We have to recognize as we travel the underground world that there’s trauma there that’s so sensitive, that if we bring any type of research, we also have to bring some healing component.
Why do some young people—especially young men—carry guns? It's a difficult question to answer. People in heavily-policed neighborhoods with high rates of violence are not generally enthusiastic when it comes to answering questions about guns.
On this episode of New Thinking, hear from three of the people behind a remarkable year-long study into gun use, hidden networks, and young people published by the Center for Court Innovation, ‘Gotta Make Your Own Heaven’: Guns, Safety, and the Edge of Adulthood in New York City.
The work, based on interviews with 330 people ages 16 to 24, paints a disturbing portrait of daily life in some of the city’s most marginalized communities—a portrait rendered very often in the words of the young people themselves.
But if the goal is to learn from embattled communities what they need to combat gun use, then as important as the study’s findings related to violence and the fear of police is the way the research was conducted.
The work in the field—establishing trust, negotiating with gang leaders, recruiting participants, the hours of conversation—was done by researchers with deep and direct experience of the networks of gun users they were trying to access.
The model is called participatory research. As Elise White, who helped to lead the project, tells New Thinking host Matt Watkins, “What I see is a lack of really contending and listening to the needs and the desires of the community… If we are talking about gun use, we have to be talking to, and really putting into positions of leadership, people who live that.”
The following is a transcript of the podcast:
Matt WATKINS: Welcome to New Thinking from the Center for Court Innovation. I’m Matt Watkins.
Why do some young people, especially young men, carry guns? It turns out that’s a very difficult question to answer. People in heavily-policed neighborhoods with high rates of violence are not generally enthusiastic when it comes to answering questions about guns.
Today we’re going to hear about a remarkable year-long study into gun use and young people in New York City by some of my colleagues at the Center for Court Innovation. It’s work that paints a disturbing portrait of daily life in some of the city’s most marginalized communities, a portrait nnrendered very often in the words of the young people themselves.
Experiences of violence among the 330 people interviewed were almost universal: witnessing family members being shot, being shot at themselves, being attacked with another weapon. Equally widespread were negative experiences with the justice system: almost all had been arrested, often many times over, and participants expressed a near wholesale distrust of police.
Along with the constant fear of gang-related violence, many cited the fear of being killed by police as a primary reason for carrying.
But if the goal is to learn from embattled communities what they need to combat gun use, then as important as the findings is the way the work was done. Approved by an institutional review board, the work in the field—establishing trust, negotiating with gang leaders, finding participants, the hours of conversation—that work was done by researchers with deep and direct experience of the networks they were trying to access.
This is what’s called participatory research. You’re also going to hear a lot about “RDS.” That stands for respondent-driven sampling. It’s a technique for working with hard to reach populations, especially when illegal behavior is involved. You start by identifying a small number of so-called gatekeeper participants, and then rely on them to do the rest of the recruiting amongst their peers. The “RDS stations” you’ll hear about were part of that effort—set up in places where young people already congregated.
So, you’re going to hear now from three of the folks who did this work, which culminated in the report, ‘Gotta Make Your Own Heaven’: Guns, Safety, and the Edge of Adulthood in New York City. Anjelica Maria Camacho—or Anjie—coordinated the work in the field; Basaime Spate, was brought onto the project because of his experience of gang life and, as you’ll hear, that experience quickly became indispensable; and Elise White, who will be the third voice to chime in, was one of the co-directors of the overall project.
And I should say, all three are now part of a team doing similar research in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, which you’ll hear them reference a few times.
I started the interview by asking Anjie to talk about what made this population of young people so hard to access.
Anjelica CAMACHO: What makes it so hard is that they have to protect themselves against everything. I'll give you an example. So, when we first started doing research in the Butler Houses–
WATKINS: That's a public housing development, right?
CAMACHO: Yes. That's public housing. So, we were doing some interviews in Butler Houses and Webster Houses. And the first time that we went out there, the neighborhood was completely dry.
