As the new best friend of anyone who ends up at the wrong end of a gun or a knife, Jennifer Williams has the difficult job of making sure it doesn't happen to the same person again.
Williams is the program manager for Out of the Crossfire, an intervention program begun last year at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center. The initiative has taken preventive medicine into a whole new field: trying to reduce violent crime (see "Stopping the Blood Flow," issue of May 10, 2006).
Out of the Crossfire is a free service offered to people who end up at UC's trauma center as the result of a violent injury. Through an assessment process and coordinating multiple community resources, Williams prepares a customized intervention plan that can include anything from job training and GED classes to housing assistance and mental health services. The goal is to help a patient avoid returning to the same life that landed him in the hospital.
Far from being a "touchy-feely" program, Williams says she and her clients 80-85 percent of whom are African-American males deal with the kind of violence most Cincinnatians are just now beginning to comprehend.
"It's sometimes taking a two-by-four, a whack over the head to get people's attention but they are starting to get it," she says. "More needs to be done. There's still these myths, these biases, these prejudices that say, 'This is their problem, let them kill themselves.
It doesn't concern me.' More and more it is concerning everybody.
"Several things have happened that bring the message closer to home. When Mr. Phil Bates got shot, all of a sudden it was not just 'a black thing.' That got a lot of media attention, and people began to see that geography doesn't matter. Your socio-economic status doesn't matter. Bullets don't discriminate."
No butt-kissing required
The first step is carefully talking and listening to a survivor.
"Each person is different," Williams says. "There are some — and this will sound hokey — that just need to know that somebody really cares about what happens to them: They're not alone. To just talk to them about the opportunity to do something different."
Williams, who says she believes no intervention is a failure, will use anything she can think of to get through.
"I had one person tell me, 'There's nothing in this society for a black man. Every black man that I know who has a job is kissing butts,' " she says. "I just happened to have this article with Dr. Carnell Cooper's picture on it; it had just come out in People magazine. I said, 'I'm gonna show you a black man who's not only achieving, he's running things up in Baltimore. ... You read this and you tell me what you think about a black man not being able to achieve in this society.' Once he read that, he was willing to talk to me and engage."
Out of the Crossfire is based on the Violence Intervention Program started eight years ago by Cooper and others at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore. Cooper recently was in town to explain the basic concept behind these intervention programs.
"Unless you give folks the tools, they're gonna do the same things again," he says. "We expect our clients to act like they live at the corner of Procter & Gamble when they live down here in the Over-the-Rhine. The rules are different. It's unfair for us to expect them to behave that way.
"They live in a neighborhood where gunshots go off at all hours of the night, drugs are being sold on their block, people getting beat up and murdered is a common thing."
Cooper says his team encountered many obstacles because his clients weren't "the poster child for any organization that wants to fund us." The Crossfire program is experiencing the same frustration.
Repeatedly expressing gratitude to the Cincinnati Bar Foundation and other supporters who provided seed money, Williams sighs as she describes trouble finding volunteer mentors, money to pay for outreach staff and other needs. With 125 clients registered, only 25 to 30 are active — not bad, considering Out of the Crossfire has a staff of one, with only three volunteers.
'We all pay'
Even more difficult is getting people to see that reducing violence takes cooperation across multiple disciplines. In-fighting among social service organizations, duplicated efforts and entrenched habits of not collaborating are among the greatest obstacles Williams faces.
"We all have a vested interest in seeing this violence reduced and helping to put these lives back together," she says. "We all pay, in one way or another, either in terms of our safety and in the way we perceive our city and therefore ourselves or our ability to broaden our tax base to bring the best and the brightest here."
Cooper say his program's success shows Cincinnati can benefit if disparate groups such as judges, police and parole officers work with social workers, doctors, housing agencies and rehab specialists.
"Here's our data," he says. "It shows that we can have an effect. We're a group of folks who have shown we can impact them. They're not going to go away; ignoring them is not the answer to the problem."
Williams says the expectations of the community are key.
"I believe anybody will live up to or down to the expectations you set for them," she says. "We see living proof ... in that grassroots approach of meeting them where they are, identifying the root causes of why they're doing what they're doing ... and giving them the tools to do it legally and nonviolently. Because of intervention, because there are people who set before them higher expectations and a higher bar, it works."
Her larger goal, if it's possible to think even bigger, is going to take a lot more than money.
"If we can get people to lighten up on condemning a whole group of people in one fell swoop as bad and irredeemable, I think that would go a long way," Williams says.
To volunteer or donate to Out of the Crossfire, call Jennifer Williams at 513-584-7867.