When Kyrique Mitchell walked into the blue meeting room of the Community of Change Center seven Thursdays ago, he already felt disillusioned. He didn’t want to give his all to another workshop making empty promises to prevent gun violence in the West End. 

Every week since, he’s felt grateful to be wrong. 

“They were actually asking my opinion about things, and they made me feel comfortable to speak my mind and say my suggestions,” said Mitchell, 18. 

Last week, teens from Braddock and the West End area presented proposals for violence intervention initiatives they’ll implement in their communities this summer, ranging from hosting community events to repairing basketball courts and creating civic groups. Their ideas are the culmination of each neighborhood’s participation in a seven-week workshop series that community organizations — the Helping Out Our People [HOOP] Alliance in Braddock, and West End Providing Opportunities With Effective Resources [POWER] — facilitated in partnership with a research team from the University of Pittsburgh. 

With the feedback received from the presentations, the neighborhoods are now designing plans to roll out the initiatives, each using $2,000 allocated to the community organizations by the research team. 

Mary Ohmer, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Social Work, has led the research team as part of her overall analysis of how neighborhoods build “collective efficacy.”

“Now that sounds fancy, but it means building stronger relationships among youth and adults — and their neighbors and their peers — and developing norms and values for the community around [violence] prevention and supporting youth,” Ohmer explained. 

She began hosting the collective efficacy workshops 10 years ago in Atlanta and brought the initiative to Perry Hilltop and Fineview last year, seeking input from residents to tailor the curriculum to each neighborhood. 

Glennie Langford, left, embraces Terri Minor Spencer and receives a certificate for completing a training program with West End POWER. ( Photo by Clare Sheedy/PublicSource)

During the weekly workshops, the facilitators split participating teens and adults into groups that generated the ideas presented during each neighborhood’s final workshop session. Ohmer estimated that about 15 adults and 10 teens regularly attended the Braddock workshops, while the West End workshops had about 15 adults and 12 teens.

For Jullian Turner, co-founder of HOOP Alliance, the workshop series demonstrated how powerful communities become when they rally together.

“This should be a flourishing community,” Turner said about Braddock. “I feel like that’s something that we can be again one day. But just bringing back the togetherness of the community, and being whole instead of just parts and pieces.”

Turning problems into solutions

Anthony Jetter, 16, felt nervous as he turned to face his West End neighbors gathered in the blue meeting room, but his mother’s voice cut through the chatter of the crowd. 

“That’s my boy!” she said from her spot front and center on the floor. 

As the room quieted, he took a deep breath before launching into his group’s presentation — an initiative embodying the kindness his mother has always strived to instill in him.

Ashley Cabiness cheers on her son Anthony Jetter as he presents his “Kindness Project” idea at a West End POWER event in the Chartiers City neighborhood of Pittsburgh. (Photo by Clare Sheedy/PublicSource)

West End participants proposed using their funding to carry out the Kindness Project, a campaign to post positive affirmations throughout their community — from school hallways to trees and lampposts — promoting self-love and neighborliness. 

“The main idea of it is just to counterbalance hate and violence with young people,” Jetter said. “Just walk around, have a smile on your face and tell people, ‘You’re doing enough, you’re good enough,’ and encourage random acts of kindness.”

Jetter said he’s struggled in the past with his anger, allowing it to snowball into fights, but participating in the workshops has helped him feel more peaceful. Ashley Cabiness, his mother and one of the workshop facilitators, has seen him grow calmer over the past two months. 

“He’s not a ticking time bomb anymore,” Cabiness said. “He definitely thinks more before he acts, and I definitely appreciate that.”

Participants from the West End also proposed using their funding to host block parties throughout the summer, bringing people across the community together for games and activities like dancing, talent shows and poetry slams. 

Braddock participants similarly proposed using their funding to host community events throughout the summer, like to celebrate Juneteenth. They also suggested forming a group — of youth and adults alike — that will publish newsletters highlighting community resources. These resources could include year-round employment opportunities for youth, which Ohmer said can be a strong deterrent for involvement in violence. 