And when I say that a neighborhood is dry, I mean, there's nobody outside, there's nobody in front of delis, and nobody at corners. And as I was walking around, I was talking to community members and I picked up information that in the last week, there was a raid, where the police came and took hundreds of youth.
So I'm coming in to that network at the same time that a police raid just happened. That makes hidden populations go more underground, because now there's a threat to their livelihoods if they remain exposed. So, they can literally be moving about in the project development and be visible to cops who then take them.
We're talking about populations who are literally living by different rules than the normal person. Because imagine living in your own neighborhood and not being safe in every single block that you walk: there's police danger, and then there's also petty gang beefs in the same area.
It is a very hard population to reach, because if you're somebody like me, when I first got into the Butler Houses, you have to remember that I'm also a light-skinned Puerto Rican. So even though I live close enough to the Butler Houses to literally walk there, I'm also a light-skinned Puerto Rican who has light-skinned privilege. So, if I'm going into this network, even accepting me may be hard to my own people.
WATKINS: And Basaime, could you talk a little bit about the background and the history that you brought into this work?
Basaime SPATE: I grew up in a foster system, moved around a little bit—a lot, actually—in these different types of families and these different types of religious families. When I got a little bit older, I went to go try to find my family and I wasn't able to, because my parents had, unfortunately, they had passed away. My father had got shot in his leg and hit a main artery and died, and my mother had an overdose.
But then one of my older brothers, I found out he got killed by the cops in Newark. And then, I was cool with one of my other brothers, and then he got shot and killed. That kind of messed me up a little bit.
But through my adventures, going around, I was able to, I got into the gang thing. So, I got into the gangs when I was in Florida, and I got into the Bloods. So, I really got into that, because I felt like in these foster families that I was in, I wasn't getting that type of attention or that love. And I was always wondering where my parents was in this world.
So, I went to Florida, I went to Georgia, I went to North Carolina and New Jersey, and then I just settled in New York, and New York became my home, because that's where the original, where the Bloods had came from. So it was like the home for it.
WATKINS: Through all these moves, the gangs are a kind of constant source of support in some ways?
SPATE: Yes, definitely a support for individuals like me, who's seeking that type of support. I believe gangs was created because of that, because of oppression in the neighborhood, because of the lack of support, or the lack of government support.
So, I did my thing around in the gangs thing, got my reputation up. And then this program came into our neighborhood, SOS–
WATKINS: That’s Save Our Streets, which is a program we run—the Center for Court Innovation—putting violence interrupters into neighborhoods where there's a lot of violence.
SPATE: Yes. And then, there was a thing… SOS-like model or whatnot, it's very similar to gang knowledge about protecting your community, about raising consciousness in your community. So, I think a lot of dudes can relate to that and understand that.
But what really helps with really doing the work is they're getting paid to do the work in their neighborhood, which is a big plus. Because a lot of us don't have that opportunity to get employed, because of a lack of education or a lack of opportunity.
And then, the neighborhood started to change, because the little homies started looking at these big homies making this change and doing this work and really stopping gun violence in the neighborhood.
So homies like me wanted to be a part of that. So, I got into it and I got all these trainings and I had gained all these skillsets. And then I was able to really stop shootings in my neighborhood, which was huge for me at that time, because I had children, I have boys that walked around in that neighborhood.
So, the work had really became important to me at that time. And then for who I am in that neighborhood, it was people respected. So, I think a lot of my skillsets that similar to this work came from SOS. So I was able to transition that. So when I came on to the researcher, onto the project, I was bought on as security to watch with Anjie. And at that time they had a bunch of college researchers.
CAMACHO: Can I jump in real quick? Basaime, I love that you said that, because just to give you a little background about why we needed Basaime. When Basaime came to the Butler Houses, at that point, we were still running RDS with me. But after having him come on as crowd control and then start interviewing, I think we started to see new type of changes coming to the RDS station that we didn't have before, just because of his presence alone.
To the point that, because Basaime was able to come up to the RDS station and peace people, because he was able to come up to the RDS station and tell the people in the network what set he was from and what status he was in the set. That helped the network feel more comfortable and safe.
