The field of community violence intervention is experiencing something unfamiliar: a rush of funding. Amid a nationwide increase in shootings during the pandemic, federal and state governments have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into community-based programs, which seek to reduce violence by mediating conflicts and connecting at-risk people with services. 

But advocates for these alternative public safety strategies realize that the opportunity comes with risk. Community violence intervention (CVI) programs are often small and have limited resources. Without training and support, their efforts may not show demonstrable or consistent results. Piles of new paperwork and reporting requirements may imperil efforts to secure continued funding. And freshmen executives may stumble as their operations rapidly scale. 

Enter The University of Chicago Crime Lab. In May 2022, the research center announced a $27.5 million initiative to provide training and support to police and community intervention leaders. Central to that effort is the CVI Leadership Academy, which will invite 30 leaders from community-based organizations across the nation to Chicago in September, where they will receive guidance from established members of the field on program management, staff retention, evaluation, and more. They plan to continue the academy for five years, with two cohorts per year.

We spoke to the CVI Leadership Academy’s incoming director, Chico Tillmon, a longtime CVI advocate and practitioner, to discuss the gaps the effort is aiming to fill.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Chip Brownlee: How would you describe the primary goal of the CVI Leadership Academy?

Chico Tillmon: My North Star is to make community violence intervention a permanent part of the public safety ecosystem.

In order for CVI to be recognized as an equally vital part of community safety, we have to professionalize the field. We have to create fidelity across the nation and have best practices and standards, and we have to create awareness of what it is. In some cities and states, they don’t even know what CVI is.

The biggest benefit of a community-based organization is access to a hard-to-reach population. They can reach individuals that other organizations can’t. The biggest knock is that it’s sometimes not evidence-based or they don’t have business acumen. They know how to do the work, but the business part has been lacking. And that’s why we have had trouble collecting data, doing evaluations, and procuring funding. 

CVI relies so much on lived experiences. So what we decided to do is create something similar to what they have in other industries, which is like an executive leadership certificate program. It will educate individuals with lived experiences and teach them leadership and management competencies. 

We’re taking those community-based organizations that already have that access, and we’re adding to it. We’re giving them what they had been missing, which would be this mindset of how to run the business.

More than $100 million has gone to CVI since 2021, with more to come. How are you thinking about sustainability in the long term and how can the academy help?

Now that we have these resources, we need individuals who understand the body of work to be able to lead these organizations, but also to avoid it being catastrophic, where it’s this large investment, and there’s no impact.

Even with the dollars and the big moves around CVI, we understand that we have a short time to impact the field and prove it works. And the most efficient way to elevate the entire field around the country is by elevating the leaders. A lot of these grassroots are small- to mid-sized organizations. They’re not large. A lot of them need training. We want to educate them, but also teach them how to advocate to funders about what they truly need.

Can you give a preview of what the curriculum will look like?

The first month, after orientation, they’ll learn how to define violence prevention, understand what it is, understand the ecosystem. Understand that less than 1 percent of people are the drivers of violence so they can be intentional and focused, but also how to manage people who are in constant contact with this population. What mechanisms need to be in place to put these individuals in a space to change their current behavior into a pro-social lifestyle. We want them to understand how to do community needs assessments, logic models, plans for evaluation, and being able to create a landscape analysis.

The second month will be about community engagement and mobilization.

The third month will go into operations and management. They’ll learn about business planning, planning for growth and sustainability, HR processes, risk management, budgeting, forecasting, and compliance process design.

How do you envision the Leadership Academy and better CVI contributing to creating safer communities in the long term — not just during this current crisis?

As long as me and you live, and after me and you go, there are going to be individuals that are at the highest risk. There’s going to be individuals that would be better served by somebody in the community having a conversation with them, finding out what’s going on, doing the individualized assessment, helping them get into whatever institution or to an organization to meet their needs, as opposed to criminalizing the individual. 

So what we want to show is that not only do we do intervention, we do prevention, too, by dealing with those individuals in the community that are at the highest risk, to prevent violence from spiking in the future.

And it’s not just the violence. It’s the trauma and stigma and the mindset of living in a community where you are afraid. Nobody in America should have to live in a community where they don’t feel safe — where if they go home, they have to stay in the house, because they’re afraid they might be shot. Their children can’t go on a porch. Their children can’t go in the backyard. That’s why we need CVI. As long as there are communities like that, we need all hands on deck, and we need CVI in place to disrupt not just the physical part, which is horrific, but the mental strain that the entire community goes through.

You’re leading the CVI Leadership Academy, but the University of Chicago is also starting a Policing Leadership Academy. How will the two interact?

What we understand is that police are humans, and policing is a damn job. Why would me and you be in the business of creating a safe community, and I say, ‘I can’t talk to you, and you can’t talk to me, but we both say we want the same thing?’ We want to disrupt that. 

We need to understand there is a need for police, and the police understand there’s a need for us. And the only way you can do that is by putting people in the same room. We got a lot in common. It takes people with influence to say, “Let’s sit down.” The more we talk, we’ll see we have more things in common than the things we disagree on. 

Our approach and our role is different but there can’t be disdain between us. Because we got to work together. Our objective is to make the community safer. We want to create an atmosphere where both can have intentional exchange and collaboration.

How are you all thinking about accountability and evaluating effectiveness, both of individual CVI programs and the academy itself?

Understand that funding is tied to impact, and impact is tied to evaluation. The first thing people want to know is: Is it working? How do I know it’s working? Who evaluated? 

From my perspective, I think society has been wrong in regard to CVI and accountability. I cannot hold you accountable when I don’t give you the tools and resources to complete the job. That’s foolish. But we know people are going to hold them accountable anyway. So what we want to do is improve their skills and give them the tools to be impactful in these communities. So that when we do have accountability, they can be successful.

In terms of the academy, the first thing I want to prove is that it’s working on an individual level. That when an individual comes to the school, they’re being equipped with tools and the knowledge to be able to run a CVI organization effectively. The second thing I want to see is, are we teaching them things that translate into practice? Are they able to put them into practice in their organizations? Because I believe if we do those two things, if we build out the leaders, if we put it into practice, the service will get better, and in turn, communities will become safer.

The main thing we want to do is learn. If we’re doing something wrong, we’re going to change it.