The Politics Of Healing: Closing The Gap In Services For Young Men Of Color Harmed By Violence

Eighteen-year-old Jamel was shot in the leg during a robbery attempt while walking down a main street in Harlem after he refused to give up his $800.00 leather coat to three armed gunmen. He had worked hard and saved for months to buy the coat, and he’d be called a punk if he went home without it, leading to further trouble. He rushed the gunman. One of them shot him in the leg, but he managed to get away as the men opened fire.

Later, as he was wheeled into Harlem Hospital on a gurney, a group of nurses prepped him while two police officers fired off questions about what had happened. Jamel refused to answer. Growing up in East Harlem, he distrusted the police. At the same time, he felt angry at them for failing to prevent him from being shot. He grew silent, sensing that the police were treating him as a perpetrator, not the victim. They seemed only interested in getting his statement, and Jamel even felt that his medical treatment was dependent on it. This made him angrier and less willing to talk. Finally, after encouragement from one of the nurses, who seemed genuinely concerned about his well-being, he gave the officers a statement. They took it and disappeared into the crowded hallway, never to be seen by Jamel again. Nobody asked Jamel how he was feeling emotionally, sought services for him to address his trauma, or offered him information about the investigation into his attackers.

Jamel is a false name, but his story is real, and his experience mirrors those of so many young men of color, who are among the groups in our country most likely to be hurt by violence. They are also among the least likely to be helped in its aftermath. Jamel’s case is not unique either in his experience of being shot, or the inadequate responses he received from the institutions and systems charged with his care. This disparity in services for young men of color is the product of many factors, including portrayals of black men in the media as perpetrators of violence rather than as victims, distrust in the justice system prevalent in many communities of color, and the broadly accepted normalization of the violence they suffer. As we turn our national attention to this crisis, it is critical to build the public and systemic support necessary to provide services that are consistent, reliable, and sustainable.

We have made great strides in accomplishing this with another area of victim services. In the 1980s, building infrastructure for healing that is geared toward specific communities became part of a national political conversation, led by activists working to end violence against women. A culture of silence that treated issues of domestic violence as “family affairs” was supported by often inadequate responses in the justice system for those victims who did come forward. Domestic violence shelters and rape crisis centers existed, but as a primarily private and unconnected network, receiving little institutional support. As demand for improved responses to domestic and sexual violence grew, advocates understood that the stigma attached to victimization had to change in order for women to receive the quality and scale of support they needed and deserved.

Many joining the field in the mid-eighties found jobs not as counselors, but as lobbyists, organizers, and public advocates. This is because they understood that healing doesn’t happen in a vacuum. To break the isolation, blame, and silencing that came with the victimization, they needed public and institutional partnerships to acknowledge and validate the need for healing, thereby undermining the stigma for individual victims. Though great progress has been made in bringing awareness to victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, the fight is far from over—the recent attention to pervasive campus sexual assault reinforces the need for cultural and institutional change.

A new online and community-based resource for those working with young men of color, the HealingWorks Learning Collaborative, draws lessons from the veterans of the domestic violence and sexual assault movements as it seeks to build a field that will meet the needs of young men of color who are survivors. Made up of both organizations and individuals—including young men of color who have suffered trauma themselves—HealingWorks provides resources, tools, and community-building support to people working with these young survivors. HealingWorks members are small community-based groups that address trauma and violence in the context of other services, as well as larger victim service programs that want to work with young men of color. The Collaborative also works with individuals, like Jamel’s nurses, who work in institutional settings. HealingWorks exists to help these organizations and individuals become far more than the sum of their parts.

During his brief stay in the hospital, every doctor who tended to Jamel would inevitably scold him for not giving up his coat. They all hoped he had “learned his lesson,” but no one addressed the fact that Jamel had witnessed murder, shootings, and assaults by the time he reached his teens. No one spoke of the shooting as the culmination of years of vicarious trauma and victimization, nor of the nightmares, hyper-vigilance, heightened aggression or fear that would plague him for years to come as a result of the shooting. As an adult, Jamel still remembers the police officers who seemed more interested in a statement than his care. He feels the cold stare of the doctors and their ill-timed advice. But he prefers to think about the nurses who saw a young man in need of healing and did their best to provide it.

Together, we can move toward a world in which doctors are trained to understand young men’s choices in the context of their neighborhoods and culture, social workers help normalize responses to their trauma and discuss healthy strategies for handling them, and police officers are prepared to treat young men of color as victims first rather than witnesses—or even perpetrators.

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