For society, Basaime would be labeled as somebody who was unsafe. But this network right here, these are the gatekeepers that protect them from actually the same people who call them monsters.
So the RDS station started to come to life in a different way when we hired him, so much so that there was one man in the network, his name was William Rivera, he started to come to that RDS station every day. He started to look up to Basaime as a big homie. And he was also part of a Blood set.
I felt when Will came into the picture, he was like the catalyst between research coming over to more of a gang network. And then the gang coming over to research. Because for the first time ever, we all looked at William as a human being that we all cared for, and that we all understood differently. Basaime understood him, because of his relationship to the gang. So, he understands what William goes through every day.
And we understood William as somebody as a participant, who needed help and extra resources. So, when we got together to help Will, and literally in every way that we could, we started to see and negotiate for the first time: How far do you want to take this research into your neighborhood? And what benefit are we going to get out of it? And how far are we going to push CCI, to try something new?
Because we knew we had two battles to fight. We had to fight a battle at CCI, which is like, "All right, we have researchers, everyone, but guess what? They have no education, haven't had jobs for years, but we know that they can do this work."
Elise WHITE: If ever!
CAMACHO: Yeah, if ever, but we know that they can do this! And then for the gang, it's like-
WATKINS: And they're the only people who can do it.
WHITE: Yes exactly. They're the only people! Because I will add actually, before Anjie even came onto the project, the project had a completely different staffing structure. So there are a lot of different iterations and ways that we try to do this. And this is literally the only way that we could have done it.
WATKINS: A question for Basaime then: Basaime, when you joined onto the project, what did you think about the way they were going about things and looking for people? And I’d ask you here to be as candid as possible with your colleagues!
SPATE: I was doing the security part and I was able to really watch how they really worked and their approach and how they was dressed and coming to the field and who they was. And then I was noticing the area that we was in. So I knew it was like a Blood neighborhood.
This is the Bronx, this is deep in the Bronx. The real crazy projects is two blocks away from here. I know they be beefing. So, I'm like, "What the fuck is they doing?" If they was going to get interviews, it was going to be some bullshit interviews. It was going to be like that surface-level gangster, who would just tell you anything type shit, and then they was looking like the team that like you could tell anything to, and they'll believe, honestly.
It was just that image that they here was presenting. It just wasn't right for that type of work that they was doing. Because I understood the work that they was doing. It was important work, it was serious, serious work. And I think for me, if that came into my neighborhood, I will want to talk about that. And I want to be a part of that, but I want to talk about that and be a part of that with somebody who can relate and understand where I'm coming from.
WATKINS: And then to take a step back for a minute, Elise, we're getting a sense already of how difficult it is to do research in this hidden population and around gun use. What would you say is the gap in knowledge that you guys were trying to fill in with this work?
WHITE: It's a huge gap. There haven't been any qualitative studies, large qualitative studies, since the 1990s, meaning, people who actually carry the guns have not even been able to express in their own words, anything about it. Tt's researchers coming in designing questions—like, choose between these five answers.
Then most studies that have been done at all take place in two places: either schools or prisons, or in some sort of incarceration context. And obviously what we know about schools is that young people who are still in school are probably, not necessarily, but probably not as deep into street culture.
So as Basaime was saying you're already getting a top level or the most sort of superficial level of all this stuff. It's not to say it's not important, or it's not valuable, it's just not the same. And if you're looking at prisons... I mean, it's just a whole different... Especially if you're talking about attitudes, you just see a much different level of contemplation or all sorts of things from people who are incarcerated from people who were not.
This is really the first time that a qualitative... It's mixed methods. So, we asked close-ended questions and then exploratory questions, but it really is the first time that a large-scale, qualitative study has been done with people just in their normal environment.
WATKINS: If we turn to talk a little bit more about recruitment and the challenges there, how you get people to agree to participate in this study, Anjie, you talked a little bit about it already, this idea of you're looking for gatekeepers, you're doing what you keep calling RDS—Respondent Driven Sampling—meaning you find people who then can help you find other people and take you into these networks.
