Perhaps Even More than Gun-Related Deaths, Gun Injuries Paralyze Entire Communities
A Q&A with Prof. Melvin Delgado, Author of Urban Youth Trauma
Violence interrupters, such as GOSO’s SAVE East Harlem team, were pivotal in the city’s Safe Summer NYC initiative. In fact, the month of August witnessed a 30% decline in shootings. But even though there’s been considerable improvement, our commitment to interrupting violence stays the same.
This month, we would like to share our recent interview with Prof. Melvin Delgado, M.S.W, Ph.D., who is professor of Social Work at the Boston University School of Social Work, a South Bronx native, and a prolific author and researcher who has written extensively on the hidden assets residing in urban communities. Among his extensive body of work, Urban Youth Trauma: Using Community Intervention to Overcome Gun Violence is a fascinating book that highlights how we can better understand the impact of gun violence on entire communities.
With the growing concerns over the rise of gun violence across New York City, we hope that you find Prof. Delgado’s insights below instructive.
GOSO: How did you develop your interest in gun violence and community assets?
Prof. Melvin Delgado: I was born and raised in the South Bronx to a Puerto Rican family. I lived in the South Bronx for the first 17 years of my life until I graduated high school and left for the Air Force. But even though I left the Bronx, the Bronx never really left me. It forms part of your identity. And when there are major events in your life during those formative years – especially related to guns and drugs – it informs your worldview.
When I was growing up, drugs and guns were almost synonymous with gangs. At the time, heroin was the drug of choice. My brother died from an overdose. I have cousins who were killed by guns and who killed people with guns. So gun violence is a topic that’s very personal to me.
GOSO: In your research on gun violence, what have been some of the biggest surprises?
MD: My work on gun violence has been an evolutionary process. About seven years ago, I wrote a book on memorial murals, which are essentially testaments to lives not fulfilled. As I began learning more about shootings, my interest in gun violence and injuries grew. But what I discovered is that gun injuries get overlooked. I looked for books on injuries, and there were literally none.
More often than not, we focus on fatalities – and I understand that. The pain caused by losing a loved one is profound. But the fact remains that most people who get shot don’t die. Instead, they spend the rest of their lives living with the trauma of having been shot.
In many instances, people who have been shot have to live with bullet fragments lodged in their bodies, which can cause blood poisoning. This means they need ongoing treatment.
So when you think about gun violence, think about an iceberg. Gun-related fatalities are like that piece of the iceberg that’s visible above the surface. But injuries from gun violence are like that larger piece of the iceberg that’s under water.
GOSO: Can you tell us a little more about how you define gun injuries?
MD: I define gun injuries broadly – it’s not just a bullet entering your body. There are secondary traumas. For example, perhaps you didn’t get shot, but you have relatives or friends who have been injured. Even though you didn’t physically experience the injury, the emotional and psychological injuries that you experience are very real and long lasting.
And it’s important to remember that many people who are injured by guns aren’t necessarily involved in anything wrong or nefarious. Many of the recent incidents in the news have illustrated how someone can simply be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
GOSO: It sounds like you’re suggesting that gun violence is a symptom of a much larger problem.
MD: Absolutely! Gun violence is a mechanism, no question there. Guns aren’t produced in East Harlem or the South Bronx. The gun violence, drugs, and addiction – they are all symptoms that have found an outlet through guns.
GOSO: How do guns make their way to urban communities?
MD: Illicit guns are big business. Look at Illinois, which has stringent gun laws, but the guns come in from Indiana. Getting your hands on guns isn’t a problem. It’s a lot easier to get a gun than to get fresh fruit. You can borrow a gun, they are given as gifts, and the list goes on.
When you have people who are angry about something – even if it’s righteous anger – it looks for an outlet. As a consequence, some people procure guns to commit acts of aggression. But most people say they need guns for self protection.
