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Tio Hardiman: The keys to stopping violence in Chicago are relationships and respect

It takes seconds to kill someone. Establishing strong personal relationships with those at risk of committing violence can help quell conflicts and prevent bloodshed. My organization, Violence Interrupters, has a 20-year history of forming relationships and mediating conflicts throughout Chicago.

Violence interrupters have a solid name on the streets, and they are trained to make sense out of the madness. They help people break down the facts of a conflict and understand the costs of taking a life.

Personal relationships come before violence prevention. Several violence interrupters have ties to community members that were established way before they started working in the field of violence prevention. This is what you might call a license to operate in the underground street world. However, gaining access is one thing; having influence is most important.

Many types of conflict can be mediated — but not all. The desire to seek vengeance for the loss of a loved one can be hard to defuse because some people are consumed by trauma and the pressure to take a life, no matter what. In other words, to settle the score.

Tio Hardiman speaks with members of his Violence Interrupters organization while they engage with residents in Chicago's Austin community on July 6, 2023.

Thankfully, it is possible to achieve conciliation in situations involving misunderstandings; small debts; a failed shooting, depending on the issue; disrespect; domestic and interpersonal disputes; crooked dice games; and clique rivalry.

The first step would be talking one on one with each side before bringing the individuals or groups together. Keep in mind, though: You cannot bring people in a conflict together if you do not have a long-standing relationship with those who are involved. This is very important.

For example, in March, violence interrupters received a call from a distressed mother from the Austin community on the West Side. She informed us that her son and a friend were in a bedroom loading up their guns to run out of the house and shoot a person sitting in a car down the street. The guy sitting in the car had just fired shots on the block, running everybody into the house.

Our violence interrupters were familiar with both parties. One interrupter rushed to the scene to speak with the two guys in the house, and another spoke with the guy sitting in the car. One of the interrupters had a solid relationship with the young man sitting in the car, who had just been released from jail and was concerned about money he was owed. The interrupter helped unpack the truth of the situation and was successful in getting the young man to calm down. The other interrupter invited the two guys in the house to come out and speak with the young man. Both parties agreed to let the conflict go.

This work is not for the faint at heart. Others should not try this on their own.

After mediating conflicts with high-risk youths, the follow-up work begins. Interrupters continue to provide services to 100 high-risk youths from the South Austin and West Garfield Park communities, placing 30% of these youths into job training programs, getting 35% reenrolled in alternative schools and referring the rest to social service agencies. Notably, shootings and homicides declined last year in the 15th Police District, which covers the Austin community.

There is no easy way to save a life on the front end, but through street relationships and respect, violence interrupters and outreach workers get the job done daily.

Tio Hardiman is executive director of Violence Interrupters, NFP.

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