Individual and Collective Trauma: Coping with Homicide in African American Communities
Full video, powerpoint presentation and edited transcript; "Individual and Collective Trauma: Coping with Homicide in African American Communities"; February 10, 2017.
Bruce Shapiro: I want to begin this particular conversation with a little story that I somehow feel I owe this group. This is a story about the city where I now live, New Haven, Connecticut. On June 12, 2010, if you were like me, a New Haven resident, and you opened up the newspaper or went to its website, you would have seen a picture of a young African American man named Marquise Baskin, and you would have read a story saying "City Man Killed in Shooting in Newhallville." And if you had read down the story, you would have found out that the suspect had been arrested, that the suspect had a prior record. You would have further found out that Marquise Baskin had been previously arrested related to a shooting, and that the charges had been dropped. And you would have found out nothing else. The mind being what the mind is, a narrative immediately emerges of who these two young men were. A shooting at 2:00 in the morning behind a dumpster in a tough neighborhood of town.
You would not have found out that Marquise Baskin was the son of a New Haven firefighter, part of the first generation of African American firefighters in a city that had long had a racial under representation in the police department. You would not have found out that Marquise Baskin was in fact, from childhood, a quite gifted and talented and disciplined artist who had gone to an arts high school, had won national prizes for drawing and painting. You would not have found out that he had been wrongly arrested for gun possession, had then volunteered for several years to speak to Yale Law School students about the experience of being a young man of color wrongfully arrested on a gun charge. You would have not found out that these two young men in this shooting were in fact old family friends and that the source of his killing was a beef over a girl that involved too many weapons in the wrong neighborhood and in the wrong hands on a hot summer night.
I know all this because Marquise was my daughter's closest friend through elementary school and into middle school. We did middle school graduation together. I also know it because his family was deeply tied to the African American neighborhoods and community of New Haven, were community activists and very important folks. His story, which I offer without a whole lot of commentary, simply says a lot about the the complex issues affecting communities of color when it comes to gun violence. I don't know really where Tanya is going to take us today, but I tell that story just to open up whatever questions it opens up for you, and whatever questions it opens up for all of us in our minds.
Let me do a quick bio. Tanya Sharpe is associate professor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work. Sharpe's research focuses on coping with violent traumatic deaths, specifically socio-cultural factors that influence the coping strategies of African American family members of homicide victims for the purpose of developing culturally appropriate interventions that can best assist them in the management of grief and bereavement. She's developed, implemented and evaluated community-based programs for children and families coping with interpersonal violence including homicide, suicide, intimate partner violence, human-made and natural disasters. She's a recipient of a Governor of Maryland's Victim Assistance Award, and we are lucky to have you here.
Tanya Sharpe: Thank you, Bruce. And thank you everyone for having me here today. I want to start by thanking my colleagues that came before me this morning – for dropping the term and importance of us considering the socio-cultural context in which all of these things are happening. It is something that fueled my desire but it's also something that I hope to leave you with here today: the importance and relevance of that, particularly when were talking about communities of color.
I want to give you a little bit of context in terms of how I got into this work. There are two reasons in particular. One, many, many moons ago, like before grad school, I was working in Boston at a university, and we working together side by side with individual family members who were surviving the homicide of a loved one for the purpose of developing violence prevention programs. It was a life-altering experience. One of the things I was responsible for doing as violence prevention coordinator was looking at the research and trying to figure out… you've got exorbitant rates of homicide, violence, and victimization happening predominantly in African American communities, and let's look at the research. I don't know, let's just take a look, to see what would best inform our practice, our program and development.
When I began to do my lit search, to look at the research, I noticed that there was a huge gaping hole in terms of the individual experiences of homicide survivors, individuals who were surviving the homicide of a loved one, and although we had exorbitant rates of homicide, violence, and victimization in the African American community, their experiences were not reflected in the research. Then I thought to myself, how are we developing programs without being informed by their experiences?
The second was, when I was working there I had the honor and privilege to meet Edna. When I met Edna, her son had just been murdered. A bunch of us who worked with Edna attended the funeral to pay our respects. I'll never forget when I entered the church, and as I approached Edna, I extended my hand. I said, "I'm so sorry for your loss." Edna looked at me with disdain and she said, "I didn't lose my son, my son was taken from me." In that moment, in that exact moment, her words struck me. They struck me to my very core, and it was in that moment that I knew that I was called to do this work.
