Through his own personal story, as well as through lessons, stories, and data from READI Chicago, Eddie Bocanegra explains the effectiveness of dealing with the trauma of gun violence through cognitive behavioral therapy and city, state, and national collaboration.
- I’m Eddie Bocanegra. I run READI Chicago, one of the largest violence prevention programs in Chicago. I’ve been in this business a long time—I’ve spoken to many men in prison, recently released from prison, who have shot people and been shot themselves. I always ask these men the same question: if you could go back and change one thing, what would it be? Almost every single time, the answer is the same: that moment when they pulled the trigger.
- We hear this over and over again, and as we think about trauma and violence, we are understanding why this is: gun violence is often the result of split-second decision-making, often by traumatized individuals who have grown up surrounded by violence.
- I know this from personal experience: I grew up in Little Village and first saw violence at the age of 5, in the form of domestic abuse at home. I witnessed my first homicide when I was 13, and I was arrested for the first time at 14. And when I was 18, a judge sentenced me to 29 years in prison.
The challenge of gun violence comes down to poverty, trauma, and justice involvement.
- Poverty: Decades of disinvestment in communities of color have contributed to poverty, poor-quality schools, lack of businesses, unstable housing, and high rates of violence. Being born into the wrong zip code can change your life forever. Research has shown us that the neighborhoods in our city racked by poverty and a lack of economic opportunity are the same ones struggling with a cycle of violence.
- Trauma: There is an abundance of trauma—generational and firsthand—in communities experiencing gun violence. Despite containing only 7.5% of Chicago’s population, the small number of community areas that we target account for 32% of the city’s homicides. Nearly 80% of the men READI Chicago serves have had a loved one killed by violence. Forty-two percent have been a victim of a violent crime, and 34% have been shot.
- Justice involvement: Too much of the response to gun violence in Chicago and across the country is focused on law enforcement and the criminal legal system, both of which produce disproportionately harsh outcomes for people of color. This comes at an extraordinary cost—more than $1.3 billion was spent over five years jailing residents of the five neighborhoods we target.
- Since I got out of prison in 2008, after serving more than 14 years, I’ve been working to
figure out how to slow down that impulse, keep people from pulling the trigger like I did, and the solution I’ve found that READI focuses on is CBT—slowing down your thinking to create space for you to think before reacting to a stressful situation.
- Cognitive behavioral therapy is exactly what it sounds like: it focuses on connecting your thoughts and your actions to help individuals slow down their thinking and respond less automatically in stressful situations.
- In addition to CBT, our participants need a viable opportunity to make real change in their lives—we do this through professional development and a paid transitional job. We are seeing that progress happens through investment in these men and their communities—a legal, consistent paycheck allows them to sustainably support themselves and their families, and they’re putting this income back into their communities.
- Since launch, we’ve connected more than 650 men with CBT and jobs. We’re hearing from them that it is making a difference, and we are actually seeing that through our data and the evaluation with our research partner. We are seeing that:
- We’re finding the right participants. The men we’re serving are 55 times more likely to be shot or killed than the average Chicagoan.
- We’re keeping our guys engaged. More than half of men eligible to start programming do so within 20 months—these rates are comparable to in-school programming for young people who are much more attached to services.
- Most importantly, we may be helping keep our guys safer. Men who have the chance to participant in READI were 24% less likely to be shot or killed as their peers.
We see every day how many barriers our participants face, and now this year, through COVID, through issues of violence and racism coming to a head across the country, more people are seeing this and taking the first steps toward understanding how they can help. We need investment in the people and communities our city has overlooked. We need policy and legislative changes to increase access for returning citizens.