It sounds from reading the report that that was really a process of trial and error, in some ways.
CAMACHO: What I've learned from doing RDS for the past 10 years is that one thing always has to remain consistent with the seed.
WATKINS: The seed is the person that takes you into the network…
CAMACHO: …that takes you into the network, yes. They have to be both bought into the mission, and credible enough to carry out the mission in the network. And the lesson that I took away specifically from the gang network, this hidden population, is that it actually has to come with almost a lifestyle change.
And this is what I mean by that: I feel that the woman that I was before my first RDS station in this project is not the woman that I am now, because I literally to travel with this population have had to change core components of my personality so that I can actually find a way to exist in both worlds.
So, when I'm thinking of seeds now, I'm thinking of somebody who is like Basaime, who is navigating both worlds and has enough credibility to bring these new ideas to a population that might be hesitant to accept anything that's new and foreign.
WATKINS: How would you say you’ve changed, as a result of this?
CAMACHO: I think that I've changed in the way that I understand power. I've changed in a way that I understand just the sensitivities of language, when you code switch in different environments. And I've learned to understand that everybody needs help, but we have to recognize as we travel the underground world, that there's trauma there that's so sensitive that if we bring any type of research into these sensitive communities, we also have to bring some healing component, which we did in this project.
We call it an emotional intelligence, because without it, you won't have the energy that you need every day to go through the darkness that people live with on a daily basis. I think that one thing that people of privilege—and when I say privilege, even including us researchers, who are able to go to a nine-to-five every day, and able to have consistent income—when we go into these networks, we have to understand that this is a community of have-nots.
This is a community filled with talent. This is a community filled with ideas who have constantly been silenced and literally beaten into submission by the NYPD and terrorized by NYPD on a daily basis. When people ignore the fact that our men and women feel three-fourths of a human because of the world that they live in, we have to correct ourselves, and we have to train that out of our psyche.
Because conducting this research has taught me that if you don't understand the human component, you as a researcher will always default to numbers. And that's the danger because that's capitalism at its finest.
I've changed a lot as a researcher. And I think that, Basaime has also changed a lot as a researcher, as he's grown, because I think we understand that to help our community, we have to do things that are unconventional and take risks, because that's how different their world is, and that's how unfair.
SPATE: I believe everybody wants help. My main question in the streets is like... I ask a lot of people, “do you want to die?” Nobody wants to die. Nobody wants to die. I'm picking off like what Anjie is saying… I'm sorry, hold on.
CAMACHO: It's a lot. We've never actually sat down and talked about this.
SPATE: But I think for all of us, it changed all of us, especially me. Not even as a researcher, but as a person to... I changed so much on, like, I understand the humanity in this, I understand compassion, and most of all, I understand unconditional love.
And the most I took from all of this is vulnerability. I think I preach that a lot. And especially me and Elise, because I took to be vulnerable with Elise, I took to be vulnerable with Anjie. You could say risk, but just opening my door, inviting them into my world, and them doing the reverse, with the same common goal. We might not have spoken about, or defining, what our true goal is, but it's unspoken.
We have learnt so much about each other that I think the world has not taken this risk that we have taken. To let it go, let all what society has told about us, all what we have learned, take the racism, all that bullshit out the way, and just look at us as us and what can we do together to help someone out here.
For me, it's I have to do this because for my... I'm upset that my history of my people are slaves.
And then some people feel in this world that this Black community, or these brown communities, can do it on their own, which they cannot. They cannot rise on their own. How could they, when they came out of slavery, then right after slavery, it’s Jim Crow, then right after that, we go into the Civil Rights era.
When we’re looking at these kids today, you have to understand that this trauma and all this anger and this confusion and this lack of consciousness and mental health and all this has extended from that. So, when you go on them to do this work, you have to understand that.
You cannot be judgmental, because once you go on judging off what society has taught you, you're not really there to do the work. You're not coming with unconditional love. You're not coming with forgiveness. That will limit you from doing this work.
