Creating Neighborhoods of Healing

A Trauma Therapist’s Passage with Chicago Gang Members

Mary Jo Barrett

Vontay is looking at me straight in the eye, panic-stricken. “Momma Jo, get me out of here, now,” he pleads. “If we fall in, I’m gonna die! Momma Jo, d’ya hear me? I can’t see the bottom!”

I paddle toward him as fast as I can. “Vontay, you’ve gotta help me here. Paddle!” He stares at me, frozen. My heart is beating fast; if this 140-pound guy topples into the water, what am I going to do? Then I come to my senses: we’re canoeing in a pond. It’s maybe four feet deep. After convincing the young man to paddle to shore, I help him out of his canoe. “Vontay, we were safe,” I tell him quietly. “The pond is shallow. Even if we’d fallen in, we could’ve easily gotten to shore.”

Vontay, a 21-year-old African American man, is a gang member from the South Side of Chicago. He’s one of 20 gang members who are on a five-day camping trip with me and four other adults; we call these trips Passages. On this particular Passage, we’re set up on the grounds of an abandoned monastery in the Iowa countryside, which includes a bunch of rough-hewn cabins in the middle of acres of prairie grass.

Other Passages take place in the woods, always in nature, away from the violent streets and abandoned buildings in the South Side of Chicago. The young men, who range in age from 18 to 28, hike with us, build fires, meditate, do yoga, make amazing music, and most importantly, build trust and safety, which makes it possible to work on the tough emotional issues that matter to them.

As you can imagine, this is no ordinary camping trip. These guys have spent their entire lives in catastrophically violent neighborhoods, where there’s no guarantee they’ll survive from day to day. Most have suffered repeated abuse and severe poverty, seen friends and family members shot, stabbed, or fatally overdosed on drugs. Most have been shot themselves; some still carry bullets inside their bodies. Police shootings are a constant threat. Every one of these guys lives in daily fear of dying.

They, of course, are no angels themselves. Some have shot and killed others, and nearly all of them have sold drugs and guns. They’ve robbed and beaten people, many of them rival gang members. A lot of them have done prison time. Not surprisingly, every one of them suffers from complex trauma—which is why I’m here as a therapist, trying to apply what I know and use in my office in a place far away from the comfortable world I usually inhabit.

How Did I Get Here?

In case you’re wondering, I’m no wilderness maven. I’m the founder and director of an organization called The Center for Contextual Change, a clinic specializing in complex trauma and interpersonal violence. I do workshops and trainings around the country, mostly for other therapists. So how did I end up at 65 camping in the wild with a bunch of gang members from a notoriously violent Chicago neighborhood?

One late November afternoon in 2017, I was sitting alone in my office in the near dark, aware that it was time to go home but unable to stand up and get out of my chair. Since the 2016 election, I’d frequently felt glued to that chair. If forced to describe my state, I’d say it was one of helplessness, hopelessness, and fear. Just then my iPhone vibrated. I sighed and considered ignoring it, but at the last moment, I picked up.

A youthful male voice said, “I’m sure you don’t remember me, but I was in your class five years ago.” He told me that he was now working on the ground floor of a local gang-intervention program in Englewood. “Great, Ben,” I said. “Work there is really important. Every day, people are being killed in their own neighborhoods.”

He cleared his throat. “We need your help.”

Within a week, I was meeting with a man named Ra Frye, the founder and director of Pride ROC, the program Ben was involved in. Ra, an ex-gang member in his early 50s, had finally gotten himself off the streets after a childhood filled with violence and trauma, multiple incarcerations, and kicking a thousand-dollar-a-week cocaine habit. He’d become passionate about stemming violence on the South Side by helping gang members build better, healthier lives. Reflecting on what had worked to transform and heal him, he’d created a vision to help others in his community do the same.

Pride ROC operates several projects, including weekly support groups and daily meetings with a life coach, who advises them on practical matters: how to get enough food in the house, how to get and keep a job, how to be a consistent presence in the lives of their young children.

But the heart and soul of Pride ROC are the Passages, which give the guys a respite from the streets and a chance to work with their self-destructive behaviors and the painful issues that underlie them. As Ra described the process to me, I could feel how fierce, smart, street-savvy, and committed he was. By the time we’d wrapped up our meeting, I’d volunteered to help design the Passages and the group meetings to be contextually trauma informed. I’d do trauma work with the guys—however and wherever it could be useful.

When I first meet the Pride ROC participants, sitting scattered around a room in a forest preserve on the outside of Chicago at one of the first orientations, they look at me with cool suspicion. I take a deep breath. “Hi, I’m Mary Jo,” I begin, trying not to betray my nervousness. “I’ve never lived on the South Side. I’ve never been shot at, and I’ve never lost one of my kids to the streets. I’m a white Jewish woman of privilege.” Some of the guys now look at me with interest, but several keep their arms folded over their chests, their faces blank.

