Interview with Stefanie Wakeman and Tony Thompson
Briefly introduce your program and the population that it serves
Our SMSV project is designed to support and bring in the voices of young men with lived experience of violence into all aspects of healing. It has three primary areas of focus- our Community Health Worker Peer (CHWP) Training Academy, incorporating CHWPs into our Healing Hurt People Teams, and initiating SELF CYPHERs (Community of Young People Healing Experiencing and Rebuilding) throughout Philadelphia.
Through our Community Health Worker Peer (CHWP) Training Academy, young men participate in a training process based in Popular Education, a framework of mutual learning and development. During this time, they build connections- our first training group referred to themselves as a “brotherhood”- and create a strong training base so that they can go and work in other serving systems such as hospitals, schools, mental health programs; any place where we know there are many people experiencing violence and trauma, but the people providing support don’t come from the same backgrounds and lived experiences.
There is a false dichotomy about the helpers and the helped, and the reality is that we are all those things. The focus of our project is to turn up the volume of young men as healers and helpers, and providing not only training and support around that, but also working to create opportunities for them to be in those roles.
We have hired two CHWP Training Academy participants to join the Healing Hurt People team to team with our Community Intervention Specialists, in order to provide a more comprehensive net of support for the young people that we serve through our program.
We also have have our SELF CYPHERS, which are community-based, trauma-informed conversations that are guided by our team and CHWP Alumni. These conversations invite young people who may not be associated with any other type of trauma-focused service, to have a 10 session guided conversation about the impact of violence, trauma, social inequities in their lives and in their community. Using the framework of SELF (Safety, Emotions, Loss/Letting Go, and Future), these conversations tap into experiences that young men have had around violence, and give them a safe place to explore their feelings, identify how they build safety, and share their thoughts about the future.
What have you found to be the biggest need for this population and how has your program addressed that need?
The reality is that young people need a forum to process and talk about the things that are happening in their lives. We noticed that when people came in to meet the young men in the CHWP Training Academy, they stressed how exceptional it is to see young men in this capacity doing the work.
As professionals, community-based organizations, and members of this community, we have not done a good job of reaching out/inviting in young people from this demographic. When we have intelligent, highly trained and passionate young men apply for positions, an implicit bias that comes out about a young man being in helper, a nurturer, supporter capacity, and we need to push back against this narrative and provide more opportunity and access for these young men.
In our first cohort, we started to be intentional about our language when people would say how amazing our academy participants were, and we would agree that yes they are amazing and exceptional young men, but that they aren’t unusual young men. There are a number of young men who are working on their own to help and heal in communities, and opportunities like this are tapping into what is happening naturally for them in other places. This work is chipping away at the narrative of individuals traditionally seeing these young men as clients or patients, but that these young men are also helpers and healers. Our programs will be stronger if we work to bring those voices in.
What are you proudest regarding your work through the SMSV grant?
Celebrating the completion of our first CHWP training academy and SELF CYPHER, those moments were very special. During our final week of training, we had one member who couldn’t complete the training because he had personal circumstances that he needed to address. The cohort was very upset that he couldn’t continue the training, and it took some processing and we watched the young men process from a place of anger and disappointment to place of understanding and support. They invited the young man back in for a closing conversation and to tell him that they support and love him, and whatever he needed they were behind him 100%. This was a perfect example of what it means to be a peer, and the CHWP Alumni showed us what it means to be a support and the connection that these young men created. They decided as a group how to show up for each other as peers. They exemplified a brotherhood, and it was an exceptional thing to experience.
What new relationship or resource have you found to help move your work forward?
This project could not have been possible without the support of so many partners. Key partners have been:
- Dornsife Center for Neighborhood Partnerships at Drexel University who provided space, support around career readiness, and financial support.
- PowerCorps PHL, a local AmeriCorps program, who hosted our first SELF CYPHER. They were interested in adding more trauma-informed conversations and having that in a supported way.
- Penn Center for Community Health Workers who provided trainers, materials, support and helped to strategize this work with us.
- City of Philadelphia who connected to many opportunities and potential partners
- Office of Grants for City of Philadelphia with their connections to many other programs has been a wonderful bridge for us
- Mental Health Partnership is working with us this year to pair our CHWP training with Certified Peer Specialist (CPS) training to create a stronger training base around understanding the impact of trauma and violence on mental health in a way that is not stigmatizing.
What is something positive a client or partner said about your work related to the SMSV grant?
This work has been transformative for those that have been a part of it; there are so many small moments that stand out. The moment that CHWP participants started to refer themselves as a brotherhood. When someone says thank you. Participants at our SELF CYPHER said, “Thank you creating this space, thank you for allowing us to be ourselves, thank you for taking the time to connect with us and be a mentor without judgement.” This is a reinforcement of the need to continue to do more because of the positive outcomes and the way participants talk about their experiences as transformative and meaningful.
What have you learned that you will carry with you as you continue this work?
The privilege of being able to part of a project that promotes innovation and engaging with young people differently; that is what I want to keep doing. There are so many people who are interested in getting on board with this kind of work, when they are invited to do so. Initiatives and work like this can’t survive without going out, making connections and building relationships. Taking time to educate, share, and learn together in order to create something new. In order to change narratives, it requires having profound and sometimes uncomfortable conversations with people about young people and the work that we do.