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Helen Silvis of The Skanner News
Published: 24 October 2011

When a string of tragedies drew attention to the impact of relationship violence, Dr Andrae Brown had to act. Working with Oregon Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Brown and Pastor Cliff Chappell of St. John's All Nations Church started the Leap of Faith program that brings together men and boys to end violence through faith and community.

The assistant professor at Lewis and Clark's Graduate School of Education and Counseling, has seen violence from many angles. His research centers on how to prevent violence, working with families, schools and street youth. Yet he also understands on a personal level how violence can carry forward through generations. One of his grandfathers was killed in an arson fire; the other died at his own hand. And as a young man, Brown lost a best friend to murder. We asked Dr. Brown about his life and work.

Where did you grow up?

I was born in North Carolina but my family moved to New York when I was two. We lived upstate, but my dad was a minister. He had a church in Manhattan and then the Bronx so I got to go to the city a lot. I stayed there until I was 11 or 12 then went back to North Carolina.

My father was minister of a nondenominational Church of God of Prophesy. The church was integrated, but a lot was based on ethnicity. So in New York we had a lot of Jamaicans and when we came down south we had a black church and a white church. It was the same denomination but there was not a lot of mingling except at special events. I had seven siblings so there was always a whole lot happening.

What was that move like?

The transition was quite difficult because I wasn't used to the way things were done. In school they were still doing corporal punishment. They were still spanking kids, and that was a foreign concept to me. And there was the heat: it was hotter than I'd ever been before in my life. I had a chance to meet family that I'd never met, but it was also a really close-knit community so it was hard to break in. In high school if you didn't have these relationships from elementary school, you were an outsider.

What was different about life in North Carolina?

It was a working class community with a lot of factories. People were making good money for a long time but then if a plant closed down everyone would be in crisis. It was an integrated town but it had all-black areas and all-white. It was a culture based on violence. The moment the sun went down people would start fighting. The community was a very violent community. So moving into that culture it's very difficult not to be violent. I wasn't willing to go all the way, so I decided to stay completely away.

When did you start thinking about violence?

My conscience about these kinds of issues was developed pretty early by my dad being in the church and everything I saw. At university I started thinking 'what's the difference between me and some of my friends—smart, talented friends who didn't go to college'. I'd had several friends who were murdered; some murdered each other. So I was in school but a lot of my friends weren't. What was the difference? And I started thinking about families and strength and resilience, and about young Black men in particular. Over time that became my special subject.

How does poverty hurt children?

Marginalized and disenfranchised people live in a state of engaged trauma. What I mean is that people can be living in a constant state of stress, for example poor kids living in communities where there is a lot of gang violence. If you grow up in a violent community you might have seen people murdered, and seen people put in prison. That's your baseline. That's normal to you. But when you are dealing with loss every day, if something else happens that is traumatic, it's going to be catastrophic for you.

Say you are a young person whose father is in prison and your mother is working all the time. Then your grandmother dies. To some people that might be a natural transition. But for these kids it's a catastrophe. If it takes away the only stability you have, it's going to take you a lot longer to overcome it. Or if you have post traumatic stress disorder you might be totally shut down already. You might have no response and just be flat.

It's a myth that you can raise any kid by yourself. Even two parent families it's a struggle every day. So you often have several single women raising children, and one of them is caring for all those children, and allowing all the other mothers to work. Anything that happens to her impacts all these other families. And an arrest or a death has a huge impact far beyond one family, but for multiple families and for generations.

What do you say to young people who think that reporting crime is snitching?

If you shoot at somebody you shoot to kill, especially when it's random. So, if you witness this and say nothing, why are you protecting somebody who has no regard for human life? If that person will shoot somebody else, then they will shoot you as well. That person doesn't need your protection.

Snitching is a really a misconstrued concept. It's a code that relates to street life. If two people commit a crime and one gets caught, then snitching is telling to save yourself. That's what it's really about. But if you witness a crime and don't tell that's just not being a good citizen.

These are codes of masculinity that come from the streets. But they get warped when you start using street codes for non-street things. If you don't live in that world these rules don't apply to you.

What's the connection between trauma and violence?

There is so much connection between trauma and domestic violence, particularly in the Black community. When you talk about slavery you talk about violence. We're still dealing with the residual effects of that violence. From the beginning of time violence has been used to control people, dominate them and to get somebody to do what you want them to do. To really understand somebody you have to understand not just where they are now, but where they have been. It's the same with violence in our communities.

