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Circle of Respect: Community Health Worker Peers

Group of young men around a table

By Sherry L. Howard

Teaching young men to heal themselves and their community.

When he walked into the program that first day, Waltkeem Jenkins was very anxious. He didn’t know anyone, and he realized he was the youngest man in the room He wasn’t sure how well he’d fit in.

“I’m only like 20,” Jenkins said, recalling how uncomfortable he felt, wondering how the older guys would react to him. He decided to just “present myself the best way I can.”

It was the first day of the Community Health Worker Peer (CHWP) Training Academy at the Center for Nonviolence and Social Justice at the Dornsife School of Public Health. Jenkins was among a group of young men of color touched or impacted by violence who had been accepted to the program for guidance and training.

He didn’t need to be apprehensive, said Andre Thomas, 25, of Olney, another participant. “I understand why he thought that coming in, but we learned from each other,” he said. “Waltkeem taught me a lot about different things. Age really wasn’t too much of a difference.”

Over the next seven weeks, the men opened up to each other, trained in community health practices, learned how to be healers, and networked with public and medical practitioners whom – without the program – they would likely not have ever met. Just as important, they created a brotherhood around their similarities and gave themselves the name “Founders” as the pilot members of the training academy.

The program was part of a project funded by the federal Office for Victims of Crime, secured by center co-directors John Rich, MD, MPH, professor of health management and policy, and Ted Corbin, MD, MPP, associate professor in Drexel’s College of Medicine and the Dornsife School of Public Health. The $1.6 million grant runs for five years, until 2020.

The grant also paid for two training academy graduates to be hired as community health worker peers for Healing Hurt People, a hospital-based violence prevention program. It is also being used for another project on community-based conversations about trauma. The next training academy is scheduled for spring 2018.

“One of the things I have always felt strongly about is that the young people who have been victims of violence or who have experienced violence in their lives are actually the experts in what their lives are like, and their world and the kinds of challenges they face,” said Rich. “And yet we’ve often forgotten that their voices really can matter and make a program different.”

The word went out through email blasts and flyers, visits to health and community centers for young men between the ages of 18 and 30 who had experienced violence or had had someone close to them who had experienced it.

Forty-one men applied for a program that could accept no more than 10. Nine men were selected but one dropped out after finding a job, leaving eight graduates in June. The program operated like a job, with the men training from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. three days a week starting in May and receiving a salary of $8.50 an hour, as temporary employees of Drexel.

The men were taught career readiness skills, mental health first aid training, stress management and conflict resolution, how to navigate the health care and criminal justice systems, how to engage people dealing with trauma, how to network, and more.

They received mental health and other certifications for the training, and are employable in community health centers, doctors’ offices, hospitals and other health service-related fields.

“Community peers are young people who are supporting community members to figure out ways of addressing an issue or problem in life … our training was created to help them to build bridges and connections so we could figure out where the barriers for healthier living are,” said Tony Thompson, field and training coordinator at the center.

Just as important, the peer program gave them a comfortable place to be honest with each other about themselves and any trauma they may have faced.

Two of Thomas’ family members were killed by senseless violence: a pregnant aunt shot by her boyfriend and a 23-year-old cousin seemingly in the wrong place at the wrong time.

“I didn’t know how to really express what it was I wanted to say,” he said. “I knew I wanted to say something but I just couldn’t get things together in my mind to help it make sense. … This program has made me more comfortable speaking about what I’m thinking about and having more people on the same wave length to understand that conversation.”

Sometimes the experience of violence becomes so commonplace that it seems like a natural part of living for some men, and the wounds may lie deeper inside. The violence becomes so pervasive, Corbin said, that people don’t necessarily see themselves as victims of it.

“Sadly, it’s so normalized for them,” he said. “Part of the training was identifying that, and also hoping that the training would help them understand it better and help them themselves heal, if there are any lingering wounds from whatever they’ve experienced.”

Rituals were built into the sessions to offer affirmation to a group of men who are not always told of their worth. They started each day by identifying themselves, saying what they expected to learn and mentioning whom they’d turn to for help.

At the end of the day, they participated in a Circle of Respect, in which each one individually stood in the center of a circle surrounded by the others with their arms locked like a chain. Each would say why they respected the person in the center.

“It reminded you of who you were and what you bring to the table,” said Thomas. “These people may not know everything about you, but they know the action you display in the classroom. It helps you stay grounded and it also helps you keep motivated, fighting the good fight.”

“They’re exceptional young men,” Wakeman points out. “They’re not unusual young men. There’s any number of young men in Philadelphia who are already acting as healers and helpers. What we can do as a system is be more intentional about creating space for them to join efforts around healing and helping.”

Just as the program helped them, the men gave back to the community in their own way. The week of their graduation, they toured parts of North Philadelphia with a group of first-year emergency-medicine residents at Drexel who would be working at Hahnemann University Hospital, said Corbin. The aim was to try to make the physicians “culturally sensitive” to the patients they would be treating, he added, while humanizing the young men they’d encounter.

The Founders are keeping in touch through a group chat and monthly alumni meeting. They’re trying to figure out how to best use the skills they have obtained and how to stay connected.