiatives utilize outreach specialists – or street-level interventionists – and life coaches to help youth and young adults most at risk for becoming victims of gun violence or perpetrators.

Key to making any program successful is the understanding of street-level math: on average, one shooting leads to four more because of the cycle of retaliation. Chicago CRED has been in operation long enough to have data that shows gun violence has been reduced in parts of south and west Chicago where the project is most active.

The overarching goal: reduce gun violence across Chicago by 20% annually.

“We try to be data driven,” said Duncan. “The numbers don’t tell the whole truth, but they don’t lie either.”

Memphis Allies launched its adult SWITCH and SWITCH Youth programs in 2022 – both have a clinical therapy component – and the effort is growing. SWITCH is in Raleigh/Frayser, Orange Mound and recently started services in Hickory Hill. SWITCH Youth is offered throughout the city.

“We’re just learning by doing,” Duncan said of all community violence intervention programs. “This is the last manifestation of a whole bunch of other social ills.”

Save as many lives as you can

Dr. Michelle Taylor, Shelby County Division Director for Health Services, spoke to the predominate social ill, saying, “If poverty increases in a community, crime increases in a community.”

If poverty increases in a community, crime increases in a community.

– DR. Taylor

Recently, Mayor Young met with some local gang members in an effort to stem the violence. He says gang members told him that they do not see any avenue of opportunity.

It is what Duncan says he heard repeatedly when speaking to prison inmates.

“People would say $12 an hour, $13 an hour,” Duncan said of the pay required in a legitimate job. “I thought they were lying. That’s $25,000 a year. But that number was absolutely consistent.”

The city’s community violence intervention programs and their partners all have roles to play in bringing down the barriers to young people leading fulfilling, violence-free lives and opening those avenues of opportunity. The 2024 Breakthrough Conference was hosted by a diverse range of partners: Neighborhood Christian Centers, Inc., Memphis AlliesI Shall Not Die But Live!, Lifeline To Success,LeBonheur Children’s Hospital, Crime Victims & Rape Crisis Center and theUniversity of Tennessee Health Science Center.

Having lived this work for more than seven years, Duncan does not pretend that it is anything but challenging.

To make progress will require a community that is committed to running a marathon at a sprinter’s pace.

Day after day after day.

“This is the beginning of a movement,” said Jimmie Johnson, the city’s director of the Group Violence Intervention Program, near the end of the two-day conference, the comment earning the audience’s applause.

“But we have to make sure it transforms out of this room and into those streets.”

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