I soldier on. “What I do know about is trauma,” I say. “I know something about what a person goes through when they’ve been traumatized over and over again. I know what it does to your brain and your body and your heart. And if you’re interested, I’d like to work on that with you.”

Making Music

Prior to each Passage, we take the young men through a three-day orientation program in a nearby forest preserve. We hike, share meals, and get to know each other. To be accepted, you need to meet one of the grim criteria: you’ve been shot, or you’ve shot someone, or you’ve lost someone to gunfire.

From the start, we make clear that this trip won’t just be some free-form ramble in the woods. Instead, it’ll be a highly structured process, focusing on developing self-awareness and healthier behaviors, while also making time for fun. We go over the schedule. Each morning, they’ll be getting up 6:30 a.m. (loud groans here) and hit the ground for Warrior Yoga by 7 a.m. Next, they’ll meditate, followed by a fruit snack. After that, they’ll do some hard-core aerobic exercise led by Buddy, an ex-gang member who got ultra-fit while in prison and then became a trainer after his release. Next, everyone will gather round for a brief prayer and a protein-rich breakfast. Then, they’ll have a little free time, followed by some serious business—a trauma education class led by me.

After that, the arts (music, spoken-word poetry, photography on their smartphones, painting, and dance), lunch, rest, sports, and free time, which usually means more music and games and dancing. Then, dinner, followed by Evening Circle, and finally, “freestyle,” which involves a kind of improvised rapping and dancing that every single one of them loves.

If these guys didn’t have music, I honestly don’t think they’d be able to do the work of healing and growing. During our freestyle period at the end of the day, they create spontaneous hip-hop songs and poetry, and perform dances that involve intricate, lightning-fast gyrations, which seem to transport them to another realm. Once in a while, they’ll say, “Come on, Momma Jo, get up here and dance with us!” And I reluctantly do (which is not something you’d want to witness but turns out to be really fun). Mostly, though, I just watch these young men, who still have bullets in their body and metaphoric ones in their soul, but are out there dancing and rapping with something close to pure joy.

But they don’t ignore their pain. In a raw, unflinching song they wrote called “Anxiety,” the young men name and trace their own emotional struggles. You can’t hear the music, of course, so you’ll have to try to imagine its pulsing, haunting power. Here are a few lines:

I got mad anxiety!
I do not belong in this society!
Lurking, plotting, scheming, what you tryin’ to see?
Get the fuck away; I need my privacy!
I got mad anxiety!
I swear all these demons live inside of me.
Lately I’ve been trippin’, stressin’, trying to be
Calm, collected, chill to find serenity.

— Jebiga

When I listen to this stuff, I’m blown away. These guys blow me away. They’re honest, creative, warm, and motivated. In just a short time, their poetry, the music they create, has moved from drill rap (a style that originated in the South Side and emphasizes gun violence and gangs) to hip-hop lyrics of change and desire for transformation.

Our work is only beginning. After volunteering with Pride ROC for a year, and after coleading four Passages trips, I see how often these guys are still at the mercy of their amygdalas. Perceived slights can still enrage them. But I’m also noticing that their hyperarousal doesn’t last as long as it used to, and they’re less likely to lash out in violence. They’re becoming more responsible for their behavior.

Pride ROC reports that over the past two years, there’s been a 50 percent increase in participants’ employment, a 75 percent decrease in the desire to “hang out on the block,” and an amazing 98 percent drop in their contact with police.

It’s a bumpy, imperfect process. But it’s going forward. I no longer feel helpless. I no longer think of myself as a therapist with special expertise, but rather as a member of a community that’s taking small steps toward creating neighborhoods of peace and healing.


Mary Jo Barrett, MSW, is the founder and director of the Center for Contextual Change and coauthor of Treating Complex Trauma: A Relational Blueprint for Collaboration and Change and The Systemic Treatment of Incest: A Therapeutic Handbook

This blog is excerpted from "Survival Skills," by Mary Jo Barrett. The full version is available in the January/February 2019 issue, Can't See the Forest? Maybe It's Time to Get Out of the Office.

Photo © Mary Jo Barrett

Topic: Cultural, Social & Racial Issues | Trauma

Tags: African American | Cultural identity | Cultural values | Cultural, Social & Racial Issues | culture | death | inner city | Mary Jo Barrett | post traumatic stress | post-traumatic stress disorder ptsd | Trauma | trauma and recovery | trauma recovery

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