In that moment two things became abundantly clear. One, if I, as a trained social worker, even with the best of intentions, did not know how to comfort her or support her, how equipped are other service providers? How would Edna cope with the murder of her son? And so my commitment to build a legacy of research is both very personal and it's a professional one.
I talked about context. Let me provide some context for homicide violence. Since 1993, the rate of violent crime has declined from 79.8 to 23.2 victimization per thousand people. We hear this quoted over and over and over again in the media, but let us just consider, for a moment, homicide violence in particular: Who is being murdered, how they are murdered, where the majority of homicides occur, and the number of murders versus the rate of murder.
African American men between the ages of 15 to 44 experience homicide victimization more so than any other racial group in the United States. The majority of homicide victims are murdered as a result of gun violence in this age group. And areas that experience the highest rates of homicide violence are in urban areas. Marginalized, disenfranchised communities of color. African Americans experience homicide violence at a rate that is on average 12 times greater than American Indians and Latinos, 15 times greater than whites, and 16 times greater than Asians and Pacific Islanders.
When we look, taking a glance at the number of homicides over a 10-year period, on average there are about 17,000 murders that occur in the United States. What you'll hear many people say is that compared to other forms of violent crime, that number's fairly low. However, when you think about who the majority of homicide victims are, young black men living in urban areas, when you realize that although African Americans make up only 13 percent of the U.S. population, and yet they account for more than half of the homicide victims, when you understand that on average African Americans experience the homicide of a loved one at least two times in their lifetime, and when research suggests that each homicide victim has at least seven to 10 family members faced with the challenge of learning how to cope with the murder of their loved one, we realize that we're dealing with an epidemic that disproportionately impacts some of our most vulnerable.
I want to stop here. I've painted the picture of socio-cultural context for you, and the questions that kept burning in my mind. I had to go back to the individuals that are surviving the homicide of loved ones and begin to ask the questions. How do you cope? How do you get up and function every day? How do you go to work? How do you take care of your other kids? All these questions kept burning. So I began to actually interview a cadre of African American individuals who were surviving the homicide of a loved one, and they begin to create or paint a very, very clear picture for me about the socio-cultural context in which they begin to cope with the homicide of a loved one. I like to share some of their thoughts with you.
Cultural trauma. Alexander and Ho in particular, researchers, talk about this whole concept of cultural trauma. That in particular, in marginalized and disenfranchised populations of color, because of race, those particular populations chronically experience cultural trauma just because of race-based structural inequality. One of the survivors, Margaret, a grandparent, she says, "I just have confidence in African American's ability to be a people and understand from whence we came and understand how much baggage we've been able to destroy, or cleanup, or whatever it is that we had to deal with that I don't think we were born to bear. I believe the ability of my people to overcome so much, so many things, and still have not truly, in my opinion, have arrived at first class recognition by many, many people. We are still, I think, some of the greatest achievers there are."
This is understanding that when I wake up in the morning as an African American person I know because I come from a legacy of slavery, of overcoming such a hardship, that there's this sense of ancestral survivorship that is a mantra, if you will.
Anticipated hardship. “I'm trying to make sure that you understand that one of the reasons for me, and I dare say the majority of African Americans and people of color, the reasons we keep things to ourselves is life is supposed to have a little bit of pain. You know, no sunshine without the rain.We grew up with those kind of anecdotes that make us hold things in.”
There's also this understanding that just because I'm an African American person, just because I'm living in a country where there's a race based structural inequality, that I anticipate that there's going to be hardship. These two themes are under the domain of cultural trauma.
Then a homicide occurs. This is a domain that I coined. It became very apparent to me in my interviews with survivors that once they experience the homicide of a loved one, they enter into a culture that is altogether unique. Some themes were coming out of this particular domain. Shame and stigma. “I try to cope now by not being ashamed to talk about it, because I was ashamed to talk about it, especially being African American the stereotypes of African Americans, that we are just prone to this. Every time I tell people this – not every time I'm exaggerating now a bit here – but someone says, you know, "Oh is it drug-related?" That is the first thing that pops out of their mouths.”
When we think about the whole idea of access and being able to do interviews or individuals going to support groups to access mental health resources, there's a shame and stigma theme that's coming into play here.