And I think that me and Elise and Anjie has understood that and found that. So, for these researchers, who's doing this type of work or going into these Black and brown communities: understand what these people have been dealing with and are dealing with.
We’re talking about 16-, 17-year-olds who's just going through it on a daily—who's hungry, all types of trauma, has to worry about going home two blocks away, if they going to get into some shit or not.
CAMACHO: I want to add something to what Basaime is saying, because race is such a critical component. I'll give you some examples. Elise is amazing but when we first met her the idea of having to give these stories of the hood to a white woman, all kinds of questions went through all our minds because we used to sit and talk: “how can we trust Elise? Should we trust her?”
We used to sit in circles, the team. And we used to be, “all right, but she did this for us. And she did that. She didn't pull back on her word here.”
It was very hard for us to think that a white woman would be on our side, especially when we're sharing things that most people would think were self-imposed bad decisions. I don't know if you understand what I mean, Matt.
WATKINS: Yeah, completely.
CAMACHO: She really did help us get through that. And for the first time ever, even me, as somebody who runs the field in the underground worlds and circles, for the first time ever, I was able to sit even with a woman and just tell her what me as a woman, I go through navigating these worlds.
So for the first time ever, we were bridging all kinds of gaps. So that's why I loved it when Elise was “man, this is supposed to fill a whole bunch of gaps of knowledge,” and she's right. And I think we see it at every phase. And when Basaime says that she's out in the streets, that was a year of her working and building out relationships and trust so that she could even get to the point that she's at now.
WHITE: Part of what I have seen—I mean, aside from all the personal growth that I also have gone through—it’s basically all of us, and so many people that I know in so many different areas, want change and can even diagnose the problems, but there's something about having space for conversation and dialogue about them, with people who are different from you.
That piece of it is missing: deep conversation, deep listening. That to me is almost the transformative part of this, above and beyond the research, is that us being able to sit and really talk about some of this stuff and get to the other side.
SPATE: I don't even think it's a side. I think it's just the start of it. And then having an understanding of each other and where we're coming from. Again, I could go back on, I know Elise probably have had her own interpretations of what the gang life is like, or people who are a part of it and what they actually do in it.
And I believe Anjie did too. And this is why Anjie, for this to really work for me, Anjie had to go in depth. So when, I mean, in depth, I'm not talking about that surface bullshit. Anjie as a researcher, and I believe the only researcher, period, in the United States right now, has went that deep into these hidden populations.
And when we talk about hidden populations, that's nothing new. This is nothing new. The underground railroad is a hidden population. These hidden populations is embedded and rooted in our blood—for survival. Underground railroad for survival. Underground economy for survival.
People have to understand that and what that means. So for Anjie, for her to even understand, to even go out and be in this population, until you understand and not judge, she had to go deep. And when I'm talking about deep, I took her deep.
I took her into the traps. I took her into the hidden side parties, the side blocks or whatnot, to the Crip parties, to the Blood parties, to the powwows, to the meetings. So, she can understand what she's getting involved with.
And she can understand how, or create… Because she's great at creating structures and approaches. So how can she, as a researcher, create an approach that can mix with my gangster understanding—and also bringing in Elise—how can we create something to approach these gangsters, to have them buy into what we need them to buy into?
And then understand that, if you're going to create anything that you want to help any Black or brown community, you have to be in that community to understand what to create to help them. Understand that these streets change all the time. What happens two months ago, it's not happening right now.
WHITE: I mean, honestly from, just from my angle, that's been probably the most challenging thing about doing this at a place like CCI because—and we talk about this a lot among the team—is the more supportive infrastructure you have for things like budget, to be able to get large sums of money and manage those and whatever, it also comes with a lot of structure, that you have to work within. And it is not a fast-moving structure.
WATKINS: The street moves quicker than a large nonprofit you're telling me?
WATKINS: Anjie, you were going to tell a quick story, I think.
