Last month around 35 people gathered for a community forum in Cedar Rapids to talk about how to prevent youth violence. On the 5-member panel was our newest colleague from the Iowa Department of Public Health (IDPH): Tiffany Conroy, the state’s new violence prevention coordinator.
Conroy recently moved from Chicago to join the team of Binnie LeHew, the IDPH’s director of injury and violence prevention and our long-time and valuable partner. For over a decade, we have worked with Lehew and her team on evaluating the state’s rape prevention and education program to reduce sexual violence in Iowa.
We asked Conroy what she learned working as a licensed clinical social worker and school-based clinician in two high-risk Chicago schools, and by providing community trainings throughout the city on the effects of violence and trauma on communities. Here’s what she said:
How can communities begin to address community violence?
Conroy: A first step can be to recognize that hurt people hurt people. Violence is caused by so many factors, but at the heart of it all is that those factors harm people (physically and/or emotionally). By stepping back to look at the issue with a trauma informed lens (i.e. What happened to you vs. What’s wrong with you?) you can start the process of healing and prevention. When we start to look at WHY someone is doing what they’re doing and not only assign consequence for doing it, then we have opportunities to change the behavior in the future. This is because the strategies are actually addressing the cause of the behavior and not just punishing the act.
What are some strategies for reducing community violence?
Conroy: First and foremost, it is understanding that violence does not happen in a vacuum. There are so many factors that contribute to violence and if we really want to see a reduction, then we need to look at the root causes: poverty and limited economic opportunities, inadequate schools, substance misuse, family discord, and social norms that support violence, among others. Then, we step back and look at the interconnectivity of multiple forms of violence.
How is community violence impacting Iowa?
Conroy: While the rates and proliferation of violence in Iowa are not anywhere near the rates in other states and large cities, the impact can still be the same. There’s a sense of fear from those living in the communities experiencing the violence, as well as from those on the outside looking in. This sense of fear can lead to further isolation and disconnection among communities, which is a risk factor for violence perpetration.
Do you see similar problems of community violence in Iowa that you saw in Chicago?
Conroy: I just returned to Iowa in October 2016, after living in Chicago for the past 10 years! However, in my short time back I have been having conversations with folks who work with youth around Iowa and am hearing very similar themes emerge here in Iowa that I heard from youth in Chicago. The common threads between the two places are a sense of disconnection or lack of social connectedness in communities, a need for safe and productive places for youth to go, a sense of hopelessness among the youth stuck in the middle of it all, the dismantling of organized gangs leading to splinter groups/factions, and the influence of social media. Also, the root causes–poverty, inadequate schools, social norms that support violence, etc– look the same wherever you go.
What do you hope to bring to your new role in Iowa, coordinating the state’s public health response to sexual violence?
Conroy: Binnie serves as my mentor, and has done incredible work to address sexual and intimate partner violence in Iowa. It’s my hope that the trauma-informed lens that I bring to the work will push the needle even further by increasing awareness of the interconnectedness of multiple forms of violence and shared risk and protective factors. This can lead to new opportunities for healing for those who have already been exposed to violence and preventing violence in future generations.