Blame. "I question whether or not there was something I could have done to keep him out of the environment and therefore perhaps this never would have occurred. So I guess I'm saying, in some sense I'm always questioning whether or not I'm partially or a bit somehow responsible for his tragic death."
This is Elaine, a surviving aunt whose nephew used to actually visit her every summer. The one summer that he did not come to visit, he was murdered. So she blamed herself for her inability to keep him from harm. This is constant theme that I hear from survivors. I wish I had walked him to the grocery store. I wish I didn't let him go to that after-school program.
Lack of Justice. And we will talk about this. It's been mentioned throughout a lot of speakers today. "I remember my brother was like, 'We all know who did it and the problem is the police aren't doing anything about it.' My brother was like, 'I know. I know who it is. We all know who it is.' Because my cousin was apparently not the right target, it is unsolved, and we just feel like they don't care."
They, meaning the police. What became very clear to me was we have this whole idea of cultural trauma just based on being African American, and then we have a culture of homicide. Something was happening. These two things were working in concert with each other, right? To somehow influence the coping strategies that African American survivors of homicide victims were utilizing.
So I went back to the research a little bit further. I began to look at stress and coping theory, which says a stressor happens. Right? And you either appraise the stress to determine whether or not you're going to use emotion-focused coping, or you're going to use problem solving coping. You were either going to cry about it or you're going to get right on that to pay funeral bills or pay for Auntie so and so’s airfare so she can attend the funeral. Right?
But something else was happening here. And what I realized is a colleague of mine, Shawn McGuffey, a sociologist, began to talk about this whole idea of there's not simply appraisal going on. Individuals aren't simply experiencing the homicide of a loved one and saying, "I'm going to use emotion-focused coping or problem-focused coping," but they were appraising it through a race-based structural lens. Right? Race, in our society as we know, dictates the allocation of goods and services unevenly for populations of color, unevenly in the United States. That understanding, that appraisal, right, allowed African American survivors of homicide victims to begin to appraise the stress of homicide, but appraise it based upon their marginalization. What you begin to see was how did they cope?
Well, as a result of this interaction, a couple of coping strategies became very clear. "My grandmother used to say if you have a problem take it to God. She didn't say take it to the therapist." This is Elaine, you'll get to know Elaine really well.
Meaning-making. "I believe in God, but to a certain extent because I don't think God takes an innocent baby or a person that good that wants to help the world. So I keep telling myself He probably needs another angel now." The idea that I'm either going to pray about it or I've gotta, I've gotta make meaning out of something. I've got to make sense out of something so senseless. The way that I'm going to try to do that is through my faith.
Maintaining a connection to the deceased. “I try to cope with it by maintaining a personal connection with him. Meaning I'm having conversations with him. Sometimes when things get difficult, or remembering that I don't want anybody else to have to deal with the kind of thing that I did, I almost talking to him or praying to him to get there not only the grief that I feel regarding his loss but also to get through and do the work that I need to do."
This is Trinity who is a social worker whose cousin was murdered. She's basically trying to make sense out of it but also trying to get through it to be able to basically be of service to others who may not go through it, and help them on their grief journey.
The other thing that you'll also see interestingly enough, in terms of the youth, is decals. You'll see vigils on the corner with teddy bears and candles and balloons. They're trying to make sure that you understand that their loved one's life was cut short and I do not want you to forget that they had a life.
Collective coping and caring. "I really focused on what my family was going through rather than what I was going through. I was really like, 'What do you need? How do we get this together?' So in many ways that was my coping mechanism by not dealing with it in many respects, so I focused my energies on helping other people."
Now it's well documented in the research – particularly in African American families, in therapy and mental health – that African Americans rely on spiritual coping and collective coping to get through stress. What was interesting about this, in my journey interviewing survivors, is that it wasn't the entire family coming together and supporting one another when a homicide occurred. It was typically one person. One person who was paying the funeral bills, making sure everybody had a way to get to the funeral, making sure food was provided for people at the repast. It was one person in particular. That says a lot about what are the implications for that one person that's caring for everybody else, but how are they getting care?
Concealment. “I think I tend to internalize and find a small part of my heart or a small part of my mind an actual small closet in my heart or small closet in my mind to shut off those things that bother me.” This is Elaine. Elaine said, "You take it to God you don't take it to the therapist." Elaine said, "I'm going to conceal my emotions." Elaine also smokes two and a half packs of cigarettes a day, has high blood pressure, and diabetes.