It bears mentioning that an aggravating factor is actually crime clearance, which measures how frequently crimes are solved. In the fourth quarter of 2020, the total clearance rate for all five boroughs was 25.5%. This means that approximately 3 out of 4 crimes in New York City don’t get solved. Meanwhile, in Boston, the clearance rate for gun crimes is 20%. That means that 1 out of 5 gun crimes don’t get solved. The net result is that the fear of being arrested isn’t much of a deterrent these days.
I hate to say it, but these problems are complex and there is no one solution. We live in a society that wants simple answers – and they aren’t always there.
GOSO: How does gun violence affect children in school?
MD: Even though teachers are intimately aware of the profound challenges facing children, school systems have generally ignored the issue of gun injuries and trauma. But it doesn’t take much imagination to understand how gun violence and trauma can impact a child’s educational experience. For most children in urban communities, the process of just going to school requires you to avoid certain blocks. These are the hot spots within an inferno. When you carry this weight, it takes something out of you. Children are in a battlefield and they’re always being vigilant. Under these circumstances, it’s extremely difficult to learn because you think you’re trapped.
In fact, if we ask kids in urban communities what they know about guns, they probably know more people who have suffered from gun violence than have graduated high school. Everyone has a story to share. If you ask urban youth to talk about graduating from high school or college, you’ll have a hard time. But if you approach them to talk about gun violence, they’ll be talking all day long.
GOSO: What are your thoughts on the Cure Violence model?
MD: What I like about Cure Violence is that you have individuals who walk the walk, and talk the talk. If you’re learning about life in inner cities from books, you don’t have credibility in the community. But with Cure Violence, you have individuals who can broker both worlds and navigate social situations. When it comes to decreasing violence in general, and gun violence, more specifically, de-escalation is essential.
But one thing I’d like to see more is where community members are trained as first responders, so to speak. The Stop The Bleed Coalition, for example, provides people with free training so they can help prevent someone from dying from traumatic bleeding. This empowers people in the community to become first responders.
GOSO: What’s interesting is your emphasis on community assets when discussing gun violence. Can you explain this a bit more?
MD: Yes, that’s absolutely right! I think we need to have a more expansive view of urban communities that recognizes the hidden assets in communities even as we look for solutions to address what’s wrong. When we talk about addressing inner city violence, we have to be intellectually honest by also considering what good things are taking place within these communities. It’s intellectually lazy to go with the flow and focus on the negative.
GOSO: What’s one way to tap into these hidden community assets?
MD: You see, every community has its share of geniuses. If you’re artistically talented, maybe your school helps nurture that talent. But when you live in an urban environment, you may have no other option than to show your artistic talent on the side of a wall as graffiti, which gets you into trouble with the law.
When you look at the violence interrupters, some of them are artists. Let’s tap into the talents that they have. In addition to having interrupters as credible messengers, we can create opportunities for them to start new conversations related to their talents.
Or take a second to consider this: there’s no such thing as a stupid drug addict. You’ll die pretty quickly if you’re not a quick learner. They are far from lazy, they don’t stay inside because of the weather, and they don’t take sabbaticals. Let’s find a way to help them with their addiction while providing them with alternatives for their lives.
GOSO: You grew up in the South Bronx, which is a stone’s throw away from our offices. What do you think are the greatest assets in places like the South Bronx and East Harlem?
MD: When you encounter someone from the South Bronx or Harlem, there’s an instant connection. “Where did you go to school or hang out?“
Living where I did, you learn to read people quickly! You have to – otherwise you can get into some deep trouble. I also learned to work hard. My family worked hard, and I still value hard work. You also come to understand how important it is to care about others. That was reinforced in my family. I saw people who went out of their way to help others in need. They may be just as bad off as you – but you don’t want to see people suffer. I suppose that’s why I’m so passionate about the issue of improving inner city communities even to this day.
Learn more: To learn more about SAVE East Harlem’s efforts to bring an end to gun violence in the community, visit this link.