Nonprofits, schools train teens to settle their own arguments in hopes of preventing gun violence

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Presley Barner works with tutor Stephanie Schechner at YEAH Philly. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Presley Barner works with tutor Stephanie Schechner at YEAH Philly. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

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Presley Barner can walk you through every moment of the night she got jumped. The pounding of her sneakers as she ran down the street, the jerking backward motion as someone grabbed her hoodie. The shock of mace being sprayed into her eyes.

“I couldn’t see nothin’ so I’m just punchin’ any and everything,” she said.

This was three years ago, when Barner was in the 7th grade. She says for a few years before that, she walked around like she owned her part of West Philadelphia.

“I was runnin around fightin’ everybody,” she said. “I was just gettin’ my anger out.”

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But that night was a wake-up call for her. She was injured badly enough to be hospitalized. While she was recovering, violence prevention advocates connected her to programs designed to help teens work through problems peacefully. Now 16, she says she’s done with physical altercations.

“An a**-whoopin’ can really humble a person,” she said. “Now, I don’t even say nothing. I just walk away.”

Presley Barner, 16, sits on the balcony at YEAH Philly, a youth empowerment organization that helps teens resolve the kinds of conflicts that can lead to violence. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Barner has been participating in conflict resolution training through a nonprofit called YEAH Philly. It’s a model that teaches teens who are engaged in an argument to name their emotions, communicate their feelings and agree on a peaceful end to a dispute.

“It’s just both of y’all having an understanding so it don’t get to ‘next time I see you I’m gonna beat you the f**k up’ or ‘next time I see you I’m gonna shoot your s**t up’,” she said.

Presley Barner works with tutor Stephanie Schechner at YEAH Philly. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Across Philadelphia, youth mentors and crisis counselors are using conflict resolution strategies to try to slow the ongoing rise in fatal shootings. There were 562 homicides in 2021 and the city is already on pace to surpass that number this year. While most shooters are over the age of 18, advocates say there’s been a disturbing trend of more young teens getting involved in gun violence.

Arguments were the number one reason for shootings and accounted for half of incidents, according to a city analysis released this January, followed by drug-related motives, which drove 18% of incidents.

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The City of Philadelphia has acknowledged the need for a more robust conflict resolution network.

“Increased reliance on civilian responders to identify and mediate conflict before it escalates to violence is a promising national practice and particularly promising for Philadelphia,” reads the analysis.

There isn’t a large body of research directly tying conflict resolution to lower rates of gun violence, though it’s often included in discussions about a public health approach to the crisis. Street violence interrupter models have reduced shooting rates in some cities, and some youth mediation training programs across the country have been shown to reduce aggressive tendencies, increase communication skills and boost feelings of self-worth.

Violence prevention advocates say teaching people to settle arguments is more important than ever given the glorification of violence on social media, and that cultural and economic factors that drive violence — poverty, racism, trauma, home environments — must also be addressed.

“How do you break that cycle when your family is even pushing you into a culture, even if you don’t want to do it?”  said Kendra Van de Water, executive director of YEAH Philly. “How do you make resolving problems look cool?”

Kendra Van de Water is Executive Director at YEAH Philly (Youth Empowerment for Advancement Hangout), where teens learn to resolve conflicts, find jobs, and improve their schoolwork. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The city and the school district have conflict resolution programs in place, but community groups doing the work say a more cohesive approach is needed.

On the streets

Conflict resolution isn’t just one strategy. It’s an umbrella term for a bunch of different programs happening in schools, community centers, juvenile detention facilities, and on the streets. The goal is to help people step away from heated situations before they escalate to gunfire.

One version of this relies on credible messengers, or people who have firsthand experience, to help potential shooters work through a conflict. Cure Violence, a violence interrupter program developed in Chicago, has been shown to reduce gun crime in some of the cities where it’s been implemented.

There’s research showing the model worked in Philadelphia, too. A 2017 Temple University study found that Cure Violence tactics reduced shooting rates by 30% over a two-year period in the areas where it was implemented.

The program, called Philadelphia Ceasefire, still runs in North Philadelphia with support from Temple University but does not currently receive funding from the city.

The city’s 2022 budget included roughly $4.8 million dollars for a related model called the Community Crisis Intervention Program, which employs 59 crisis workers trained to step into potentially violent situations. These workers patrol the streets on foot seven days a week, and since 2018 the program has conducted 591 mediations, according to March 2022 data from the city. A promised third-party evaluation of the program has not yet been released.

