Community violence exposure has deleterious consequences for youth, such as higher posttraumatic stress symptomology, substance use, delinquency, and lower academic performance. Exposure to community violence may also result in disconnection to community, which has implications for civic efficacy and engagement. However, the recent national youth-led anti-violence movement along with participatory action research with urban youth illustrate that youth can envision real solutions to community violence and become social change agents. This study uses qualitative interview data with urban youth of color to examine effects of community violence on community connections and describe the scope of solutions that youth envision to redress violence.
We interviewed 90 youth (Mage = 15, range = 13-19) from five recreation centers in the urban center of a mid-sized city in the Northeastern U.S., where the violent crime rate is 4 times the national average, high school graduation rate is 51%, and 35% of families fall below the federal poverty line. The sample was 60% male and predominantly Black (89% Black, 8% Latinx, 3% Other or Unreported). One-on-one semi-structured interviews lasted 35-60 minutes. Interview questions included youth’s experiences in and views of their communities and community problems and potential solutions. Interviews were transcribed verbatim, coded, and analyzed thematically using inductive methods in DeDoose software.
Youth were asked to identify the most pressing community problem, and 84% discussed community violence. Youth talked about the prevalence of general fighting and gang violence, drawing from personal experience suggesting acute and chronic exposure to violence, e.g., “one of my homeboys got shot, I was there to see it”; “every day I walk down the street…it’s a fight and at night when I’m laying down – I just hear shots”.
To varying degrees, youth discussed avoiding spaces, people, activities, and relationships in their neighborhood due to violence. Disconnection included avoiding dangerous spaces and limiting oneself to a few safe spaces such as home, church, or the rec center and desiring more permanent disconnection from community, “It’s just too much…I want to leave.” Youth’s intentional efforts to disconnect from community may be an adaptive response that reduces risk and exposure to violence. Some youth expressed low efficacy for community change as a result of feeling disconnected from community or being overwhelmed by the depth of the problem.
However, youth also envisioned a variety of solutions for addressing community violence, and agreed that solutions must come from inside the community. Youth discussed national and local policies such as gun control and anti-violence initiatives; local citizen-run organizing efforts such as protests and anti-violence campaigns; the need for adults to show leadership and mentoring; and individual youth’s efforts to positively influence others.
Conclusions and Implications:
Findings suggest that high community violence may lead urban youth to intentionally disconnect from community as an adaptive strategy. Also, youth can envision solutions to community violence that span multiple levels of intervention. Social work practitioners and organizers could use envisioned solutions to build civic efficacy and support youth as leaders in combating community violence.