CAMACHO: So that day on the field we had Bam, Javonte, Basaime, and I. I was conducting an interview, Bam was conducting an interview, and Basaime was managing the crowd, because we had a large crowd that day.
I'm literally interviewing a participant and in the middle of my questioning, an officer comes and snatches the participant right out of the interview. So this is already... There's a lot of things happening right now. There's obviously a reason on the street why this D.A. is coming to take my participant. But now I have an issue of exposing my participant as a gun-carrying youth in this area.
Those two things are in my head right now. And suddenly it becomes an actual scene. His brother comes towards the cop to start, and Basaime and I, instinctively know what to do. Basaime goes straight to the D.A. to start talking about the research and what we're doing and that these are our participants, and I go straight to hold the brother back.
Now, for most researchers, your main instinct may be to just shut down the site, because there's been an issue, and go home. But that's the part where we have to be more responsible and more conscious. And we don't shut down the site, because what does that read to the community if you just shut down when things get bad?
That reads to the community that you're not there to walk with them as they're going through their day-to-day struggles. And that you're not there to understand what it really means to be targeted.
And we've had incidents on the field where even a police officer came to pull Basaime. And in that moment, you can think a researcher brain—which is shut down the site and leave the area. Or am I going to stay in my truth, and make sure that my researcher is safe from this officer?
And these are the negotiations that we have to make that are different than, a typical research project. And that all depends on the person themselves.
And I think that the pandemic has showed us even more, that this method is really important because it is a different type of medicine we're creating. Watching our people suffer during this pandemic is really what is motivating us to keep going, even though all the odds are against us.
WATKINS: If we turn to look a little bit at the findings that you guys got, just how widespread did you guys discover are experiences of violence, and really deep violence, among this community?
WHITE: Extremely widespread. So, we talked to 330 people who were between the ages of 16 and 24. Most of them were men, about 80 percent, but we did talk to 20 percent women. That's also a pretty high number, given the research that exists. And so we found of those, many, many, many had been shot.
Many had been arrested, many had had a family member shot. So, we're talking 80 percent had been shot or shot at; 88 percent had a friend or family member shot; 70 percent had witnessed somebody being shot. It's very pervasive. So, that's one angle of this picture.
On the other side you have all sorts of systemic violence, and in particular cops—police violence. The people that they're, in theory, relying on to protect them are harming them. So, the thing that they do to protect themselves, which is carry a weapon, makes them vulnerable—both more vulnerable to the cops and more vulnerable to other people on the street.
Think about it like this. For most white communities, the police provide the protection structure. In communities where the police are the perpetrator, another protection structure is required.
WATKINS: When you say the police are the perpetrator, you're talking about the finding that you guys had that a primary reason that young people are carrying guns in these communities is because they're afraid of being killed by the state. They're afraid of being killed by police.
WHITE: Absolutely. They talked about, 35 percent say police try to protect the public from violent crimes. So, only 35 percent believe that that is something the police even try to do. Twenty percent only think that the police want to understand community needs. And 15 percent only think that police have good reasons when they arrest people.
WATKINS: Fifteen percent! You're talking about a community that's had extremely widespread experiences of arrest, of incarceration, of themselves, of their family members.
WHITE: Yeah, I mean, 88 percent of them had been arrested. So, most of these arrests are for very, very low-level crimes. So, this is like the stop and frisk stuff. Beyond that, there's just a lot of petty harassment, like stories of the police coming up to cookouts and just dumping water on the grills. It's not just harassment, even. It's provocation, really. Over and over. So it's like how do you… Their stories are basically like, "How do I position myself against this kind of force coming at me when I'm being treated like..." I mean, the words they use are “criminal, demon, animal.” They understand the message loud and clear.
WATKINS: You mean the words the police are using?
WHITE: Yeah, that's the words the police use to them. And those are the words that the participants use to describe how the police treat them. "They'll gun you down for anything." That's a direct quote.
WATKINS: It's clear from listening to you guys and from the report that there's so much trauma going on—individual trauma and kind of a collective trauma. How is trauma factoring into the decisions that young people are making about guns?
