Each meeting begins with participants sharing the highs and lows of their week: pictures of a sonogram for a coming baby, a recent trip down South to visit family, flaring allergies, too many or too few hours at work. The healing circle, as it’s called, is an opportunity to discuss troubles, blow off steam, and think about better ways to respond to conflict or stress, without turning to violence.
“Let’s think about the future,” the circle facilitator, Javon Lomax, told a group of a dozen teenagers sitting in a nondescript second-floor office in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn one night in April. Each of the guys has a history of involvement in gun violence and domestic violence, either as a witness, a victim, a perpetrator, or — sometimes — all three.
The violence intervention and prevention organizations We Build The Block and Brownsville In Violence Out have organized the circle as part of a pilot program called Heal the Ville. The hope is that it will reduce violence between intimate partners, and in doing so, will prevent violence in the streets, too. It’s among the first community-based programs to view the two traditionally siloed forms of violence — community violence and domestic violence — as explicitly interconnected and to take a combined approach to preventing both.
As the discussion progressed, Lomax presented a hypothetical to the circle. What if another man hit on your little sister? “She’s 15. He’s 40,” Lomax added.
One of the younger guys in the group responded quickly: “Anybody disrespects my little sister, they’re gonna die.” Lomax and some of the other guys pushed back. While the impulse to resort to violence was extreme, it was exactly what the organizers brought the guys together to discuss — openly, honestly, and without restraint so that once talking, they could help participants figure out a way to dial back the intensity.
“What if we actually said what was going on?” Lomax told The Trace and WNYC. “Wow! That’s crazy, right? We never tried that. Let’s try it.”
The organizers and facilitators of Heal the Ville aim to reduce domestic violence and community violence by approaching prevention from multiple directions.
First, they say that helping people cope with conflict in their domestic relationships will prevent those conflicts from spilling into the streets and affecting others — for example, if a brother were to retaliate against his sister’s abusive partner.
Second, teaching people to work through the trauma of community violence they have experienced will make it easier for them to build healthier romantic relationships.
“I’m gonna harm those close to me if I don’t have that therapy,” Lomax told us. “If I don’t have that outlet, then my mom’s here, or my girl’s here, somebody gotta get it. Somebody gotta get this frustration.”
And third, reducing domestic violence means more kids growing up in stable, peaceful homes. That will make them less likely to seek love and affirmation from street gangs or crews when they’re older, organizers say.
Domestic violence and community violence make up much of the gun violence (other than suicides) in America. The two forms of violence, which are often treated as separate and disconnected, are in fact closely intertwined.
Domestic violence charges constitute the largest proportion of criminal cases in Kings County Court, District Attorney Eric Gonzalez told The Trace and WNYC. His office recently conducted an analysis of open gun cases, and found that some 20 percent of defendants had a history of family or intimate partner violence in the preceding five years, he said. The number is likely an undercount because many domestic violence cases are sealed soon after they are decided.
“We see, definitely, a link between issues that people have in their homes, family violence, and ultimately the trauma that leads people to then engage in gun possession or gun violence,” Gonzalez said. “If we care a lot about reducing violent crime in our community, we have to start dealing with family violence and intimate partner violence in the home.”
It’s widely known that domestic violence can foreshadow mass shootings, which garner more media attention than everyday gun violence does. But rarely is the same level of attention paid to the nexus between domestic violence and more typical, less covered shootings.
“We said if we can have groups that are focused on domestic violence and intimate partner violence, it may teach people how to be in community with their loved ones differently, and that might also change how they are in community in general,” Dana Rachlin, the executive director of We Build The Block and the organizer of Heal the Ville, told us recently.
If addressing both at the same time works, it could have an outsized effect on reducing overall violence.
Dushoun Almond, who’s better known as Bigga, runs Brownsville In Violence Out and has been mediating conflicts in the neighborhood and serving as a mentor to young men for years. He said he’s often seen disputes between romantic partners pull in men outside of the relationship.
“You may hear it on the news, when somebody gets killed or something. ‘Oh, they were street rivals.’ No, they weren’t,” Bigga said. “That was his brother-in-law, or he was going with his sister or cousin. He did something [to her] and that would be the real story. It doesn’t get out a lot.”