"I don't know if you remember the movie The Godfather. There's a line in The Godfather where Michael says to his younger brother, 'You never speak against family, you never disagree with the family, you never go outside of the family,' and I think that is kind of my mantra. I am just not of the belief that you go outside the home to garner assistance with family or personal problems."
If you think about the whole idea of cultural trauma, the shame, the blame, the stigma, the lack of justice, you can see where the influences are to use concealment as a coping mechanism. I don't trust you, I don't want to be further stigmatized, I don't feel like justice was served, especially in the cases that you see before you today where we talked about the whole idea of unsolved murders.
When we think about all of this, it was very clear to me that there is a socio-cultural model, a model of coping for African American survivors of homicide victims that was really, really coming through in the interviews with the survivors. If you were to consider for a moment that this particular lens right here is the… We wake up in the morning and then in the day, this is the worldview. We experience cultural trauma and with cultural trauma, ancestral survivorship and anticipated hardship is particularly paramount. Then the stressor of a homicide occurs, and that then we have a culture of homicide that individuals enter into where shame, blame, stigma, and lack of justice are paramount. Then we figure out, how is that particular stressor of homicide impacting me? How do I appraise that? Well, that's appraised through a race-based structural inequality lens. Then as a result of that, these are the coping strategies that are utilized.
When we reflect upon that particular model, for the purpose of our discussion today, I want to use this model to help us better understand the relationship between surviving family members and friends of homicide victims, and you, the media. When we think about that cultural trauma lens, the culture of homicide and all of those themes that come under it, there's some things that are going on in terms of your ability to engage, or the willingness of individuals to be able to have a conversation about their experiences. Some of the things that survivors told me are that the media in particular is not easy to understand. There are a couple of components that they don't quite get.
For example, if the coverage is vast, survivors may feel violated by the endless barrage of media right? If it's a highly publicized event. But as we've heard today in Jeff Swanson's presentation, when he suggested that, for example, this mass violence incident happens... For example, I have friends at Columbine, right? Tons and tons and tons and tons of media, a barrage of media. So they felt that their privacy was invaded. Whereas, I had a very good friend of mine in Boston whose son was murdered in Roxbury, and her son's murder appeared on Section D of the newspaper. There's this sort of unevenness, right, that survivors often feel and they don't understand, because what they're thinking about is “I want you to remember that my son's life was important.” And I say son because the majority are young men. That's one of the things that's very confusing to them.
Societal bias. The length of news copy and scope of broadcast coverage tend to vary based upon the victim's race, where they live, socioeconomic status, and other factors that have nothing to do with the crime committed against them. There's a little bit of confusion as to what are the differences. What are the driving forces that cause this difference, right? Sometimes, because of that lack of understanding of how you operate there's less of a hesitancy to engage.
I understand that you all have a tremendous amount of power to leverage a lot of this unevenness, if you will. And some of my colleagues mentioned it before: the media can help by humanizing the situation. The media can help humanize a victim and the experience of the surviving family members when the criminal justice system is so focused on the offender and the crime. Tell the story of the living versus the dead. Tell the survivors' story. I know it takes a little bit more time, and maybe some time spent in the community, but it actually can shift that particular paradigm in terms of creating and building bridges of trust.
Coping and social justice. Media coverage can also change public attitudes: the way in which you cover things; the questions that you ask; the way in which you tell a story. I think that's something that survivors actually need to understand as well, and that hearing from them can actually help you begin to make that shift. The media can serve as a resource by helping someone tell their story of survivorship and hope. It may provide an avenue for a family to talk about a loved one who was just killed or give someone a platform to advocate for social change or justice reform.
I've seen that in particular with Tina Chéry. She's very, very widely known. She created the Louis D. Brown Institute after her son was murdered, and she began to go through trainings to understand the media culture. She used the trainings as an advocacy program in order to understand the short sound bites that she had to begin to use to actually would grab the media's attention. But this cross-fertilization of training is particularly key and paramount, and it can actually both help you gain access and help [vulnerable sources] regain some of their power when they feel so powerless.
Some of the negative things that can happen: interviews at inappropriate times. I know this is hard. You got a story, but when a family's coming right out of the court after hearing a case, it’s not an ideal time to engage. Filming of scenes with bodies in body bags, really hard for families to see, and so that creates big pillars of distrust. Searching for the negatives about the victim. That's really going to the differences between the coverage. “Oh, he could have been a drug dealer, we're not quite sure.”