WHITE: They talk, we have them describing localized fear, whether it's "the police are going to attack me," or what they call “ops,” but basically enemies in rival gangs are going to come.
WATKINS: "Ops" for opposition, right? So, it's like we're in a—people thinking of themselves as in a war zone or something.
WHITE: Exactly, it's the language of war. And then there is a generalized fear, which is like at any time, just uncertainty. The sense of anything could happen at any time. And I think you can look at that, when you're talking about trauma, you can look at that as maybe hyper-vigilance.
But then there is a reality to that as well, which is anything kind of could happen at any time. It's very hard to piece out: what is trauma reaction, which I think is really sort of a psychological thing or a wellness thing, and what is a reasonable or a logical reaction to a set of circumstances that people live in.
CAMACHO: If you grow up in an environment that's hostile, you have to develop certain types of skills to survive. And if you're completely always in survival mode, a lot of our people end up really stuck in the reptilian part of their brain, just so that they can make it hour to hour. I think anybody with sense could really understand if they were in those conditions that they themselves might make the same choice to hold the gun and survive.
SPATE: And then we have to think a little bit further than that. What about the children and what they’re absorbing in? And how's that affecting them and taking away from their development?
For me, that's big. That's big for me, that's big for me. I think that like all this shit that's happening in these neighborhoods that we described, and what the study described, has an effect on our youth at a younger age than we think.
CAMACHO: And then think about the pandemic. So remember that that project, the project we're talking about, it happened before the pandemic. Now with the pandemic, the world is literally not the same. And if anything, the pandemic exposed all the contradictions in our society even more.
So, this is why I think our project and our mission is really important because if we don't start getting creative now, trust me, the structures that they have in place are going to outrun us.
They're going to outrun us. It's a little overwhelming, to be honest.
CAMACHO: And I love all my hidden communities, but I would never want to romanticize a gangster’s life. Because it is hard to be a gangster. Aside from the bling and all that—it is hard. And our kids are not in school. Our kids have no access to food. Our first participants in this new project we found because they were stealing Haagen-Dazs ice cream to sell for money.
So yes, there were a lot of flashy stories from last year. But we all unraveled in a lot of ways. We had to really reflect. I hope that this research, I hope that we can teach more people this style of research, because this pandemic is not over.
We have many crises before us. And if we're open-minded, we may be able to help a lot of people, if we just are courageous enough to think differently.
WATKINS: On that topic of thinking differently, there's a lot of people working in the anti-violence space—whether it's governments at all levels with their policies, and certainly funders and nonprofits, such as the one that we all work for. What would you guys want as the biggest takeaway for people doing this work?
WHITE: What I see is a lack of really contending and listening to the needs and the desires of the community. It's hard because there are many different pockets or constituent groups in every community. But if we are talking about gun use, we have to be talking to, and really putting into positions of leadership, people who live that.
I think far too often it's well-meaning people like me. And I am well-meaning and I'm not stupid! But putting out what I think is the best approach or the most important thing, or my priorities… And people are dying every day.
SPATE:I think for me, it's understanding what community you're talking about. If we're talking about helping, it's only one community in America that needs help, and that's the Black and Brown community. So when we’re talking about community, understand, we're talking about Brown and Black communities, period.
WATKINS: One of the major recommendations that comes out of your report is that if you want to do effective anti-violence stuff, you have to listen to the community and you need to invest in strategies that come out of that community that do not involve the police.
WHITE: And it's interesting, Basaime, because you say it's the Black and Brown community, and I guess what I'm thinking about when I say they're different constituent groups is there are many people—even in Crown Heights, for instance—who are saying, "we can't defund the police because to take the police out of the neighborhood means that we will have increased risk or increased danger."
And I guess what I'm thinking is: even if we're talking to people in professional classes, their perspective is going to be different than even gang leadership— which is another one of our recommendations, is get gang leadership involved. Get the shooters to tell you why they are picking up the gun and what can help them to put it down.