There has been little empirical research on the direct links between domestic violence, particularly intimate partner violence (IPV), and broader community violence. That’s in large part because research on gun violence, in general, is limited, said University of California, Davis researcher Shani Buggs. But the research that does exist says that the two are associated: Communities that see high rates of community violence often have high rates of IPV, too. They also share risk factors including poverty, lack of resources, limited job opportunities, and prior exposure to violence.
“Many of the structural and social drivers of community violence are the same social and structural drivers of intimate partner domestic violence,” Buggs said. “Particularly when you have the environmental conditions of deprivation and discrimination, and underemployment and under-resourced support for health and safety and well-being.”
The Brownsville program follows a community-based violence intervention model, relying on credible community mentors and supportive services to interrupt and prevent violence. Research on the effectiveness of these programs is limited, though the field has grown significantly in recent years thanks to investments on the local, state, and federal level. Early evaluations of more prominent strategies like hospital-based violence intervention, Advance Peace, and Cure Violence have shown some promising results, but few, if any, studies have examined more novel approaches like restorative justice practices and healing circles that in some ways resemble group therapy.
The healing circle is the centerpiece of Heal the Ville, but it’s not its only element. We Build The Block, which funded the pilot, and Brownsville In Violence Out also provide intensive case management, legal aid, and other services like help reenrolling in school, finding housing, or getting a job. In exchange for participating in the program each week, the participants receive a $75 stipend.
Buggs said the Brownsville anti-violence workers’ perception of a connection between domestic violence and community gun violence is not uncommon, though few programs have taken a direct approach to treating the two as interconnected.
“I think there’s so many layers and so many things to unpack in that intersection and how it’s addressed and what sort of interventions are most appropriate,” Buggs said. “I have seen very little thinking about that overlap and trying to address it.”
New York has other community-based and city-sponsored programs that aim to address domestic violence by working with those who’ve committed harm, but they are usually court-mandated. Abusive partner intervention programs, for example, are 16- to 24-week programs that also use a facilitator-led group discussion model.
“This is very different because it’s not a mandated program,” said Michelle Kaminsky, the chief of the gender-based violence division at the Kings County District Attorney’s Office. “These are men that are agreeing to come and sit down and talk. That challenges so many assumptions or stereotypes — that someone who commits abuse is only going to go and get help if they’re mandated through the criminal justice system.”
Kaminsky said that in her work in the District Attorney’s Office she often encounters victims who want other options that don’t include arrest or incarceration.
“We don’t have anything in the system to address that,” Kaminsky said. “We bring cases in court. We’re holding people accountable for criminal behavior. But the work that [Heal the Ville] is doing out there is in response to what we are hearing so many women say: ‘I just want it to stop. I want him to get help.’”
Though a formal evaluation of the program hasn’t been done, Bigga said he’s seen changes in the guys in the four months it’s been operating.
One participant with past arrests for domestic violence, who hadn’t seen his 8-month-old son since he was born as a result, recently got good news: His child’s mother had noticed a change in his demeanor and offered him a chance to spend time with his son.
On a recent evening in Brownsville, as he pulled up pictures of his son on his phone, Antoine, who asked that his last name not be included because of his court record and the personal nature of the things they discuss in the program, said: “I guess I’ve just been moving different. Out of the blue, she just hit me up and said, ‘Do you want to see your son? And this is the first weekend I had him by myself.’”
Antoine lost a close friend in 2008 and then a brother in 2014. He said he’d never been to therapy and had difficulty managing his emotions. He credited the fledgling program for helping him work through the grief and mend the relationship with his former partner.
Heal the Ville is currently in a pilot stage with two cohorts made up of men and teenagers, but We Build The Block hopes to eventually add a third cohort made up of women who have experienced intimate partner violence. The organization has been footing the bill so far with its existing funding, but in the last month, We Build The Block found private funding to support it going forward. In September, it plans to hire a case manager and social worker to provide more comprehensive support.
In a courtyard outside of Howard Houses, a public housing complex in Brownsville, several of the participants sat together in the shade at a concrete picnic table, discussing what Heal the Ville has meant to them. It’s more than just working toward something better in the future. It’s also a safe space to be in the moment.
“The guards are down,” one of the participants, who goes by his nickname Lala, said of the neighborhood. “We’re talking, we’re laughing, we’re joking, and we vibing. Not everybody can give us that.”
WNYC’s Samantha Max contributed to the reporting of this story.