Insinuating that the victim contributed to his or her victimization. Printing the victim's name or address, printing things said about the victim in court and the publishing of photos, in particular. Hard things to do. We have Facebook, we have the media, but those are some of the things, again anecdotally, that survivors have shared with me that really cause them to shrink back, to conceal their emotions, to resist the urge to really tell their story.
Conversely, though, just for me as a researcher, I think it's actually important that you do ask the questions. That you still try.
Audience: I had a question about that. Is it those things happening, or is it the way in which those things happen? If a journalist talks to someone and prepares and explains the process and what may or may not be in a story, does it have the same impact? Or is it not knowing those things are going to happen?
TS: Not knowing those things are going to happen. Being very clear about, and I say that actually, great segue–
Tell the story of both the living and the dead. The credibility to survivors of homicide victims. One of the gentleman who just spoke... why can't I names?
Audience: Shawn [Harrington].
TS: Shawn said one of the things that was actually very helpful for him to talk with Joe [Nocera\ was that he had conversations with Joe before the interview. I was just like, yes. You established credibility. Similarly, I had to do the same thing as a researcher – I'm getting to your point -– I had to go to healthcare revivals, bake sales, car washes. Just showing up in the community so they saw this familiar face.
They weren't quite sure what to do with me originally, right? But then I began to have conversations with individuals and get some street credibility that basically allowed me to segue to build relationships.
Accessibility. I'm not saying give them your home address or your phone numbers, but I am saying survivors appreciate a way to contact you, whether that's email, maybe your work email, begin to ask you questions or begin to basically pitch a story to you that may not even be homicide survivor related. You may show up, not cover the story, but you showed up. You see what I'm saying? They feel like they have power to be able to have you engage with the community.
The last thing is reciprocity. Being very clear: this is what I'm going to get from actually interviewing you, and this is what I'm willing to give back or how it may be helpful to you or helpful to others. Being very clear about that reciprocal relationship, I think is most paramount. I use that example of a lot because even just starting out as a very junior researcher, just very excited to have the opportunity to work side-by-side with survivors. Folks are hungry. They're hungry to tell their story, and they're hungry to get support and resources. What became clear for me is I'm on this tenure track grind, I'm doing this work, and I'm also trying to do this community-based work. They wanted all of my time, right? And I wanted to give it to them because I knew they were in need but I wasn't very clear about how much time I could give and vice versa. Make sense?
Audience: I feel like when you're talking about some of the tougher details, there's always a balance of time and place. Some people mention having a conversation like: "I'll have to include this detail in my story, and this is why. Do you have something else about this you would like me to know or improve?" Does that help?
TS: I think it helps. Ask as many questions for clarity as possible. I think they appreciate the question being asked versus seeing something in print or in the radio or on TV that they didn't expect. So asking as many questions as possible to be able to establish a level of communication and trust to overcome. Because at the end of the day, it's really actually not about you and whether they like you or dislike you as a person, it's all of the stuff in this model that they're bringing with them to the experience, right? And you have what, 30 minutes, 45 minutes, an hour to interview them and they're bringing all of this to the table.
Being able to unpack that is actually asking a lot of questions. I'm not clear or clarifying the purpose of why you're doing the story, how it's going to appear, asking is there anything that you basically feel uncomfortable with me covering, etc., etc. Right?
BS: Tanya, thank you. You've illuminated a central dilemma that I think all of us in this room feel often, which is that when we are reporting with family, survivors, or communities, we are the media. When we are there reporting, we are journalists as individuals, and there's a big difference between being capital T, capital M, The Media, and being seen that way, and being a room full of reporters trying to do a job. Right? With our own histories, with our own identities, with our own purpose.
I want to go back to your model if you could, because I found that very interesting and illuminating. Talk for a little bit maybe about how your own identity when you march into this equation fits in. I buy it, and yet to push back gently, on the far end of the coping strategies that you describe, they sound a lot like what scholars of resilience and other things speak about in general, right? I think maybe the place that goes to the particulars of the African American experience in the encounter with journalist, or the encounter with researchers, is in fact your own identity, one's own identity, when we march into this history-
TS: I think I hear what you're saying. Ultimately it is all about relationships, but if I may, and correct me if I'm wrong and off base here, but one of the questions I always get asked is because you're an African American, and you're going into the African American community, isn't it easier for you to gain access to this particular population? And the answer is no. The answer is no. Once I put on the research hat, once I say I may not be from here, I live on the west side you live on the east side, it is a whole different ballgame.
