Media Release

For Release on May 9, 2011
Contact: Sam Kim

Local Residents Share Knowledge to Help Curb Gang Violence

Innovative Community Process and Computer Model Attracting National Attention

BOSTON – For young people who grow up surrounded by violence, the path to joining a gang is a slippery slope. As youth become involved in the violent subculture of gangs, their identities and behaviors shift. They become close acquaintances with the effects of trauma, and their world tilts into a zone of altered reality.

“Gang members told us that the first time they shot someone, they experienced extreme fear, uncontrollable shaking, flashbacks, even blackouts,” said Khary Bridgewater, systems dynamics consultant and steering committee member.  “But over time, they develop an abnormal relationship with violence… and begin to use it as a coping mechanism for managing emotional well-being. The trauma associated with violence actually creates an emotional need for more violence.”

This is just one of the surprising insights to come from the Youth Violence Systems Project, a three-year study of the interrelated causes of youth violence in Boston. The Youth Violence Systems Project assembled teams of community residents in Boston’s Bowdoin-Geneva, Grove Hall, and Uphams Corner.   The teams used input from academia, clergy, law enforcement, public health, government, and even gang leaders and gang members, to find out what was driving youth to shoot, stab and assault each other in their neighborhoods.

“Nearly all (95%) of the disconnected youth of Grove Hall alone know someone who was killed in the past three years,” said Sam Kim, Senior Program Director at Emmanuel Gospel Center and project director. “Over half of them know five or more people killed during this time, and two-thirds of them are involved with the courts.”

Community residents worked alongside experts to understand and articulate a complex network of causes and effects, actions and reactions, and systemic forces that perpetuate violence. The innovative process established community residents and youth as lead decision-makers, and introduced systems dynamics modeling as a tool.

The ultimate goal: identifying and implementing the most effective mix of interventions that can effectively disrupt and dismantle the growth of gang activity and violence, saving the lives and futures of young people.

Looking at youth violence through the lens of systems dynamics as a complex public health issue, instead of a simple criminal justice issue, represents a new approach. Supported by a collaborative network of partners, funders, advisors and steering committee members, the Youth Violence Systems Project is generating national interest. Progress in Community Health Partnerships, a scholarly journal published The Johns Hopkins University Press, recently published an article about the project authored by Bridgewater and colleagues Steve Peterson, John McDevitt, David Hemenway, Jeffrey Bass, Paul Bothwell and RosEverdell.  An editorial in the same issue recognizes that “The Youth Violence Systems Project represents a unique attempt to understand the dynamic nature of youth violence and gang involvement with the explicit goal of determining where prevention efforts should be targeted… this community-based systems learning approach advances both theory and practice in the area of youth violence prevention.”

With nearly a third of U.S. jurisdictions experiencing gang problems, this ground-breaking approach to understanding causes and identifying interventions holds great promise for Boston, as well as other cities and countries rocked by youth violence.

“So many residents report being stabbed, slashed or shot in their lifetime and are in constant fear of the same,” said Kim. “Our model shows that becoming a victim is closely linked to becoming a perpetrator of violence. We are working to stop that cycle.”

Thanks to a creative mash-up of sophisticated systems dynamics theory, cutting-edge computer modeling and old-fashioned human conversation, the Youth Violence Systems Project study yields multiple new insights about the underlying structure and behavior patterns of the youth violence cycle. The insights come from a computer simulation that shows how different actions can trigger or interrupt chain reactions that end in violence. “The computer simulation uses a framework to track the complex neighborhood interactions that cause youth violence,” said Steve Peterson, lecturer at Dartmouth College and YVSP model builder.

The framework creates a common language for the multiple disciplines involved in the Youth Violence Systems Project: academia, law enforcement, church, government, as well as neighborhood leaders, youth work practitioners, families and youth.

“Now we have a shared understanding, a coherent framework, and a common language about youth violence,” said Jeff Bass, executive director at Emmanuel Gospel Center and steering committee member. “The next step is working with the community to identify and advocate for the mix of interventions with the greatest potential to actually stop the cycle of violence.”


Established to counter the rise of gang violence in Boston, the Youth Violence Systems Project is a collaborative community change effort grounded in the wisdom of local residents and fueled by the power of systems dynamics and computer modeling. YVSP continues to expand its work in the Greater Boston area. To discuss using the methodology and the tools in Boston or other communities, contact Sam Kim at



Steering Committee
Providing oversight and maintaining the Project’s community focus throughout.
Jeff Bass*
Paul Bothwell*
Khary Bridgewater*
Matthew Gibson*
Tamecia Jones
Sam Kim*
Myra Kinds*
Jin Min Lee*
Rudy Mitchell
Steve Peterson*
Talia Rivera
LeSette Wright*

*denotes current members

Project Advisors
Leading scholars and practitioners in the youth violence prevention field who inform the underlying strategy of the YVSP and regularly advise the project team.

Rev. Dean Borgman
Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Charles E. Culpeper Professor of Youth Ministries, 1976

Rev. Jeffrey Brown
Executive Director of Boston TenPoint Coalition

Rev. Dr. Ray Hammond
Chair and Founder of the Boston TenPoint Coalition

Dr. Jack McDevitt
Northeastern University, Associate Dean for Research and Graduate Studies in the College of Criminal Justice
Director of the Center for Criminal Justice Policy Research
Director of the Institute on Race and Justice

Organizational Partners
Emmanuel Gospel Center
Black Ministerial Alliance of Greater Boston
Boston Capacity Tank
Boston TenPoint Coalition
High Risk Youth Network
United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley

Community Partners
Bird Street Community Center
Bowdoin Street Health Center
Catholic Charities Teen Center at St. Peter’s
Charles Street AME Church
College Bound Dorchester
Dorchester Bay Economic Development Corporation
Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative
Freedom House
Project RIGHT

Barr Foundation
Charles H. Pearson Foundation Fund, Bank of America, Trustee
Florian O. Bartlett Trust, Bank of America, Trustee
Frank Reed & Margaret Jane Peters Memorial Fund I, Bank of America, Trustee
State Street Foundation
United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley
Yawkey Foundation II

YVSP Special Edition Review

This article gives an overview of the community-based process that is at the heart of YVSP. In addition, the story of the YVSP process is further told in three related articles: The YVSP Strategy Lab, The Reason Why We Haven’t Solved the Gang Violence Problem, and What We Are Learning.

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