Eddie Bocanegra of READI Chicago.
Overcoming a youth filled with violence and the trauma of violence, and after serving 14 years in prison for a gang-related murder committed at age 18, he is now driven by a sense of duty – a covenant sense of mission – to prevent violence.
With a master’s degree in social work, he serves as the Senior Director of the READI Chicago program of Heartland Alliance.
In combination with the University of Chicago Crime Lab, the READI (Rapid Employment and Development Initiative) program uses a combination of cognitive behavior intervention services and paid transitional employment as interventions to proactively help people most at risk to be victims or perpetrators of street violence – over a third of whom have been shot in the past – to create space between impulse and action and to help them channel their actions into constructive, non-violent responses to stress and invest their hope in a viable path to lawful, gainful employment. It works.
Mr. Bocanegra grew up on the west side of Chicago in Little Village, in what felt at the time like a combat zone. At age 14 he joined a street gang, primarily for the same reasons he says most other young teenagers join gangs: protection, desire to get ahead in life, identity formation, sense of belonging, and respect. At age 18 he went to prison for a gang-related murder committed in retaliation for the shooting of a friend by a rival gang. (It turned out the victim was not actually from the neighborhood or even a gang member—wrong place, wrong time.)
In this conversation with Justice Voices host David Risley, he provides a quick overview of READI Chicago, then turns to early experiences with violence in two places that should be safe for a child: home and school. He describes the experience at age 13 of witnessing the killing of a neighborhood youth and the trauma of watching him die – a trauma that went virtually unrecognized and totally unaddressed during those formative years.
Now that he is the father of seven children, married to a professor of social work, he is devoting his life to helping a trauma-filled, violence-prone population achieve similar outcomes – a population in which 82% have been victims of violence and 37% have been shot at least once before intervention by READI Chicago.
The discussion turns to what criminologist Lonnie Athens calls “violentization” and the results of research by Yale sociologist Elijah Anderson, author of Code of the Street, regarding the defensive need for a reputation for violence cultivated by people who would rather be an aggressor than a victim.
Mr. Bocanegra describes the impact on the brains of young people from the chronic trauma of repeated exposure to violence, as revealed by brain scans. He compares the PSD suffered by young people in violence-filled communities to the effects of trauma experienced by military combat veterans.
The two discuss how we cannot punish our way out of the problems that produce violent people and violent communities. Rather, the need is to shift in our criminal justice system from a punishment paradigm to a problem-solving paradigm.
To view video segments of the conversation, go to the Justice Voices YouTube channel.