I think that's what I mean too when I'm talking about the individual. There are collective experiences going on, but there are also individual experiences going on that come into play. A lot of the work: I still have to walk the beat, I still have to go to those bake sales, those healthcare revivals, volunteer my time and establish credibility before I even allow someone to talk to me. I can't give them a survey, I can't do anything until I actually get someone to co-sign and say, "She's all right. She's not going to come back in the community and rape, rob and pillage it. She actually has the best interest of our community at heart." But I have to get somebody to co-sign that by doing the legwork first.
BS: So in an ideal world, not only developing one's own individual knowledge, but a physical presence, trusted brokers within the community become particularly important in an African American context. That's what you're proposing.
TS: Absolutely, absolutely.
Audience: As a journalist, just by going into the neighborhood, canvassing the neighborhood, trying to talk to people and trying to talk to these survivors, when they see you know about the neighborhood and what's going on and you can actually talk to them on their level, it makes it easier for you and it also makes it easier for them to tell their story. Because you already know what they have going on, but what they need to know is that you actually know it and you're not just there to get the story and go about your day.
TS: Or actually, if I may add, I tell them the things that I don't know. I tell them the things that I don't know and I'm very clear, you're the experts and I need to know from you what's going on.
Audience: They tell you because they want you to understand.
Audience: Well, first, if I had a prize to give to this model, I would do that, because I have never seen – And I write about survivors a lot: People who have survived being shot and the people that are left behind when somebody is shot – I have never seen this explained with this much clarity. I think this can make anybody's job who's doing this that much easier, if they had this understanding going in. Also, it can help all of us to tell these stories in a different and fresh way. So thank you a lot for doing this presentation.
You talked a little bit about this, but I'm wondering if you can talk a little bit more about how you got somebody like Elaine, given all that she’s gone through, to open up so that she could tell her story? What lessons do you have for people who are trying to get to those types of survivors after making inroads in the community, after that broker has pointed you to Elaine and said, "You know who'd be really good to talk to? I don't know if she's gonna talk to you, but-"
TS: That's exactly what happened.
Audience: What was that process and what lessons could you share with us from your experience in getting her to open up and share?
TS: Literally that was the process. It was somebody who actually did conduct an interview with me, a friend of hers, actually who's in this particular sample. She brokered that particular relationship. She basically said, "Elaine hasn't talked to anybody. I don't know if she's going to open up, but why don't you come to this group and meet and see if Elaine will come and I can broker that relationship." Literally, that's actually how it evolved. It was somebody who went through the interview process with me and thought, “Okay, this is really helpful. I can see how it might help other people, and I'm going to bring Elaine on board.”
Brokering those relationships is key, and it's actually how I do all of my research work, because I'm a community-based researcher. I don't sit in my office and crunch numbers. I go directly to the people on the street and ask them what's going on. There's project I'm doing right now with Safe Streets. Same situation. Outreach workers: I'm meeting with them everyday asking them what programs are successful, helpful, hurtful, and how do we make this work.
Audience: I had one follow up question about the model as well. What I feel based on having done this is that on this spectrum, it doesn't matter whether we're talking about poor people, middle class people, if it's a bright person that this happens to, this is the spectrum, right? Class is not necessarily a factor in this. Black people feel this way no matter what their economic situation is, when a loved one is killed?
TS: You touched on a couple of things. One, the ripple effect of violence is very real. If you were to walk into an auditorium full of African American individuals and said has anyone experienced the homicide of a loved one? I'd guarantee you that probably the majority, not just here in Chicago by the way, just everywhere, more than half of that room would actually raise their hand. The ripple effect of violence and homicide violence and victimization is very real. It's not necessarily my brother was killed, but it could have been my nephew, it could have been my cousin, so on and so forth. But there's always somebody who knows somebody, unfortunately, who's been murdered.
The caveat of this model is, I have to say, that it might look a little bit different if the individuals I interviewed were younger. I think there might be some other issues that would come to play. Again, this is another project that I'm working on, but the anecdotal data that is coming out is suggesting that they smoke sometimes, get high. There might be issues of retaliation. There's tattooing going on. Some of the coping strategies may be a little bit different, but that collective coping and caring for others… it may not be a family member, it may be a gang they're getting together with to make sure that they're comforted. Or other friends, so forth and so on. There's a lot of work to be done out of this model, but the class issue, I think it's universal.
