By Zeki Salah, Facilitator, Mutual Aid Collaborative

On Tuesday, August 23rd, the Chicago Peace Fellows Mutual Aid Collaborative met with Dr. Andrew Papachristos, Director of the Northwestern Neighborhood & Network Initiative. The meeting was part of the Mutual Aid Collaborative Civic Partners Series, which aims to create connections between individuals and organizations that work to build peace and prevent violence.

Dr. Papachristos studies social networks and how they can help activists understand and predict who is at the highest risk of becoming a victim of gun violence. He met with members of the Chicago Peace Fellows Mutual Aid Collaborative, a network of 60 Black and Brown leaders and activists who live and work in the communities they serve on the South and West sides. Fellows came in person and online to strategize with Dr. Papachristos about how they could act to prevent the spread of violence.

Dr. Papachristos’s research around gun violence gave Fellows insight into how the spread of gun violence can be predicted and preemptively addressed. As he presented his research, he made it clear that gun violence primarily spreads through a concentrated segment of the population. This finding suggests that most victims of gun violence either know each other or are linked together by only a few degrees of separation.

To illustrate how gun violence concentrates within particular communities, one section of Dr. Papachristos’s presentation focused on how most gun violence injuries within cities affect a small proportion of the overall population. Data collected in Chicago between 2012-2016 showed that more than 70% of all subjects of gun violence are within social networks containing less than 5% of the city population, with 89% of those shootings occurring within a singular network. This insight is particularly pertinent to community activists and local organizations because it allows them to concentrate their efforts in violence prevention on the most vulnerable community members.

The social networks that Dr. Papachristos studies show that people affected by gun violence often share close social ties that have lasting consequences. When members of these networks face exposure to gun violence, it affects measurable aspects of their health, such as stress, sleep, and heart health. Additionally, people within these networks have a higher chance of becoming shot. While the probability of sustaining a gun injury is considerably higher for Black and Hispanic men in Chicago, the likelihood of becoming a victim rises exponentially when those men are in a social network where violence has previously occurred. Dr. Papachristos noted that a Black or Hispanic man between the ages of 14-24 within one of these networks has a higher chance of being shot than someone playing a game of Russian Roulette, in which the odds would be one in six. These figures helped frame the importance of understanding how social networks operate to the Fellows and how Fellows could utilize this information to reach members of the population facing the highest risk of becoming victims of violence.

Dr. Papachristos’s research also illustrated that violence is contagious and that interrupting a potential shooting could have a cascading effect, preventing further instances of violence. He showed how he uses network science to track shootings that chain together within a social network. In Chicago, around 63% of shootings studied occurred within these chains of violence, with an average of 83-120 days between each instance. Each of the moments between these instances represents an opportunity for intervention, when victim services, trauma response teams, or outreach workers could coordinate efforts to stop the further spread of violence. When the number of responders is limited, this information is especially valuable because it helps them make the best use of their time.

As the Mutual Aid Collaborative network entered into discussion with Dr. Papachristos, many Fellows were interested in the root causes that might catalyze a cascade of community violence. Their conversation centered around the effectiveness of poverty abatement, after-school programs, and job programs in preventing future violence. Dr. Papachristos spoke to the need for community activists to take the time to understand root causes while simultaneously engaging in an immediate response to gun violence. He asked Fellows to consider that the average age of a victim of gun violence in Chicago is 27 years old. Examining a root issue such as schooling and primary education would not be doing much for the 27-year-old linked to a network in which gun violence has previously occurred. Systemic problems, such as poverty and education, demand attention, but solutions take time to implement and typically work to benefit future generations. Immediate answers to violence, such as street outreach work, are also needed for prevention.

The conversation between Dr. Papachristos and the Mutual Aid Collaborative network also touched on the importance of narrative when framing incidents of gun violence. Peace Fellows told powerful anecdotes about their work around gun violence and its impact on individual people. For instance, Lisa Daniels, a 2019 Chicago Peace Fellow, spoke about the importance of rewriting the narrative about “offenders” of gun violence. Addressing these narratives allows the “offenders” to understand themselves as victims before their offense rather than viewing themselves as intrinsically violent people. What she claimed is critical in conversations about trauma and healing is that we “remind the individual that they are not the worst thing they have ever done” and consider the “stories victims tell themselves about who they are and what they have experienced.” Dr. Papachristos expressed that he tries to capture a similar sentiment in his presentations, referring only to “victims” of gun violence:

Nothing else should matter when you’re trying to save a life.

The meeting between Dr. Papachristos and the Mutual Aid Collaborative network linked rigorous empirical research into the structure of gun violence with the lived experiences of those who work in violence prevention. As community leaders reflected on the data Dr. Papachristos shared and its implications, they also envisioned its potential uses in their own violence prevention projects. A recurring theme throughout the presentation was that there is not a unilateral solution to the epidemic of gun violence, but that different people find different solutions which lift them and members of their communities outside of the cycle of violence. This insight stresses the importance of collaborative action amongst community activists, which the Mutual Aid Collaborative aims to facilitate. It is critical for grassroots partnerships to be created to provide individuals caught within networks of violence with a range of resources that can suit their diversity of needs.