“There’s kids out there like me that want to work,” said Dynasty Knight, a 15-year-old participant. She works at Kennywood and a trampoline park, but noted that Braddock teens can struggle to find year-round jobs, especially because the available jobs aren’t always desirable. “I want to be in a happy environment. I want to find joy in work, not go there being miserable.”

The Braddock group also proposed rehabilitating the Library Street Basketball Courts, including replacing the hoops’ rims, updating benches and landscaping the areas surrounding the courts. On the courts’ fence, they want to hang a painting of a tree, which would serve as a community gathering place and a symbol of the issues they’re navigating, including gun violence and mental health.

“The trunk is our problem, the roots are the root causes of the problem, the branches are solutions and successes,” said Xavier Jones, one of the teens who presented the idea. 

Although participants in Braddock and the West End completed the same overarching training, Ohmer was excited to see the different ways they approached solutions. 

“They’re different communities, but they’re doing the same kinds of things: Bringing people together, addressing some issues that the community feels would help to strengthen itself and also strengthen their ability to prevent violence,” Ohmer said.

Proving their voices matter

The workshop series kicked off in Braddock and the West End in late February. For nearly three hours every week, participants engaged in circle discussions, role-play exercises and brainstorming sessions on topics like building strong relationships with neighbors, understanding violence’s impact on mental health and practicing safe ways to defuse conflicts before they turn violent. 

Braddock community members sign up for project planning committees during a workshop at the Greater Valley Community Services center. (Photo by Amelia Winger/PublicSource)

Participants were primarily recruited through word of mouth and were paid $20 for attending each training session, as well as a $20 bonus if they attended all sessions and $10 for every survey they completed throughout the series. The community organizations who partnered with the research team received $20,000, including the $2,000 funding to implement the violence intervention initiatives.

One of Aaron Bagsby Thornton’s friends volunteered him to participate in the Braddock workshops, and he went to the first session for two reasons: the food and the compensation. Every week after, he wanted to come back. 

“I just started thinking about it a lot and seeing the problems — not really caring before here,” said Bagsby Thornton, 16.

Knight found out about the Braddock workshops after discussing gun violence with a friend’s grandmother, who encouraged her to participate. Although Knight initially felt hesitant to share her ideas with the group, she quickly opened up. 

“I don’t really like talking out loud, I get real nervous,” she added. “But just the energy, the whole vibe. I knew a couple people here, so I was like, ‘Why not?’”

One of the greatest challenges both the Braddock and West End groups worked through was helping participants see eye-to-eye as they shared their perspectives. 

“[The adults] want to talk about how things used to be, but they look at the youth and assume they don’t want to be part of it — that they just want to tear it down,” Turner said about the Braddock workshops. “Now you see how they interact better. Kids feel more comfortable speaking to them. They started to meet each other at each other’s level.”

Ground rules on the wall of a West End POWER event. (Photo by Clare Sheedy/PublicSource)

A few weeks ago, tensions rose so high between youth and adult participants in the West End workshops that the facilitators sent them to separate floors, where each group discussed how they could better respect one another’s perspectives — both in and out of the workshops. 

“Look how small the answer was — they made these ground rules up,” said Terri Minor Spencer, the executive director of West End POWER. “This is what they’re asking for to be respectful, to respect our peers.”

For Maraya Hutchinson, 13, the West End workshops served as a non-judgmental space to share her opinions.

“A lot of adults think that just because children aren’t their age, and they’ve lived more life than them, that they have more authority than them and their voices don’t matter,” she added. “It’s important for youth’s voices to be heard.”

Melinda Bradley, who was born and raised in Sheraden but now lives in Elliott, was grateful for the opportunity to hear from the younger participants. 

“Us older people, we’ve been here,” she added. “We need to see where [youth] are coming from. We need to see how they’re thinking, what they want for their future, what they want for themselves, what they expect from the world and what they can give to the world.”

