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Helping Former Gang Members with Mental Health Skills

Since its founding, Dorchester-based nonprofit Boston Uncornered has worked to stop the cycles of street violence by working with current and former gang members and at-risk youth to provide them with mentorship and other support. In the fall of 2020, as the pandemic was in full-force, Boston Uncornered added mental health services to its offerings, hiring Eleanor Forbes as its first director of mental health support. She joined Sue O’Connell, along with Mark Culliton, co-founder and CEO of the organization, to talk about how learning to work through trauma is so important to curbing violence.


Sue O'Connell: While homicides and shootings have been on the rise throughout much of the country since the pandemic began in Boston, those rates have been falling, but there's still obviously a lot of work to be done because even one shooting or death is one too many with each ripping apart families and communities. That's why for the past several years, the Dorchester-based nonprofit Uncornered has worked to stop those cycles of violence by reaching out directly to current and former gang members and at-risk youth, among others, to provide them with mentorship and other support. Among the services offered more recently, mental health. In the fall of 2020, Boston Uncornered hired its first director of mental health support, Eleanor Forbes, who joins me now along with Mark Culliton Co-Founder and CEO of Boston, Uncornered. Welcome to both of you. Thanks for joining me. Mark, I want to start with you because, you know, it doesn't seem like a big stretch to me to make a connection between mental health, solid mental health, and a safe community. When you're talking about mental health and reducing violence, what are you talking about?


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Mark: Well, there's just so much trauma that leads to actions that create cycles of violence in our community. And, when you're engaged with this small percentage of the population that's engaged in gang violence, it's 2% of the population responsible for 75% of that crime; there's a lot of trauma. Both existing preexisting trauma and new trauma that comes with the violence that's seen in our communities. And so, getting to the root of that and having a way to support our staff to then support the young people who are active in gangs is critical to their being able to think differently about their lives and choices and future.

Sue: Eleanor, I think that prior to COVID, most Americans have always thought of mental health is something that's over here, right? You know, our bodies are over here, and mental health is over here. And obviously, mental health advocates don't like it when you draw a line between mental health and violence. But the reality is we all are struggling with mental health in one way or another. And unfortunately for some, sometimes violence is an outcome of that. Can you talk about what some of the factors are that impact someone's mental health?

Eleanor: Well, for the population that we work with at Boston Uncornered, I would just basically say the thing that impacts some of the most is the trauma from their childhood. Something that, you know, in a lot of, these disparities in neighborhoods, poverty, um, absent parents, parents on with substance abuse issues, actually make a lot of our children actually turn towards looking for a family and the gang violence, the gangs out there open, ready to receive them. And we don't realize that there's kids who didn't eat, you know, need a way to be able to figure out how to provide for themselves because they don't have the necessary skills to do so because they haven't been taught. And so these are a lot of the things that really lead to our children and the population we have at Uncornered, we look at their trauma, and it's a huge trauma history.

Sue: Mark, before we get into some of the details of what you're doing in the mental health space. Talk to me and tell our viewers a little bit about what Boston Uncornered does just in general.

Mark: It's pretty simple. It's the idea that we can only truly unlock the potential of Boston by ending gang violence ending street violence. And we can only do that by actively engaging active gang members and getting them to think differently and act differently. And we do that by hiring formerly gang involved individuals from particular neighborhoods and crews, trusting them to engage the most active influential members of any particular set, and then meeting them, expecting greatness of them through the path from corner to college, and providing them an opportunity to make different choices through a direct stipend. All of these evidence-based practices that work incredibly well, and we just provide the scaffold, and what's become increasingly clear time after time is you can't do any of that until you've dealt with your underlying mental health issues that get in the way of so much of the ability to take advantage of opportunities in front of you,


Sue: Ellenor, talk to us a little bit about the ways that this mental health intervention would work, specifically with this community and this constituency.

Eleanor:Well, what we've done is that at Uncornered, we've found an unconventional way to do mental health because, as you talked about previously, there has been such a stigma in our community. And when you say mental health, everyone wants to say that there's nothing wrong. However, we figured that we just take everyone's daily life skills to help them understand that there are mental health issues that there are mental health challenges. But we look at the lagging skills and we worked along with the tool called Collaborative Problem Solving with Stuart Ablon from Mass General. And so we use this tool to really look at with all of our ex-gang members that come to us and the ones who are still involved. We just say, what are your lagging skills and communication, tell us how you communicate with people.

What are your lagging skills in attention work and memory, cognitive flexibility, social-emotional skills, and even social thinking? And, you know, we just make scenarios that make them laugh to kind of feel like, you know, okay, where's this lady going. And so I always tell people the, pancake joke and, um, the pancake joke is that, um, when your spouse or your partner makes pancakes, and you know, you like those round fluffy pancakes, I say, is it easy, medium or hard for you to tell them these are not the pancakes that I like. And when the CRAs say, oh, nope, not in my house, it's hard. Or, you know, the students say, "oh, no, we can't have that conversation." I say, "so that's hard for you. Well, let's talk about, as we work, we're gonna talk about how that will get easier."