And let's give them the jobs to do all the interventions. Look at it as a job creation strategy—especially since we know, not just our study, every study that exists basically, indicates poverty and lack of access to well-paying and living wage jobs is a major driver of involvement in the underground economy and gun use.
WATKINS: Do you guys come away from this work, and the really deep way that you've done it, feeling like the problems of gun violence are just intractable, it's just going to be too hard to solve? Or do you come away from it feeling like there is a path and we feel like we're on it?
CAMACHO: I come away from this feeling like it's going to be hard work and we have to do it every day. And this is work that's not going to be just fixing this generation. All of our ancestors have been doing this work and it's like they're just passing down the baton. And now it's our turn not to be the weak link.
So, will I see big changes and gun policies as soon as we need them, which was like yesterday? Three years ago, 10 years ago? I try not to focus on that because I don't want to get discouraged. I just say that this work is bit by bit. That's what I take away from it.
SPATE: As a whole, no, because I understand the culture, and I have learned about the culture of gun violence and the relationship between that with America itself. But for me on the individual level, as me talking with participants, that’s one at a time.
Or such as them was stealing across the street, stealing the ice cream, and they could have went to jail, or they could have got fucked up by the dudes on the block. But no, we was able to bring them in into our space; was able to get them to do the interview. And we paid them $30 and we fed them. So for me on that, and then they still return every day-
WHITE: And they're coming back.
SPATE: To our space! So, for me on the individual level, that's where I'm more vulnerable, more motivated, more enlightened, more encouraged that: yes, change on the macro, no. That's what we're working towards. But on the individual? Yes. Yes. Because one at a time, eventually you’re going to have an army of these mindsets of change.
And I believe we really doing that work. I believe we did that in firearms and we are continuing to do this now. We're learning more about ourselves and about people, take as much of the trauma away from them as possible. So yes, for me, yes.
My work goes beyond just the hours of just the study. Like I go out in the neighborhood, as soon as I'm gone, they still, we right on the block with them. Still having these conversations and chilling and talking and smoking and whatnot, but also having these conversations about their lives and where they want to be at. Challenging them on that.
For me, that's where I see the change that is happening and will continue to happen. People understand: this is the way it works, not the way you think it should work.
WHITE: And I think one of the things I think we have all learned is that I think policy makers tend to think of this as an anti-social thing, or something that's based in individual decision-making. Just make a better choice. Just choose to put the gun down, choose not to be a criminal, and get back on the right track.
You hear that language over and over again. And what it doesn't ever get is that the realities that people live in that are putting them in a position where they feel like this is their only choice to not get killed.
So, number one, that is the context. They're trying to live. Number one. Number two, what we have found, I think—we have stumbled into it, I think, really by accident—is that the most powerful intervention strategy is conversation: helping them feel connected, helping them feel like there are places that they can take these deep personal experiences that they don't have a chance to talk about.
And to share them with people who are not a court-mandated therapist. People who live—their neighbors, their community. Give a community space where they can share things and start to build out a different vision for what their lives can look like and what their lives can be.
You know people use the word empowerment or things like that. And I don't think that's it. It's like, just create the space. Just create a space where they can be who they already know that they are. I don't know if that makes sense, but it's not a policy decision coming down from on high that is like, “here's the one driver that if we just take this away,” it's not necessarily even a material thing, even though that is part of it. It's also an emotional thing. It's a spiritual thing. It's a sense of being part of something bigger than you that cares about you and loves you.
WATKINS: I just want to say thank you so much to all three of you: Basaime, Anjie, Elise. It's interesting reading the report, it's very clear all the work you guys had to do to build trust, to bridge over to the people that you are working with. I hadn't really understood until this conversation the work you guys did to build trust amongst yourselves as well.
I want to thank you in that same spirit for having the trust in me to share some of your thoughts and share some of what you've learned doing this really amazing work. So thank you so much.
CAMACHO: Thank you.
WHITE: Thank you, Matt.
SPATE: Thank you, Matt. Appreciate it.