That's why it will take community members, government agencies and clinicians to develop ways of healing from this institutional trauma. We need to create a network of healers, and I believe that everyone can be that healer –not just professionals.

What are you working on now?

Right now, I have been working on a project with Pastor Cliff Chappell called LEAP, Leadership Empowerment Action Project. That's with Black churches and domestic violence. We are working with men and women trying to put a dent in some of the violence in the black community.

The most important thing is to recognize that violence is taught and learned and reinforced. And it can be unlearned. People are not just violent. So to stop it, you have to figure out where the root of that is coming from and address those root causes of violence. If you are coming from pain you have got to heal that pain. If your violence comes from feeling isolated or marginalized then you have to stop that marginalization and heal that trauma. We spend a lot of time trying to punish violence but very little trying to heal the trauma and the root causes.

How does prejudice against gays impact men?

Homophobia does affect how men make connections and develop intimacy. Men particularly are constantly told not to make themselves vulnerable, even within their families, and even with their own fathers. So I ask men, 'What age did you stop hugging your father?' For most men that is around puberty. That's if they ever hugged their father at all.

How well do we deal with sex education?

Not very well, because most of us don't handle sexuality very well when we were teens. That includes sexual identity issues as well as sexuality. We really don't talk about it. Or we come from a position of we either know it all, or we don't know anything. The result is, we leave kids out here alone to deal with sex and relationships themselves.

You'd be surprised which families do better. It's not about class it's family by family. Certain groups may have more babies, but others have more abortions. It's a myth that more Black girls get pregnant. They have more babies because they are not having abortions. So it's not about who has most sex.

Should young people who commit violent crimes be treated like adult offenders?

If you are selling drugs that's illegal. You have to pay and be accountable. If you hurt somebody then you have to be held. But if the penalty is not fair you lose faith in the system. I do believe in accountability but what we have done with punishment is that in order to punish people we now have to destroy them: put them in prison for ever. Measure 11 is not consistent. It's not fair. It goes against everything we know from science and human development.

It's more about the prison industrial complex and generating wealth for prison profiteers off the backs of kids, than it is about retribution or rehabilitation. It's about politics and money, not about restoring any sense of accountability or saving lives. If it's not distributed equitably and fairly then it shouldn't happen.

If you can deprogram a child soldier from the Congo who has killed hundreds of people, and get them back into society, then why can't we do that with young guys who have killed one person. We have the skills, we know how to do it and we do it all the time.

We fail these young people so early. I have to believe there is salvation and there is a way to be redeemed and get back your humanity. There is redemption for everyone. Sometimes that has to be in an institution, but we have to get to kids earlier, before we get to this point.

I worked with one kid who shot someone in the leg and hit an artery, so he had killed somebody. This was a brilliant kid but he was so into street life. When he was high he was a whole other person. The kid he shot was the son of a coach, a very respected person and someone who had worked with him. This kid understood that you need to be accountable for your's and everyone else's sake. He stood up and wrote an accountability letter that took responsibility for what he had done. It couldn't bring that boy back but it allowed him to go into prison with some integrity. He knew that by killing that youth he would get a consequence, and he accepted that.

What's the connection between addiction and violent crime?

Drugs and alcohol have a tremendous impact on youth and adult violence- that includes alcohol and prescription drugs. They are interrelated.

When people commit violent crimes they are usually using drugs, or about to use them. Often they are not in their right minds. If you are drinking and you are smoking and you are using street drugs or prescription drugs you are not thinking straight. We try to make it as if the addiction is not part of the violence, when often the drugs are exactly what precipitates the violence.

You can't be on a street corner selling drugs and not be carrying a gun. And in fact, 90 percent of the kids I've worked with, who have been involved with street life are addicted. They are drinking, smoking and experimenting with drugs including prescription drugs. We are giving a lot of kids prescription drugs and when there is a real need for the drug they can be very effective. But so much of the time people are misdiagnosed, and the drugs are misused. If you are misusing those drugs you are going to have problems.

Andraé Brown, Ph.D., is an assistant professor at Lewis & Clark Graduate School of Education and Counseling, co-director of Affinity Counseling Group based in New Jersey, and board member for the Council on Contemporary Families. In Oregon he has worked with families and teens at Centennial High School and currently at Roosevelt High School. He contributed to The Black Male Handbook: A Blueprint for Life (Kevin Powell, Ed). His work centers around Liberation Psychology and community approaches to preventing violence.

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