Music is the great uniter and Riot Fest brought people of all walks of life together to enjoy three days of performances in Chicago’s Douglass Park on Sept. 15-17. This year, Cure Violence Global (CVG) – a non-profit organization founded in Chicago – was on hand to connect with bands, fans, and media teams to share information about why it’s so important to treat violence as a public health issue and reduce violence globally by using disease control and behavior change methods.
We had a chance to connect with CVG’s Executive Director, Dr. Monique Williams, as well as the organization’s Director, U.S. Programs, Cobe Williams, to learn more about what it means to treat violence as a health emergency and how members of the community can get involved to help stop violence before it starts.
Dr. Monique Williams explained that being at Riot Fest provided an opportunity to share how the group’s evidence-based approach to stopping the spread of violence can empower everyone to become “super-spreaders” of CVG’s mission.
“In a setting like this, it’s an opportunity to share the message in a broader way that we wouldn’t otherwise be able to touch or engage. So many people have come to the tent to say, ‘Violence is a public health issue. What does that mean?’ We get to give them these bullet points and show them the work that we’ve done around the country and people’s minds are kind of blown,” she said, adding that violence truly impacts everyone, whether it’s through personal experience or simply the allocation of tax dollars. “That’s how you build advocates. That’s how you help push and promote the message. That’s how you get people to join the movement and if you give them language, they can speak that language to those who they have relationships with and the message spreads. This is an opportunity to be a super-spreader, a super-spreader of this message that violence is a public health issue. There are ways that we can cure violence. Let’s talk about how we do that.”
Cobe Williams, whose book Interrupting Violence will be published in July 2024, explained that curing violence begins with building relationships, so that problems can be worked out before they erupt. One way CVG does this is by utilizing trained interrupters to detect potentially violent events – such as ongoing conflicts, prior shootings, anniversaries, major arrests, etc – and intervene before violence occurs.
“We don’t look at people as good or bad people. We understand that people make choices. We’re not going to say that they are the wrong choices. It’s about building relationships with them, getting to know them and changing their mindset. We want brothers and sisters to know that just because you have a disagreement, that doesn’t mean you have to shoot and kill each other,” he said. “It’s all about relationships. With a lot of these issues, people will reach out to you or we might be stumbling upon them because we’re out there in the community. We’re walking in the neighborhoods. We’re out there monitoring hot spots – spots where we know stuff is always going on.”
CVG approaches violence as a public health emergency. When a virus spreads from person to person, tools like medications, masks, vaccines, and other methods are used to halt transmissions. Cobe Williams gave an example of how violence can also be very contagious if it is allowed to flow freely throughout the community.
“So the issue is, my friend’s mad at you. He don’t even got to know you, but he knows I’m mad at you so he’s mad at you and it spreads and spreads,” he explained. “Once somebody gets shot or somebody gets killed, it perpetuates more violence because people always want to get back. We focus on stopping the shooting and killing before it happens. If it happens, we focus on stopping retaliation by reaching out to people. It’s all about relationships. You have to be out there in the community.”
Dr. Monique Williams added that treating trauma and moving away from criminal justice-based prevention tactics are also tools to stop the spread of violence.
“The major thing that we need to do, as a nation, is shift this paradigm that is so criminal justice focused as it relates to violence and start truly seeing it as the health issue that it is and treat people from that perspective as well,” she said. “We focus on things we can do in those spaces to get ahead of the act happening. A part of that is to treat the trauma. Again, from a health perspective, when you have an unhealthy person operating in a space that is also unhealthy, I don’t know how you expect any other outcome. If that is our reality, then let’s shift to the reality of what it is and make some people better.”
Cobe Williams knows first hand how easy it is to get swept away in unhealthy patterns. He explained that he made some bad choices in the past and now he has dedicated his life to helping provide young people the tools to make good decisions by giving them somewhere to turn other than the streets.
“I helped mess up my community. I want to give back and I understand a lot of these young people just need some guidance, just need some leadership. They need somebody to say, ‘Man, I love you, bro. I love you, sister. I need you.’ They’re crying out for help. That’s what’s going on and everybody is pointing the finger,” he said, adding, “It’s important to let people know that they are not alone. You’re not leaving them out there by themselves. It ain’t how you start. It’s how you finish.”
Cure Violence Global offers a variety of resources for communities to get involved at the ground level and the group also accepts donations to support the important work they do to stop the spread of violence. Information about supporting CVG and getting involved with its mission can be found at cvg.org.
(Photos courtesy of Cure Violence Global)