Community Interconnectedness: Dr. Elena Quintana works toward violence reduction in Chicago through communication

Dr. Elena Quintana asked young men from the South Side Back of the Yards neighborhood, “Where do you feel least safe?”

Dr. Elena Quintana Photo by Hannah Lutz

Dr. Elena Quintana Photo by Hannah Lutz

“When I’m downtown,” one responded.

The two others agreed. These young adults, ages 19 to 22, are community leaders that worked with Quintana for the Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation’s Southside Youth Peace and Leadership Council, a violence prevention program for young men ages 14 to 18 in Englewood and Back of the Yards.

The men face danger in their neighborhood every day. Back of the Yards is part of the New City community area where 165 violent crimes occurred from June to August 2013, including robbery, battery, assault, homicide and criminal sexual assault, according to City of Chicago data port.

Quintana said the men lost five friends to gun violence last summer. But in the middle of a crime-ridden area, they still agreed they feel least safe downtown.

Quintana, 45, lives on the South Side and works as the executive director for the Institute on Public Safety and Social Justice at Adler School of Professional Psychology downtown. Quintana has also worked in violence prevention with organizations such as Precious Blood and Ceasefire.

The young African-American men she worked with said people tighten grasps on their purses and pull their children in closer, and security guards emerge from stores when they are downtown. This treatment, the men said, makes it evident that they do not belong.

“They [the men] are peacemakers, and they are seen as enemies,” Quintana said. “They are seen as predators. And they’re not; they’re the opposite.”

Quintana has seen many such common but false judgments, including against perpetrators of violence. She believes many approaches to punishment are misguided.

“Generally, these are people that are highly functional and have a real lack of resources,” Quintana said. “[But] we choose the road of vengeance and debilitation, rather than investing in their accountability, transformation, functionality.”

Quintana worked with Ceasefire, which is an organization composed of “violence interrupters” who take on communicative and preventative approaches to violence. They connect with those acting out destructively to help them determine the source of their anger and how it can be resolved peacefully. “The Interrupters,” a 2011 documentary, was based on Chicago’s Ceasefire organization.

Eddie Bocanegra, a former Ceasefire violence interrupter and a key player in the documentary, said that Quintana helped shape his perception of violence. She lends a different perspective because she is understood and respected by two sides of society, as a South Side resident and a psychology expert and researcher, Bocanegra said. She speaks two languages: street and academia.

“Elena’s insight as a person who grew up in [this] community…[is] she sees things through that lens,” Bocanegra said.

Quintana can essentially function as a translator between the divided groups that only grasp one side of the spectrum.

The Rev. Dave Kelly, who also worked with Quintana in Ceasefire, agreed that Quintana puts her attitude, psychological knowledge, training and research to action.

“The complexity she embraces is her biggest asset,” he said.

Ryan Lugalia-Hollon, another of Quintana’s Ceasefire colleagues, called Quintana “one of those people who can envision the future and take concrete steps to making it a reality.”

Quintana illustrated these steps to making her vision for the future a reality with an example. She set school as the backdrop, a place where students bully and get bullied. Many schools have a “zero tolerance” policy. Quintana thinks there is more work to be done after the bully is reprimanded.

“There needs to be swift response and accountability,” she said. “[But] it should be to bring everyone together in a peaceful way. … If you don’t do that hard work of bringing them back in [the community], then basically you end up ostracizing someone who already acts out in a destructive way.”

Once a bully understands the origins and effects of his or her actions enough to sincerely apologize and solve the problem at the root of his or her anger, Quintana said, “they cease being a bully, and they start becoming human.”

Reducing trauma at the school level can have lasting effects on a bully’s psychological wellness and a city’s safety. But Quintana believes that violence reduction in Chicago starts with “community interconnectedness” and “closing social distance.”

“There are such deep divides within our worlds,” Quintana said. “There are people who generally feel safe in life and people who generally do not feel safe in life ever, and those people do not understand each other.”

By Hannah Lutz