Mayor Jim Kenney’s 2023 budget proposal allocates an additional $28.8 million to a slew of gun violence prevention programs, including community crisis intervention.

Meanwhile, several community organizations are trying to build their own networks of mediators by training Philadelphians to step in and de-escalate potentially violent situations.

Mazzie Casher and Steven Pickens co-founded the nonprofit Philly Truce in an effort to combat the gun crisis. The idea is for trained and vetted responders to sign up for the Philly Truce app, which designates them as go-to mediators if someone reports a conflict via the app. The organization works with the Philadelphia Anti-Drug Anti-Violence Network, which is also the partner organization for the city’s Community Crisis Intervention program, and has received training from the Black Male Community Council of Philadelphia, the city’s Commission on Human Relations, and the city’s Town Watch Integrated Services department.

Casher says conducting a mediation is a slow and careful process. It requires assessing whether all parties are willing to try it, what they hope to accomplish during the mediation and what support they might need.

“Is there an entry point? And then once there is … what are we going to have to go through to get them on board?” he said.

He says often mediating takes several tries. Sometimes a participant changes their mind, or plans fall apart due to fears, outside influences, or logistical holdups.

“Particularly when there’s high stakes … can they manage that,” Casher said. “You know, a lot of times it depends on their surroundings at the time and the time between when you get that buy-in and when you’re actually able to execute the situation.”

The City of Philadelphia’s analysis called Philly Truce, “an exciting twist to traditional community mediation programs.” Casher says they’ve fielded approximately 200 help requests and trained 30 volunteers, and about 10% of users have engaged in the mediation process since they launched the app last spring.

There are ways to get certified in conflict resolution, and some advocates have called for more consistent training and best-practice sharing for this work. But some say credibility is more important, because people won’t even consider backing away from a fight unless the person telling them to is someone they respect.

“You need experience in these streets for the conflict resolution,” said Khalif Mujahid Ali, director of a nonprofit called the Beloved Care Project. “Do you need a degree? No.”

Mujahid Ali runs the Beloved Care Project, which hosts listening sessions and other events designed to empower young people. He says when he hears about trouble, he taps resources he’s familiar with.

“So it’s my job to hopefully know ‘I know somebody down in this neighborhood. Let me pick up the phone’,” he said. “‘Let me call him, because I know that they got a good rapport with the young boys in the neighborhood.’”

Starting with youth

At YEAH Philly, Kendra Van de Water and her staff work mostly with West Philadelphia youth. Many are formerly incarcerated or on probation, or have been struck by bullets or come close.

Teens there learn to mediate conflicts in small group settings, calling on staff as needed. Sometimes staff are present to supervise, especially if parents and friends are involved in the discussion.

Sometimes it’s less formal than that. If two people are angry, Van de Water encourages them to grab boxing gloves and take it outside.

Teens learn to deal with conflict at YEAH Philly. If people are angry, director Kendra Van de Water sometimes tells them to grab boxing gloves and take it outside. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

“They don’t have issues with people when they come in here, and they say that,” she said. “If they’re here, they’re cool.”

The organization runs conflict resolution trainings every other month. At a recent session at the YEAH Philly resource center, teens lounged on couches and bean bags as facilitators led a discussion about how to define “conflict” (an immediate dispute), versus “beef”, (a longer-term feud). He encouraged participants to talk about their reactions to different situations — everything from two people having the same hairstyle to someone killing someone else’s family member.

Van de Water says there’s a need for more certification and training across the city on how to be a mediator, specifically as it relates to preventing gun violence. And she says adults need to listen to youth — YEAH Philly staff are constantly asking teens for feedback on the trainings,

“A lot of times we see that the trainings that people may have, they don’t necessarily relate to the population that they say they want to reach … if we are working with young people who are impacted by gun violence, who have the gun charges, who have the violent charges against them, we change our model to reflect that.”

Teens are paid for the two-day sessions, and are encouraged to then spread those lessons to their peers.

Presley Barner has taken the training twice. She says if more teens spent time with YEAH Philly facilitators, they might think more carefully about their actions and be less likely to pick up a gun.

“Somebody resolving [a conflict] could save lives, could save a lot of drama in the hoods,” she said. “Could save a lot of time, a lot of energy that people could be putting into other things.”

