Youth Violence Prevention


Not all the victims of terror are people who were hurt on Sept. 11.

Just weeks after the infamous terrorist attack, the current head and Executive Director of the Illinois Center for Violence Prevention, Debbie Bretag, gave a speech at the opening of her group’s convention. “Getting back to normal should not be our goal,” Bretag said. “Rather, changing what has been considered to be normal and acceptable must be our mission.”

Bretag said the rivers of tears shed by our nation must not be shed in vain but hopefully turned into rivers of social change for those of us subjected to domestic or communal terror across America. “Right here in Illinois,” she said. “Far too often, children live in terror in their own homes – victims of child abuse or witnesses to violence committed by the adults in their lives. The violence in our streets can terrorize an entire community, numbing our children, youth and families, diminishing their ability to meet their most basic human need for connection and intimacy.”

She called us to be aware of the violence suffered by women and girls as victims of what she refers to as “intimate partner and sexual violence.” After her speech, Bretag pointed out that hate crimes and violence have permeated our country for centuries. She said, “Many young men, especially African-Americans…are dying on our streets, leaving a generation fatherless and with far too few role models.”

Bretag also wanted us to be aware of the suffering of those young people for whom there is seldom a voice due to the shame and feeling of disgrace shared by the unfortunate victims and their families. Here I refer to the number of gay and lesbian youths who often turn to suicide in their attempts to deal with their anguish and victimization caused by vicious acts of bias, teasing and exclusion.

Bretag’s agency strives “to prevent and reduce interpersonal violence in families and communities throughout (the state) and society as a whole through the initiation or support of…advocacy and training; evaluation and research,” to quote from their Mission Statement.

Two of the youth violence prevention programs operated by the Illinois Center for Violence Prevention are YouthPeace and SisterNet. These two programs were recently distinguished by receiving the BP Leader Award, which made available to them a substantial amount of money to help fund some of the agency’s expansion projects. The BP Leader Award will enable the Illinois Center for Violence Prevention to add a staff person to each program and expand services throughout the Chicago collar counties. The Illinois Center for Violence Prevention was founded in 1992.

YouthPeace was initiated in the fall of 1995 to build a network of young people who want to be leaders in violence prevention and peacemaking in their families, schools and communities in local, regional and statewide violence prevention efforts. In February 1998, YouthPeace added SisterNet in response to the young women in YouthPeace who advocated for a safe place to address violence against and by girls. SisterNet is incorporated into each YouthPeace chapter, according to the group’s Web site.

The day I met Youth Initiatives Coordinator Mari Sanchez, she spoke passionately and articulately about YouthPeace and SisterNet. She summarized for me the program’s aims and goals and briefly explained how these two programs function.

“We’re hoping that it really helps them (the youth) get a sense that they can accomplish things that they plan,” Sanchez said. “We hope that the experience they have planning the projects that they’re doing through the program can transfer to other areas of their lives. (Due to their involvement with these programs), they realize how hard it is to do public speaking, or how hard it is to get organized. They understand that you can’t give up, you have to keep trying, and that sometimes you have to rethink your strategy.

“We hope that they learn all those very important lessons that are going to be useful to them when they are adults. We’re hoping also to give them the opportunity to overcome some fears. Many times, young people feel discouraged. They don’t feel they can make a difference. So part of it is showing they that there are things that they can do and that they are important members in their community.

“Our ultimate goal also is to decrease violence in society. Many times, when you have kids from very different environments, whether it’s because of economic backgrounds or racial backgrounds or whatever reason, they have all these preconceived notions about each other that are not necessarily true. So, by exposing them to each other, they start realizing that they have a lot in common. We’re statewide so we have 22 chapters. We have urban, suburban, rural and smaller town kids, so we have all kinds of kids. Our model is to prevent violence by promoting leadership involvement.

“Once they want to work with us, the kids partner for a minimum of one year. We spend the first two or three months talking to them, making sure they’re ready for it because not everyone is ready for that kind of commitment. They (each chapter) must also have some caring adult sponsor that would be willing to sponsor the youth through this process and help them out.

“The first thing they need to do is attend a three-day retreat, (where they meet) the other chapters, all at the same time. In those 3 days, they learn about violence prevention. Every month, we go out to every chapter. They have a project that they pick and their job is to carry it through. We prepare them for up to a year to implement their projects,” said Sanchez.

According to the group’s Web site, YouthPeace can be sponsored and developed in a community, region, state or country as a membership group or project through which young people can work in partnership with adults and their peers. Sponsoring groups can include schools, community policing programs, business groups, civic clubs or service organizations.

YouthPeace activities at the local level can take place in schools and communities and can include activities such as conflict resolution and peer mediation, peer and adult education, mentoring and education of younger children, and various media projects.

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