How can you communicate to say how you feel about those pancakes and how can you help the other person that you're talking to understand your feelings and different things like that? And when we do that, they all sign up. They say, "I wanna do this," you know? And I'm like, "yeah, you didn't know this was therapy." They were like, "no." So, this has been the big thing about our success with these ex-gang members that we hire and those who are even coming in. They feel like this is a fun way to do therapy without feeling like there's something really wrong.

Sue: Yeah. And Ellenor, I have to say, in my own personal life, I know that you just don't do an intervention or treatment with an individual that's usually the family that's involved. I was recently informed that me being snarky about how no one's paying attention to me is not a way to actually communicate appropriately to get what I need. I'm gonna maybe go back to the pancakes and see if I can work on that. Cause I'm not sure if I can change it at this point, but how are you working with the folks around the people you're working with their families and with the communities? Because many of these folks they've lived here for generations, they don't wanna move. They don't wanna get out of their neighborhoods. They wanna stay in their communities. How are you working with the whole thing?

Eleanor: I always say unconditional positive regard, like Carl Rogers, you have to walk into all these family settings with authenticity. The one thing that helps me with that is I'm a child of trauma. I have a severe family history of trauma, an absent father, a mom with substance issues that was in her past, and seeing gang violence. I come from Philadelphia, came here to Boston, and got Uncornered. And now the best thing about this is that working with this ex-gang population, even with my husband being an ex-gang member and serving time in prison, it has been so close to home that it's easy that when I'm doing it within my family. So it's been easy to transition and navigate my skills to be able to work with the other families at Uncornered

Sue: Mark, lots of folks in the, in the city are, I mean, we've, we've been celebrating in, in some ways are lower than other cities, violence rates over the past couple of years. But as I said in the open, you know, any violence is too much. And we are seeing an uptick in certain neighborhoods. Sometimes when we report these numbers, we're reporting the whole city, but we're not looking at neighborhoods like my neighborhood in Roxbury that, you know, has issues going on on a regular basis. What's your take on what's happening and how the police, especially in Boston, are responding and the community services responding to what folks are afraid may be a long, hot and dangerous summer.

Mark: Yeah, I think fundamentally we're doing better than a lot of places, but we're not doing enough. And the police have their jobs to do. And that's been shown throughout the country that the police doing enforcement matters, but we need to invest heavily in prevention and engagement. We should be the first Uncornered city in this country. By that, I mean we should end gang violence, street violence. We can. It's 175 shootings a year, about 50 homicides. In this very small group, we know who they are, we know how to get to them and they want to do something different. We need a universal commitment to get close to, to love, to believe in this population. And when you do, they change. And it's really the core belief is when they change, our communities thrive in a way that they've never been able to. So it's a call to action to let's get it done, and let's get over that cliff. We've been really successful, but we're stuck. And that'll either go up, or we can collectively decide we're committed to these young men and women, these families, and we can get to zero.

Sue: Eleanor, do you feel that there's been a shift? I mean, I know that we've, we've talked a lot about racial inequity and racial justice issues with the police department where the money is spent for police departments. But I mean, I've been talking to police in my family and in my whole life who always say we need more help dealing with issues that are beyond our scope. You know, I didn't decide to become a police officer to become a social worker. We need more help on that front. And, you know, even though it's still a hot topic, I feel like we've turned a corner, and people are beginning to understand that an intervention with a family is a step to make sure a crime doesn't get committed or that they become a victim of a crime. And that it keeps police from having to deal with that. Are you feeling that as well, or is that just my crazy spring optimism? That's, that's seeping in

Eleanor: I would say half and half. I believe that if we do get families involved, but first we have to have people become vulnerable. They have to be able to be vulnerable enough to ask for help. They have to be vulnerable enough to be able to say that there is an issue. And right now, as the role that I play, it's really busy that parents are under a lot of stress, even with this pandemic. And, you know, in our communities, they're fearful, they're fearful to ask for help. And then, even now, as we talk about with the disparities, there's not enough clinicians or help out there for those individuals, especially when people want someone who looks like them and understands them. And that's a big thing for us right now. We don't have, you know, the capacity to meet the need.

And so, you know, I would just say definitely if parents get involved, if parents' eyes are open and they just, you know, find that confidence to be able to move beyond the guilt and the shame, and to be able to say, you know, I'm gonna ask somebody for help and see where that leads me, that would just be the beginning step to, you know, helping us out. But it would definitely have an impact, as Mark said, on the work that we are doing, because they can bring them to us and, you know, again, help them become Uncornered. But know that there are resources out there for them.

Sue: And mentor to mentee with people who have walked the walk that can help folks on the path. Mark, if folks want more information about Boston cornered, where can they go?

Mark: Yeah, go to Boston,, check us out, come visit, come see the great work that's being done. And as always, if you want to donate, we'll take it. You know, we're excited about the work that's done, but we know that any murder is too many.

Sue: Thank you both for joining me, Eleanor Forbes and Mark Culliton from Boston Uncornered. I appreciate your time. Thanks for joining us today.

Eleanor and Mark: Thank you so much. Thanks so much, Sue. Thank you.

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