Shawn’s story helps to illustrate how workforce development is done well in intervention, and why it pays off.
Violence intervention work is a highly skilled profession that operates with defined policies and protocols. Those who excel at intervention have relevant experience that makes them effective. Interventionists must be able to navigate the streets and competently engage with people who - in public health language - have been infected by violence. Unfortunately, many of the experiences that make people excel at this job are traumatic. These experiences include surviving violent victimization, incarceration, or working in the underground economy. People who do violence intervention work grew up in a community that experiences violence and without exception, that violence is a result of generations of intense harm that was inflicted upon the community and the people in it, including but not limited to: enslavement, Jim Crow/segregation, the War on Drugs and mass incarceration, disinvestment, redlining, forced relocation, police misconduct, a lack of healing services, inadequate healthcare and educational opportunities, and more. In short, almost without exception, interventionists are survivors of intense trauma and managing an intervention team requires truly trauma informed practices. Traditional human resources practices need to be modified, leadership development needs to be culturally appropriate, and certain flexibility must be baked into management.
Shawn is a gunshot survivor and had been engaged in the drug trade. He is dynamic and attractive and his innate leadership abilities and confidence attracted negative attention from authorities throughout his life. When Shawn was first connected to Newark Community Street Team, he was in a vulnerable time in his life, having just completed his second prison sentence. He had been incarcerated at 19 years old for 6 years, and again at 27 for 2 more. When he got out of prison, he was determined and ready to do better. He went to school to become a certified electrician, which he believed would be a reliable career that would provide a comfortable wage. However, after putting in significant time and effort, he hit a roadblock. In order to become licensed in the field he had to complete an apprenticeship, and he found out that it was impossible to secure an apprenticeship with a felony record. Although Shawn had already served his time and paid his debt, he found that his criminal record was still costing him heavily and preventing him from choosing an alternative path. The experience - a common one for the previously incarcerated - was demoralizing, traumatic and angering.
Shawn was then connected to Newark Community Street Team (NCST) through family members and enrolled in the organization’s “New U” program, taught by Education Director Toby Saunders. The program is tailored to individuals’ needs and is focused on personal and professional development, consisting of a series of courses on a wide range of subjects, such as rhetoric, the history of Newark, social justice, and public safety. Shawn also started training to work as an outreach worker with NCST’s Safe Passage program, which helps children get to and from school safely in areas where violence has been high around schools.
Toby Saunders recalls how at the beginning, Shawn still faced some obstacles before he was able to fully commit to the New U program. Shawn had had repeated negative experiences with formal education in his life until that point. It was quickly clear to Toby that Shawn was brilliant and had incredible potential, he had just never truly been invested in. Shawn’s past traumatic experiences with education prevented him from buying in at the beginning; he felt frustrated and would argue with Toby in class. Toby remained patient with Shawn, and spent time helping him to cultivate a new relationship to the educational program. Shawn had been given up on in his past, and it would take some time for him to fully believe in the program. He also worked with NCST’s Trauma Recovery Center to address some of his trauma symptoms that were interfering with his personal life and risking his being reincarcerated.
NCST is committed to finding a way to meet people where they are, so that they don’t lose incredible people like Shawn.
When Shawn began training for his work with Safe Passage, he struggled to adjust to a work schedule and stay on top of professional demands like keeping up with paperwork. Being supervised at work triggered past trauma he experienced with authority. Safe Passage requires early mornings in extreme weather for low pay and Shawn was used to having nice things that he could not afford on the present salary. He wasn’t fully engaged with his work, and didn’t always have a smooth relationship with fellow staff. He wasn’t sure if he would continue working with NCST. Solomon Middleton-Williams, a Program Manager at NCST, could see that if he was patient with Shawn and continued to believe in him, Shawn had the ability to step into his leadership potential and do transformative work. NCST is committed to finding a way to meet people where they are, so that they don’t lose incredible people like Shawn. He was written up a few times but those write ups were used to coach Shawn to his greater potential. NCST pushed Shawn to continue to work on his personal relationships that were problematic and watched as he developed new interpersonal skills.
Once Shawn began really believing in NCST’s work and committing to his development there, he was still in a financially vulnerable spot, taking care of his young son with a part-time salary. Shawn liked the work but it was hard to support his life. He reached out to NCST’s Field Director, Daamin Ali, about advancing in his career. Daamin advised him to keep doing great work and stay engaged, and he would move upward. When the opportunity arose, Shawn applied for a Case Management position and was promoted to this new role.
Shawn’s talent and strengths became more pronounced as he became more confident in his work with NCST. Both Daamin and Toby noted that one of his most powerful contributions to NCST was his ability to connect with everyone who came through the organization. He has charisma, honesty and openness that gives him an ability to make others feel comfortable about who they were. Shawn became - and continues to be - a role model and mentor for many young men.
After working as a case manager, Shawn was promoted again to be a High Risk Intervention Worker. In this role, he worked directly to de-escalate potentially violent situations, execute emergency removals to safe houses, walk people into NCST’s Trauma Recovery Center Building, and conduct follow-up after violent incidents to prevent retaliation. Shawn’s deep care for the people of his community as well as his courage and willingness to enter situations that most intervention workers wouldn’t make him a highly effective Intervention Worker. He was eventually promoted to his current role as High Risk Intervention Supervisor, responsible for five neighborhoods.
Reflecting on Shawn’s time at NCST, Daamin pointed out something that Shawn’s story drove home for him: the power of investment in an individual; that self-improvement is community development. Toby remembers when he realized the same thing at a public safety round table with community and police. An older woman was complaining about some young men being disrespectful in front of her house, and Shawn took the initiative and told Toby he would handle the situation. Shawn recognized that he might have behaved the same way when he was their age. So now, he wanted to help those young boys see a picture of themselves in the future, that looked better than where they were in that moment. Even if he had to go by that woman’s house every day. Shawn had become the solution to the problem he used to be.
Reflecting on Shawn’s time at NCST, Daamin pointed out something that Shawn’s story drove home for him: the power of investment in an individual; that self-improvement is community development.
When Shawn looks back on his own time at NCST, he sees astounding growth and accomplishment in just a few years. Recently, Shawn visited a neighborhood he had worked in when he was an intervention worker, and it seemed like a new place. People were outside enjoying the nice weather, without guns or drugs in sight. Many of the young men he spoke with had found a job or were searching for one. There hadn’t been an incidence of violence in a while.
Shawn also recalled how he felt one night when he was out, and a woman he didn’t know approached him and introduced him to a friend as the man who had saved her son’s life. Now when he reflects on the efforts he has made at NCST, he has not one bit of doubt. The work he is doing works.