But she said taking in these lessons requires people to put aside their pride.

“It’s definitely people’s pride, and it’s definitely the rules of the streets,” she said. “It get outta hand where over your small beef, a kid is tooken. And it’s like was that beef really worth somebody life? I definitely think it’s your pride and people mindset, the way they think.”

Kendra Van de Water, executive director of YEAH Philly, opens a slip from the ”affirmation jar,” filled with statements like ”asking for advice doesn’t make me weak,” and I am good at solving problems.” (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Nonprofits across the city are attempting to empower young people and make them their own mediators — Frontline Dads trains teens weekly at its Peacemakers program, and the longstanding House of Umoja just started teaching conflict resolution skills to its new Umoja Youth Peace Corps.

Cora Good Shepherd Mediation is currently recruiting teens for its Transforming Justice Hub, a six-month educational conflict resolution program with a focus on restorative justice.

At YEAH Philly, Van de Water said she plans to continue providing the training, and hopes to be able to better coordinate with other agencies providing similar education on a small scale.

“Everyone’s capacity is kind of just spread thin,” she said. “But long-term vision: We would love to have a group of organizations who come together and have a streamlined process.”

Getting to the root

Khalif Mujahid Ali, with the Beloved Care Project, says there are two layers to preventing gun violence: the stem, and the root. And if the argument is the stem, the root is the trauma that underlies the violence.

He runs listening sessions for youth, where they can work through the pain of loss in their lives or guilt they feel around harm they’ve done.

“Stop dealing with the level of the stem, and start dealing with the level of the root,” he said. “Because that’s where it’s coming from.”

Mai Spann-Wilson, who teaches conflict resolution at Temple University and runs anger management classes at the Men’s Center for Growth and Change, says learning how to process and communicate one’s own feelings is a crucial part of de-escalating conflict.

“Those depictions of men being violent are often seen as more acceptable than seeing a man cry,” he said. “And we need these safe spaces to be able to express ourselves in healthier ways.”

The School District of Philadelphia says it’s expanding an array of programs designed to address students’ social and emotional needs in hopes of keeping them off the path to violence.

Dr. Abigail Gray, deputy chief of the Office of School Climate and Culture for the district, says this work has been going on for more than a decade, but it’s taken on new urgency in light of the gun violence crisis. She says there’s no single curriculum that can address the problem.

“So when we hear people say things like, ‘Oh, they need a conflict resolution program in the schools’, that’s a really oversimplified understanding of what conflict resolution requires and means,” she said.

Currently, the district offers a restorative justice program called “relationships first” at 50 schools, with plans to launch at about 30 more in the future. Gray said it involves intensive coaching on conflict resolution and problem-solving.

The district is also training schools to handle more acute situations, through a process called “harmony healing circles.”

Additionally, Gray said the district plans to continue teaching students mindfulness skills and will also offer “pro-social recess”, which focuses on enrichment and relationship-building, for all K-8 schools.

“This past year we really elevated that,” she said. “Schools that are in the most affected neighborhoods in terms of gun violence have the opportunity to receive the most intensive support.”

But violence prevention advocates say conflict resolution can’t exist in a vacuum. Bilal Qayyum, executive director of the Father’s Day Rally Committee, says it’s also necessary to address what’s happening in communities.

“When you look at behavior patterns in the neighborhoods … it has a lot to do with underlying institutional racism,” he said. “You can teach all the conflict resolution skills you want in school, but when they go home and their families are dysfunctional, those conflict resolution skills go out the window.”

Camila Pretel, who oversees the restorative justice department at CORA Good Shepherd Mediation, says for conflict resolution to work in a classroom setting, schools need to be giving students individualized attention and asking about their wellness, with less emphasis on discipline.

She says sometimes when they’re teaching conflict resolution schools, students will be suspended in the middle of a program.

“Because they’re not having certain needs met and they’re acting out,” she said. “The onus cannot just be on young people to have these skills, but also that it’s reflected in the structure and the culture of the school.”

About two years ago, the Philadelphia Student Union circulated a petition demanding that the Office of School Safety “replace school police with community members trained in de-escalation, restorative justice, and other skills that support healthy schools and communities,” and some of those changes are now underway.

This story came out of WHYY’s three-part conversation series on conflict resolution. You can find the recordings on our Twitter page.

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If you or someone you know has been affected by gun violence in Philadelphia, you can find grief support and resources here.

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