Audience: I wanted to ask you about the line between the perpetrators and victims. We hear that people hurt people as far as coping, and we hear about the impact of violence on homicide when you're a survivor. What do we know about that?
TS: I'm doing a project with young black men between the ages of 18 to 24, who nine times out of 10, the majority of them have experienced the homicide of family member or friend and they've also been perpetrators of violence. I can't help but highlight the glaring intersection and influence of those people who are hurting hurt people. But in particular, they're on a very real level not making the connection in terms of the impact of the amount of homicide violence and victimization and grief and loss that they've experienced. The trauma that they've experienced, and how that manifests in their mental and physical wellbeing. They're not making that connection.
They're not making that connection to why I might smoke a blunt a little bit more, or drink a little bit more, or go off because somebody steps on my sneaker. They're not making the correlation between, "I've experienced now five dead bodies"- In Baltimore, we just had 318 murders last year, 344 before that. Block by block it's happening in chronic forms. The young men I'm working with don't have a chance to catch their breath and process, and so that anger is building and they're actually lashing out, but they don't understand why. They don't understand that connection.
BS: How do you think this model is gunna change as they age? Is this a transient young adulthood thing or do you think it's going to filter into this model?
TS: We have the intergenerational transmission of trauma. If you look at anticipated survivorship, anticipated hardship, things are passed on from generation to generation. If you have communities that are essentially traumatized, some of these coping mechanisms are going to be passed on, particularly the concealment –
BS: You think probably that becomes an even more dominant factor as time goes, on as we're living this?
TS: I do. But it's something to be tested. That's for sure.
Audience: I'm just wondering, does the model change or is it impacted in a different way when the perpetrator of the violence is police?
TS: That's such a good question. Again, I don't have data that will support that because I haven't done that. But again, anecdotally, that lack-of-justice piece, that's spot-on. I don't think that's going to change. I don't think the shame, blame, and stigma, unless they change their race, is going to change
A lot of the survivors in the sample tell me, “Well I find it interesting that it takes x amount of minutes for the police to show up when we call, and it doesn't take x amount of minutes for somebody in Roland Park – which is a suburb in Baltimore – to arrive.” With things like the DOJ report in Baltimore coming out, talking about the exorbitant rate of racial profiling that's going on, there's a lot of hostility that is still going on, and I think the lack of justice is actually very, very clear.
Now in terms of coping strategies, especially for the young men, that concealment is coming through. In other words with violence prevention programs or when police want to engage to basically do an investigation, people shut up. They lock down. A), they're fearful of retaliation, but B), there's an issue of trust that has to be overcome. So they're concealing information, they're concealing emotions. I think that's very, very clear.
Collectively the neighborhoods though, they all know who did it, how it happened, somebody knows somebody who's done it. I see those things popping up relative specifically to police violence.
Audience: How well do you think practitioners within the community understand all of this? It may be a basic level. I'm thinking of church-based grief. A session that I sat in on where all white church folk spoke to these families about how to cope with grief – I'm wondering how well it's understood? Then a parallel question: Does it look the same for families who have both victim and perpetrator in their midst?
TS: Let me start with the last question with the family members of victims and perpetrators. I don't know. I'm trying to recall –
Audience: Not necessarily that the victim and the perpetrator are both of the same crime in the family, but maybe they had a nephew who was shot and another nephew who may have shot someone else.
TS: Oh, I see, I see. Well, I still think what happens is people go to the spiritual coping and meaning making. That's just seminal foundation, that's going to happen. Collective coping and caring people are still going to come together. There might be a little conversation and that's where a lot of the programming that we talked about – we talk about how to communicate because there might be a lot of things where inside the family, particularly if it's a perpetrator, somebody in the family will blame so and so for being involved, not keeping an eye on your son, those kinds of things happen, and that causes friction and so forth and so on. You have that kind of dynamic that happens a little bit. I definitely need to pull that out a little bit more. And then the first question was?
Audience: How well do you think the community, who are trying to help cope, at least in general, maybe not in these terms, understands how their life experiences reflect how they cope?
TS: I'm supposed to be honest right?