Melinda Bradley listens to Anthony Jetter present his “Kindness Project” idea at a West End POWER event. (Photo by Clare Sheedy/PublicSource)

Months of preparation

As teens left the final Braddock workshop session last week, Ohmer stopped them before they reached the door, beaming as she handed them each a certificate to commemorate completing the program. 

This was Ohmer’s first year conducting the workshops with a full team of research assistants and community partners supporting her, and although her presence wasn’t necessary at every workshop session, she wound up attending them all.  

“I couldn’t help myself,” she added.

The workshop series is part of The Pittsburgh Study, a collective impact initiative to assess youth health and address causes of inequity. Countywide community partners include UrbanKind Institute and Neighborhood Resilience Project, while academic partners include the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Social Work and Department of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine.

Last year, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration [SAMHSA] awarded Allegheny County’s Department of Human Services a $5 million grant to administer violence prevention programming. Ohmer’s team is receiving 25 to 30% of that funding to conduct their workshop series in two neighborhoods every year for the next five years. Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh Center for Adolescent and Young Adult Health physicians and staff also provide programs under this grant, working with youth and communities across the county.

Ohmer worked with the Braddock and West End communities last year while researching for the Child/Youth Thriving Matrix, a project she co-facilitated that assessed youth welfare. At the end of her research for the matrix, community residents asked how they could dig deeper into supporting their young populations. 

“They were like, ‘We want to do more, how can we? This was really interesting, but now what can we do?’” Ohmer said. 

When her team secured the SAMHSA funding to conduct her workshop series over the next five years, she knew these two neighborhoods would be the perfect starting places.

Anthony Jetter, left, receives a certificate from Terri Minor Spencer for completing a training program with West End POWER. ( Photo by Clare Sheedy/PublicSource)

Ohmer’s preparation for the workshop series began months before the first session. In the summer of 2022, her team assembled a community advisory board in each neighborhood to gather information, assessing what violence prevention resources were available in the area and surveying attitudes toward community issues. 

Collaborating with local organizations and residents was pivotal for this process, she added.

“You don’t want to just jump into a community and go, ‘Oh, we’re going to do this training,’” Ohmer said. “It’s important for us to understand — coming from the outside — what is happening in those communities? What’s working?”

The path forward

With Braddock and the West End moving forward with executing their intervention initiatives, Ohmer’s team will start meeting this week with community groups in Homewood and Wilkinsburg, where they’ll conduct workshops next year. 

Her team selected Homewood and Wilkinsburg after discussing and reviewing data about crime, housing vacancy, economic status, population demographics, community engagement and existing violence prevention resources. 

In addition to the SAMHSA funding, Ohmer’s team has received a $2.2 million grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to measure the impact of their programming in the participating communities over the next five years. 

To measure the impact in Braddock, the West End, Homewood and Wilkinsburg, Ohmer’s team will compare levels of collective efficacy observed after the workshop series to the levels in “matching” neighborhoods. Her team identified these matches based on similarities in metrics including population size, age demographics, employment rates and poverty levels. 

The matching neighborhoods will receive health promotion workshops, where residents will select the curriculum they receive, she added.

Although Ohmer’s team has not yet selected the remaining six neighborhoods they’ll study, they’ve identified a list of neighborhoods considered high priorities and will randomly select six for collective efficacy programming. 

As he looks toward the summer, Turner is excited to see what other solutions his community can generate now that they’ve learned to work collaboratively in their advocacy.

“The ball is rolling now,” he said. “Now we just keep taking steps towards whatever the next issue is that needs to be resolved.”

Amelia Winger is PublicSource’s health reporter with a focus on mental health. She can be reached at amelia@publicsource.org or on Twitter @ameliawinger.

This reporting has been made possible through the Staunton Farm Mental Health Reporting Fellowship and the Jewish Healthcare Foundation.

Editor’s note: After initial publication, names of partner organizations were added to this story.

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Amelia Winger is a health reporter for PublicSource, with a focus on mental health. She is telling solutions-oriented stories that combine human experiences with broader context about data and policies....