Huss joins efforts to combat youth violence in Denver
Dr. Sheila Huss performs needs assessment for Denver Mayor’s Youth Violence Prevention Action TableToula Wellbrook | School of Public Affairs Sep 2, 2020
YVPAT is a conglomerate of youth, community and city leaders convened to identify immediate and actionable items needed to support youth violence prevention efforts. After initial outreach from the Denver Mayor’s Office to CU Denver CityCenter—a department of the university that matches faculty experts and university resources with civic and business leaders interested in exploring innovative solutions to some of the toughest issues facing our community—Dr. Huss was identified and invited to partner with the initiative, given her interest and research expertise on juvenile justice.
Dr. Huss had been tasked with determining which efforts to combat youth violence are already in place in Denver, where gaps exist in services and resource delivery, and how the City of Denver can help to address those gaps.
The needs assessment initially involved researching best practices around youth violence prevention and intervention, although Dr. Huss cautions that not all best practices are a good fit for all youth and all locations. She then interviewed staff from more than 20 community-based organizations across Denver who work in the arena of preventing youth violence. Her aim in speaking to the staff from various organizations was to determine how well their efforts in youth violence prevention are aligned with one another and with the efforts of the city. She also undertook research on individual neighborhoods across Denver as well as cities across the United States that are comparable to Denver.
In her conversations with staff from the community-based organizations, Dr. Huss learned about their various programs and underlying initiatives, the barriers the staff face in implementing these programs and initiatives, and their thoughts on how the city can work with them to help them to overcome some of the barriers. She learned that the staff among the community-based organizations she interviewed “tend to speak the same language, even though their target population isn’t the same.”
Dr. Huss discovered a deep level of connection among the organizations, rooted in their long histories of working to prevent youth violence, their familiarity with one another, and in having staff that have worked across a number of the organizations within the group she interviewed.
“It’s the relationships that the people involved with those youth have,” said Dr. Huss. “Those relationships transcend any organizational boundaries. It’s amazing to see the investment that these people have in their work—whether paid or unpaid—and to see how completely invested they are in the kids, and how deeply they care about making a difference.”
Not only was Dr. Huss struck by the interconnectedness of the community-based organizations she encountered, she was also struck by their connection to the communities they serve. She found them united in wanting to enrich the lives of youth, and to the extent that violence is going to be part of youths’ lives, they are committed to giving youth the tools to cope with violence and integrate it into their life experience without it having more adverse effects.
“They know the community so well—the people, the places, the needs—and they really feel a sense of ownership over what they’re doing and the meaning of their work.” Dr. Huss explained that she went into the needs assessment thinking she would be talking to people about their organization and the work of the organization, but, she said, “It turned out to be so much more than that. This is their heart and soul.”
In terms of measuring the success of their efforts, Dr. Huss said that although the staff at the community-based organizations measure outcomes from a methodological perspective, they also say things like: “It’s successful when we see these kids graduate from high school.” “It’s successful when a kid leaves a gang.” “It’s successful when a kid comes to us and asks to be counseled because the kid is struggling with leaving a gang.”
Youth violence data is extremely important, but in setting out to collect and analyze data, researchers like Dr. Huss are immediately confronted with large questions: How do you measure youth violence? What ages constitute being a youth? What data do you collect (e.g., data about risk factors, protective factors, the violence itself) and about which populations? Do you include data on bullying? Do you limit the data to physical violence? How do you track violence that isn’t reported? Who reports the data and how often?
Dr. Huss understands the complexity and enormity of the feat of collecting and analyzing youth violence data, and she hopes to be able to identify a model that can be applied to data pertaining to the city of Denver.
Shortly after Dr. Huss began the needs assessment, the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and life changed very quickly and drastically. According to Dr. Huss, there are indications that youth violence has been increasing over the past couple of months, probably as a result of the pandemic and exacerbated by police shootings of members of the Black community, notably George Floyd.
Although many of the community-based organizations that she has been in contact with have not had to make drastic cuts thus far, most everyone has shifted to working in a virtual setting, and some have had to cancel major annual events that are beloved by the communities in which they are held. The staff are thankful to continue to be able to reach the youth that they support, but acknowledge that talking to a kid virtually or on the phone just isn’t the same as being able to have a face-to-face conversation.
After months of working on the needs assessment, one of the simpler needs (albeit simple on paper) that Dr. Huss identified for the city of Denver is developing a method of brokering relationships across the city to better match people, resources, and time in order to join forces to combat youth violence.
Dr. Huss suggested that universities and hospitals, for example, could partner with community-based organizations to provide services, possibly at no cost. Also, the city could engage college students to volunteer their time for activities like mentoring at-risk youth, providing after-school tutoring, staffing late-night basketball games, and more.
One of the more complex needs (albeit simple on paper) that Dr. Huss identified is sustained funding for the community based-groups committed to combating youth violence—especially during the current pandemic and recession. With the city government experiencing budget cuts, Dr. Huss acknowledges that the members of the YVPAT will need to find creative ways around not having enough funding, so that the work to combat youth violence can be amplified.
“The more I’m learning about the different neighborhoods, schools and organizations, and everything that makes Denver unique and special," said Dr. Huss, “the more I would love to be a bigger part of that, and I would love to see the criminal justice program more involved in the community.”
Over the months that Dr. Huss has been engaged in the needs assessment for the City of Denver, what has made the work really meaningful for her is the dedication of the people who are working for the City of Denver and the people who are working in the community-based organizations to serve Denver’s youth.
She said of their fierce loyalty to their work and their commitment to reducing youth violence, “It doesn’t even feel like you’re talking about people’s jobs. Their jobs and the meaning that it seems to give them—looking at it from an outsider’s perspective—it’s been really inspiring to me.”
Youth Violence Prevention Action Table
Convened in 2019, the Youth Violence Prevention Action Table (YVPAT) increases collaboration and information sharing among city agencies, community organizations, and youth to address gaps and opportunities in youth violence prevention and intervention efforts. The YVPAT meets monthly. Additionally, the YVPAT’s executive committee meets bi-weekly under the leadership of City Attorney Kristin M. Bronson, Public Safety Officer Michael Sapp, and Chief Equity Officer Erin Brown.
About CU Denver CityCenter
CU Denver CityCenter matches faculty experts and university resources with civic and business leaders interested in exploring innovative solutions to some of the toughest issues facing our community. A new approach to university partnerships, CityCenter is a hub of innovation, big ideas, and a catalyst for positive change in the city we call home.