South Los Angeles Looks to End Cycle of Violence By Addressing Trauma

Illustration credit: iStock

As a young man growing up in the Westmont neighborhood of South Los Angeles, violence once seemed like an inescapable way of life for Kevin “Twin” Orange.

In high school, Orange lost his best friend to gang violence, he said. Later, he got caught up in gang activity himself, and narrowly survived a shooting in 2006. Three years later, his brother and a cousin were killed.

“You became immune to homicides, shootings, acts of violence,” Orange said. “We thought that was normal. You’d walk down the street and you’d see candles for somebody who was killed, and you’d just look at it and think nothing else of it.”

This month, Orange, who is now a community activist, attended the unveiling of what he hopes will help bring an end to the cycle of violence and trauma that has plagued many areas of South Los Angeles for decades. On Sept. 5, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health unveiled its new Community Healing and Trauma Prevention Center.

The center is designed to be a therapeutic gathering spot where community members will have access to counseling, support groups, healing-focused workshops and exercise classes. The hope is that participants will help advocate for positive change in the areas where they live.

The center demonstrates a new approach “to how we do violence prevention in the context of a community that has known too much violence,” said Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas at the opening ceremony.

“People all across the country are going to be taking note of what we’re doing.”

South Los Angeles experiences the highest rates of assault-related trauma and homicide in the county, according to the local Department of Public Health. Homicide rates in South L.A. are nearly four times higher than in the rest of the county.

The center, located on a sprawling public health complex called the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Public Health, sits in the neighborhood of Willowbrook, an unincorporated area of the county close to historically troubled areas such as Compton, Westmont and Watts.

The idea for the center came out of a three-year, county-led Trauma Prevention Initiative. Rather than seeing violent crime as a problem exclusively for law enforcement, the initiative seeks to understand and tackle the root causes of violence and its traumatic effects, officials explained. Community members were deeply involved in developing plans for the center, and the services offered reflect what local residents have advocated for, organizers said.

“Hurt people can go on and hurt other people,” said Barbara Ferrer, the county’s Director of Public Health. “It’s profound to understand that one way to prevent violence is to really address the trauma that people carry with them from having experienced a lot of violence.

“I don’t mean even just personally experiencing violence,” she said. “I also want to acknowledge living in spaces and places where there’s a lot of violence is very traumatic.”

Municipalities, health care workers and community organizations across the state are increasingly considering the impact of trauma when it comes to addressing and preventing violence, said Rachel Davis, managing director of the Oakland-based Prevention Institute. Until now, the focus has been largely at the individual level, for example, tackling symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in juvenile delinquents, troubled school children or people with mental health difficulties, she said. However, there is growing understanding that trauma can affect entire communities as well.

“There are symptoms of trauma at the community level,” Davis said. “That looks like a breakdown of social cohesion and trust, or the elevation of norms that aren’t conducive to health and safety.”

These erosions “can also increase the risk of violence,” she said.

People living in communities that experience excessive violence may be prone to hopelessness, said Lisa Fujie Parks, the institute’s associate director. They may see violence as inevitable, and start to see it as an acceptable way to survive or handle day-to-day challenges. For these reasons, Fujie Parks said, it’s important to include local residents when tackling community-level trauma.

There are other efforts underway in California to address community-level trauma.

The City of Oakland received a $5 million grant from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration in 2016 to promote resiliency among youth and families affected by trauma, violence and civil unrest. This includes trauma-awareness training for social-service providers and law enforcement. The city is also working on a public safety collaboration called “Oakland Unite” between local public agencies, residents and community organizations that focuses on preventing violence.

And in Richmond, the RYSE Center works to empower at-risk youth through education, health programs, the arts, leadership and organizing opportunities.

However, Davis and Fujie Parks said they had not heard of a center specifically dedicated to community-level healing and violence prevention like the one in South Los Angeles. The center is “really in alignment with the science and evidence behind what we know about violence and trauma,” Davis said.

On the schedule of events for this month at the Los Angeles Center is craft therapy, cinema therapy, mindfulness training, a support group for women with HIV, a healing circle, a communication session for local youth, and an exercise class called Gospel Aerobics. The center will also hold workshops on the connections between trauma, anxiety and substance abuse.

On the campus are three therapy rooms for individual meetings and a larger space called the healing room, where many of the sessions will take place. A social worker, therapist, community liaison and public health nurse and health educators are all on staff, said Nellie Marie Nuñez, a health educator assistant at the facility.

Public Health Nurse Beatriz Navarro said staff members are still developing other programming for the center. The goal is to address trauma at multiple levels, including physical and emotional, as well as racism and historical trauma. Services are provided through the county’s public health and mental health agencies, area medical establishments, Willowbrook’s Charles R. Drew University and community members themselves.

Orange said he hopes to be one community leader contributing to the center’s efforts, possibly as a youth mentor. He plans to use his own experiences with violence and trauma to help others understand what they’re going through.

“The worst trauma you can have is the silent trauma,” he said. “That’s the trauma you don’t talk about, that’s the trauma you live with.

“We can tell people, ‘You’re not going crazy. You’re supposed to experience these things when you go through trauma.’”

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