BS: You are supposed to be honest. Tell the truth. We're journalists. We're journalists!
TS: Tell the truth. Tell the truth. In particular, I'm reflecting upon the death of Freddie Gray. There was a lot of conversation around race, the intersection of race and violence. Or a lot of wanting to have the conversation, but I think we still remain very challenged about how to have those conversations. And to sit in the belly of being uncomfortable when we have those conversations, and being okay with it, I think that that is really causing a lot of us to miss the mark in terms of programming and understanding the historical context that a lot of communities are bringing into that. That's number one. I think we're missing the mark a little bit.
Audience: When you said "we" are you talking broadly like everyone or the African American community?
TS: When you said clinical folks and that sort of thing.
Audience: I think maybe not necessarily clinical, but I think if you have churches that might have grief groups in the African American community, how well do you think they understand, even at a basic level, this.
TS: I think that they understand the shame, blame and stigma. I think they understand the lack of justice. I think they understand the racial appraisal, racism if you will. What I do hear anecdotally from a lot of survivors with the spiritual coping and meaning making, is that it can go either way depending upon how that pastor, that reverend, handles their response. When I started off, I talked about my story of Edna when I said I'm so sorry for your loss. Sometimes pastors or reverends will say, “Oh he's in a better place.” No, no. Wrong thing to say. They have the best of intentions.
There's opportunities I think to train the faith-based community. Opportunities to train medical examiners, ER docs, funeral directors, to really know the survivor, the language to use to be able to engage. Media. Hello. To really know the language to be able to engage. Sometimes they do miss the mark with those kinds of things.
BS: Well that does make me then think also that when we as journalists step into these stories, whether we are from ethnic specific media, whatever communities we're covering, or from cross community news organizations, as most folks in this room are, or big media – when we step in, there are a few places in this equation where reporters' news choices and interactions and the stories that result can either ratify a sense of betrayal or ratify a sense of community and meaning. We contribute, we can add the stigma or detract from it. We can add to meaning or take away from meaning. We can ratify concealment or make people feel safe and trusted. Right?
What do you think of as the role – and forget about your numbers for a minute – but anecdotally, you've interviewed so many folks, what have you seen as the best kinds of interactions with journalists and news coverage in the communities when you've been covering them? And what have you seen as the most damaging?
TS: The best interactions I've seen, again, is when someone is showing up consistently in the community. It can be when a homicide strikes, but it can also be when there is a parade in celebration because a school got a new gym. But they're consistently showing up and there's visibility. And they've gotten over that trust barrier.
Also, when people kind of just sit and sort of just listen. They're anxious to tell their stories to be honest with you. Once you can get over that hurdle of trust, they want to make sure that their loved one doesn't die with their death. They see you as the resource, the conduit to keep their family member alive. That is an incredible amount of power that you have to be able to do that. That's when I've seen the most enlightening interviews come about.
Where I've seen it take a downward turn is the timing issue. Usually when family members are coming right out of court, they're just devastated and somebody has a mic in their hand or they're just not ready to have that conversation and they feel very bombarded. Or it's clear that the individual isn't allowing the authenticity of the conversation to come about but they have an agenda. There's a barrage of questions that are coming out.
Audience: This is really interesting. I work for a small investigative news organization. There's always, "Who's accountable. Where's the accountability story?" I guess I'm wondering when it comes to the needs of survivors and victims of homicide, where do you see the accountability stories? Where's our society missing the mark?
TS: I mean, really small question? Thanks. Appreciate that. Oh my gosh. I think the accountability needs to start with allowing their voices to be heard. Homicide violence is happening everywhere, we're seeing articles published, but allowing those individuals who feel voiceless to have a voice. I think there's accountability of that through the media, through social work, and through research. I think that that's important.
I think that there's an incredible learning opportunity here for all of the professions that come in contact with survivors to go through some sort of training to be able to understand their language. I'll never forget, for example, one of my friends was a Columbine survivor and she said, "Tanya, when my daughter was murdered," she said, "I entered into a strange land where I needed a translator. I needed someone to help me understand and navigate." I think that particular understanding of the language – how do they navigate systems, how do they get back their power when they feel so disempowered – is a role for each of us to play in our different professions. Whether that's media, the physicians, or the police officers that they make the first contact with: what they say, how they say it, I think that's where it lies.
BS: I think that's as good a point as any for us to take a break and say thank you, Tanya.