Historically, residents of Queensbridge Houses have long dealt with the plague of violence. It has affected community members both directly and indirectly and, although it has ebbed and flowed over the years, it remains a persistent problem. According to the New York Police Department’s crime statistics, Queensbridge Houses is one of fifteen developments that account for 20% of all violent crime in public housing. To combat this trend, Mayor de Blasio launched the Mayor’s Action Plan for Neighborhood Safety in June, 2014. As part of that initiative, Riis Settlement was invited to implement a Cure Violence program — a program aimed specifically at decreasing incidences of gun violence among young people, ages 16-24. In December 2015, Riis Settlement launched 696 Build Queensbridge – one of eighteen cure violence sites in New York City that seek to replicate a successful violence reducing model that treats gun violence from an epidemiological perspective.
The Cure Violence program was designed by Dr. Gary Slutkin, former head of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Intervention Development Unit, and first implemented in West Garfield Park, Chicago in 2008. In that first year, shootings in one of the most violent communities in the US were reduced by 67%. As a result, the program gained world-wide recognition and rapidly expanded into conflict-ridden communities across the globe — earning many accolades along the way. The program model is based upon the idea that violence is a contagious disease and a threat to public health. It aims to resolve violence the same way any public health crises is treated: 1. Interrupting transmission of the disease 2. Reducing the risk of the highest risk. 3. Changing community norms. To interrupt the transmission of violence, staff members known as “violence interrupters” or “credible messengers” help prevent the escalation of violence by interjecting themselves into volatile situations and mediating the conflict by identifying the root causes of the aggression and talking with the parties involved. To help those at the highest risk of transmitting violence, outreach workers meet with them one-on-one to provide support services such as helping the individual find employment, leave a gang, return to school, etc. To mobilize the community and change perspectives on violence, Cure Violence staff brings local residents, businesses, and faith leaders together with local at-risk youth to participate in gatherings and events that build bridges and help strengthen communities.[i]
696 Build Queensbridge has had a tremendous impact upon the community over the past twelve months — marking a record 359 days without a shooting. “On almost a daily basis we are engaging with high-risk youth and have interrupted hundreds of potential violent activities,” said the program’s manager, K. Bain. The team has organized several events such as an anti-violence walk through the neighborhood, a public screening of a documentary on the effects of violence, and a community cookout co-hosted with the Queensbridge Tenants Association and Fathers Alive in the Hood (FAITH). They have also created programming that caters specifically to female participants, such as a women’s empowerment group and a self-defense club. And, they have encouraged dozens of community members to sign a pledge against domestic violence. The staff also conducted a community needs survey with over 1,200 young people in the community to better identify their needs. As a result, many more plans are in the works for year two, such as offering child care to participants, opening up a juice bar, starting an employment program, and creating an extensive referral network for those in need of legal aid, mental health, counseling, employment and more.
The 696 Build Queensbridge staff members are dedicated to the work of helping the youth in the community and they themselves represent the positives outcomes that are possible through the Cure Violence model: “99% of the staff has been formerly incarcerated,” said Mr. Bain, who explained that his “credible messengers” have had great success because they have experienced and dealt with the disease of violence in their own lives and now serve as “antibodies that can fight against it.” On January 19th, Riis Settlement will be acknowledging their commitment and hard work with a one-year anniversary celebration at the Queensbridge community center from 1-7 p.m. In attendance will be many local community leaders and elected officials, including Majority Leader Jimmy Van Bramer, whose critical support brought this project to life. We hope you will join us and see up close the positive impact that the 696 Build Queensbridge program is having on the community.