Jennifer Mahlum is the Director of Youth Violence Prevention for the Chicago based student group Access To Opportunity Movement (ATOM). She is a junior at Northwestern University majoring in Human Development and Psychology and minoring in Creative Writing.
Jennifer is a sexual health and assault peer educator, a freeform DJ for the Chicago Sound Experiment, and a research assistant in Northwestern’s social psychology lab.
BKH: What falls under the definition of “Youth Violence” in the ATOM prevention mission?
JM: Things that unfortunately happen every day fall under this mission. Think about a kid being beaten to death by his peers with a nine iron. That’s youth violence. A twelve-year old boy being shot in the back outside of his elementary school is youth violence. Youth violence is a thirteen year-old girl being sexually assaulted by her boyfriend of five months.
None of these should fall under the definition of “youth violence,” because none of these stories should exist. In our prevention mission, ATOM defines “youth violence” as acts of violence (whether physical, sexual, emotional, or verbal) committed “by” youth “against” youth.
BKH: What are the statistics of youth violence in the U.S.?
JM: The statistics are staggering. Since the start of the war, more Americans have been killed right here in Chicago than in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. To further illustrate this, in the last 18 months alone, 500 Chicago Public School students have been shot. Violence is currently the second leading cause of death in the United States among individuals aged 10-24.
BKH: What led to incorporate youth violence prevention into the ATOM platform?
JM: A lot of our group members have themselves been witnesses to or victims of youth violence. Others, like me, have not. Prior to my involvement with ATOM, my experience with and knowledge of youth violence was limited to what I saw in movies like “Boys in the Hood” and to what I read as I skimmed through newspaper articles (and more honestly, newspaper headlines).
It is a mutual passion for its eradication, despite our different backgrounds, that led ATOM to incorporate youth violence prevention into our platform. It’s a passion to free youth from the fear of attack while walking home from school; from the fear of having to bring a knife or gun to school for self-defense; from the fear of attending a best friend’s funeral - or avoiding his or her own.
BKH: Are there characteristics of youth violence that are different than general violence?
JM: Yes and no. No in terms of the acts and consequences of violence itself, which can and does affect individuals of all ages. Yes in terms of the individuals who are committing these acts, namely youth. And yes in terms of the potential for disruption to an individual’s development.
Adolescence is a mandatory time for identity development. Those who experience violence during these formative years will be at greater risk for threats to their identity development.
BKH: What or whom are the targets of youth violence?
JM: Homicide is the leading cause of death for African Americans aged 10 to 24 and the second leading cause of death for Hispanics aged 10-24. Men are also statistically more likely to be victims of homicide of youth violence than women. There are also trends toward targeting LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer/Questioning) youth. But anyone can be a target of youth violence.
BKH: How does youth violence ultimately most affect victims?
JM: In the most permanent of affects, youth violence can result in death. However, I feel I would be doing survivors of youth violence a disservice by narrowing their experience into one presumed ultimate affect. Rather, the affect of youth violence is distinctly different for every survivor. Just as acts of youth violence fall along a spectrum of behaviors, affects of violence fall across a spectrum of possible reactions and consequences.
In “extremely” generalized terms, youth violence can affect its survivors in a number of ways: physical well-being, feelings of safety or security, emotional stability, drug and alcohol use, school attendance, participation, and the list goes on.
BKH: What is being done currently to prevent youth violence at the local and national level?
JM: There are a countless number of programs ranging from those put on by small community-based organizations to those that rise out of partnerships between large federal agencies such as the Department of Education and the Office of the U.S. Attorney General.
The problem is, these programs are rarely coordinated with each other and often times don’t include all the necessary stakeholders. All-in-all though, if young people are still getting hurt and dying, we know that these programs have not gone far enough.
BKH: What must be done better for more effective youth violence prevention?
JM: We need a more widespread recognition of the problem and a reprioritization of time and funds toward its prevention. Youth violence is often seen as a problem in “certain areas.” Statistically, these claims have some validity, but it needs not to be seen as one community’s, one individual’s, or one school’s problem.
Not only do community relationships need to be cultivated and given voice, cross-community relationships need to be created and cultivated as well. This is “a” problem, not “their” problem. The prevention of youth violence needs to be shouldered by a larger community.
This would probably demand a cultural shift from the ground-up, emphasizing collective responsibility for the self and others, and individualism within a framework of non-violence. There needs to be a refining of intervention programs and an increase in prevention programs. Intervention programs need to be focused toward alternative policing efforts, neighborhood watch initiatives, education programs, and gun control regulation.
Violence is learned; non-violence needs to be taught.
BKH: What are the main disconnects with what is needed and what is provided in preventing youth violence?
JM: There is a disconnect between the individuals who are affected by youth violence and the policy makers who are designing programs for youth violence prevention. Often the resources that are being provided as prevention tactics are not the solutions that are actually needed. The solutions are fitting neither the scale of the problem nor the source of the problem.
BKH: Does ATOM support the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment – the right for citizens to bear arms?
JM: ATOM supports the U.S. Constitution in its entirety. This includes the Second Amendment and the country’s current firearm registration; registered Americans do deserve the right to hold the right to bear arms. However, illegal firearm distribution needs to be reined in and better regulated by the government.
BKH: Give an overview of the ATOM youth violence prevention advocacy and programs.
JM: This past year, ATOM met with Chicago’s mayoral candidates to discuss their youth violence platforms and offer strategies for more community based approaches to violent prevention in the city.
Something cool we have in the works right now is a cross-community improv group. It will be a place where kids can meet people of different backgrounds and avoid idle time, and the dangers that tend to come with this; a place where they can build communication skills, laugh, and work through issues or stress in an open, casual environment.
BKH: How does ATOM ascertain what stakeholders to target for working with and working against specific to its youth violence prevention platform focus?
JM: By asking, “Who has the power?” In other words, we decide how we want to affect change and then figure out who has the power to make the change we want to see. For instance, we targeted all the mayoral candidates equally with the understanding that one of them has to win - and that, post-election, we would have already met with and built a relationship with this new person of power.
Never be afraid to ask for what you want; you won’t know until you ask.
BKH: How does ATOM measure the success of its objectives specific to its youth violence prevention platform focus?
JM: Youth violence is the hardest area for us to measure. We look at it on an anecdotal level. If we can save or better one person’s life, then we’ve succeeded in that regard. But we also don’t want to stop there. We want to keep influencing individuals and keep bettering lives.
BKH: How can someone join ATOM’s efforts specifically in its youth violence prevention mission?
JM: Come check us out at the ATOM website!
BKH: Thank you Jennifer. Connect with ATOM on Facebook, Twitter, and Linkedin. You may also subscribe to the ATOM Blog.
Part 1, What is ATOM?
Part 2, ATOM Education Mission
Part 4, ATOM "Dream Act" Work
Part 5, ATOM Answers "Dream Act" Opposition