Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Amy Solomon and Senior Advisor Eddie Bocanegra team up in this Justice Today podcast to discuss community violence intervention. Bocanegra discusses his own experience with gang violence and incarceration and his work in OJP to help the Biden Administration tackle community-based violence. This episode was recorded before the FY 2022 Office of Justice Programs Community Based Violence Intervention and Prevention Initiative grant solicitation closed.
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AMY SOLOMON: Welcome to Justice Today. I'm Amy Solomon, Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Justice Programs and your host for today's podcast. I'm very pleased to be joined today by Eddie Bocanegra. Eddie is a senior advisor in the Office of the Assistant Attorney General. He oversees a new portfolio focused on preventing and responding to community violence and in that role is one of the Biden administration's point people for addressing community and gun violence reduction. Eddie is one of the foremost experts in the community violence intervention field he spent the last decade and a half working to end gun violence in Chicago. For the past five years, Eddie has led Ready Chicago, an innovative and very successful violence intervention model. Ready Chicago connects young men at high risk of experiencing violence with mental health, supports paid transitional jobs, professional development opportunities, and other services. According to early results from a randomized control trial, the program has been shown to significantly reduce arrests for shootings and homicides. Eddie's expertise comes from experience, which I'll let him talk about in a moment. He has since poured himself into breaking cycles of violence in Chicago, first as a violence interrupter with the ceasefire program, then as the first Co-Executive Director of the Youth and Safety Violence Prevention Program at the YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago, and then a Senior Director of Ready Chicago. Eddie has used his first-hand experience coupled with his academic training and social work to heal the wounds caused by community violence and we are now so fortunate to have him guiding our community violence work at the Office of Justice Programs. Eddie, welcome to the podcast.
EDDIE BOCANEGRA: Pleasure to be here, Amy.
AMY SOLOMON: Eddie, I want to start with your personal story. You're a child of immigrant parents, the oldest of five children, the father of seven children. You've spoken before about the adversity that you faced as a child, including witnessing violence and even murder. You said that much of what motivated you as a young person was your determination to protect your siblings. Can you tell us about that? What were some of the circumstances surrounding your upbringing and what did you see going on around you?
EDDIE BOCANEGRA: Yes. So, I grew up in the west side of Chicago, in a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood known as Little Village. And in this community - today's about 90,000 residents, um slightly a little less as when I was growing up in the late 80s and early 1990s - where Chicago was seeing homicides up to a thousand. But the interesting part about — about that is that you know when — when I think about what my parents did for a living, their commitment to try to provide for us that came in at a high expense. You know my dad had a third grade education, my mother had an eighth grade education, and yet between both of them they had to work three different jobs. And that also meant that for the most part they weren't always at the home, and because of circumstances that sometimes, you know, your regular parent doesn't always meet the — the expenses. My dad became more and more entrenched in alcohol and his trauma as a child began to manifest as an adult. I could speak about that today because this is what I went to school for, to understand trauma better and in large practice I wanted to understand. The fact that I love my dad so much, but why did he behave a certain way? And I could tell you that at home, there was a lot of domestic violence, and at school there was a lot of violence, and then I looked at my community and that too was a lot of violence. And so you would think about the places that you should feel safe, that didn't really exist for me. And — but one thing that I would say that always stood with me is, that as the oldest of five, and something that my father always and entrenched me was you know I might not always be here. And this was his way of saying that maybe he will be here you know, maybe he wouldn’t. Whether he was going to be die soon or maybe he was going to leave us. That's kind of how he interpreted the message, but that I was responsible for caring for my other four siblings and I think innate in me is a sense of — of a protector that was embedded by I would say my parents, but more so my father. And in large part it is that kind of thinking that really, you know, made me to make some bad decisions in my life as a young kid which — which again, as I reflect back, I could definitely highlight where, how, and what, and understand why those benefits were actually made.
AMY SOLOMON: All right Eddie, so you spent time with new peers on the street and where did that — where did that end for you? How did that evolve?
EDDIE BOCANEGRA: So I think for — for the listeners, I think one of the things that sometimes people don't understand is like, well you had a choice, you know, why did you join a gang, which eventually is what happened when I was 14 years old. And that came a year after I actually witnessed someone shot and killed right in front of me as I was going to a local park go play baseball, which was my way of kind of getting away from the stuff that was happening in my house. And, you know, the thing about gangs is that they truly don't discriminate and they're open 24 hours, you know, a day. And the interesting part about them is that they're also just as lost as confused as any — any other young person is. And they're often misguided but they're also misguided because of — in many cases, from what I've seen both as a kid but also as a professional, in many ways, they’re — they're marginalized. And they're marginalized because many of them look different or they talk differently. Sometimes it's generational from what they see with their parents or their grandparents, and other times there's like misdiagnosis of disabilities that they might actually have. And I wasn't surprised that just years later, when I found myself sentenced to 29 years in prison, to which I ended up doing 14 years and three months I realized, that our prison system is really made up by a lot of people who typically were very young when they committed their crime. And individuals that were ostracized, already to begin with who have had multiple challenges in their lives and in many cases themselves being victims of violence or exposed to domestic violence or similar situations like that, and it just it just made me reflect about who are the people that we sent to prison, and where could there have been an intervention for them to — you know, is it with their families, is it with themselves, is it in school, is it after school, and then to be honest it's all over all of the above. And the other part that I realized in prison is, like in the gangs, you're taught, you know, you're told who your enemy is; without even realizing, you know who your real enemy is or why. And then in prison, you realize how much in common you have with them. And I think the other part that people don't also understand — so I have several siblings who served in the armed forces and one of them was still in the army, he's based in Italy right now and he's done intelligence, he was part of the you know Fifth Division Green Berets for — for several years, an enabler there. And I think about him, I think about my other brother, and you know, when they joined the military they actually joined because they thought — you know, as a kid I was trying to join the military too, what they didn't realize when they joined the military was the reason why I was trying to join — join the service, is because I needed to find ways to get away from the chaos that I was already engaged in. And I did not have an outlet. I didn't know how to leave all this — this lifestyle. And then secondly, I remember a friend of mine, young kid, stabbed to death, 15 years old, Gabriel, and this incident made me really reflect in terms of how his family was mourning him, and how they felt embarrassed by the fact that I was there. My friends were there in our gang colors and at that moment I realized, I know I'm gonna die, so if I'm gonna die I'd rather die with a Marine uniform. And the point behind that story, it means that from a very young age, myself and many other kids alike that come from these communities are always thinking about death, because for us it feels like we don't know if tomorrow's really promised, and — and that's the reality. And when you don't have a lot going for yourself, then what you have to lose? And that's what it felt for me and in many ways that's kind of what led me to prison. You know, when two of my friends were shot and one was paralyzed, Ricardo Garcia, still was paralyzed today and struggles and — and I don't know how much life he actually has left. And I think about these are two people that protected me, looked over me. And so there's things that the gangs teach you, right? It's part of the culture that unfortunately led me to make one of the biggest mistakes in my life. But even within that mistake is what also drives me to do what I do today. In large part, you know, this the sense of forgiveness, right, is something that I'm desperately seeking for. And even though in — in my situation the victim in my case, who was also 18 years old, who was very similar to — to who I was at the time too, very recently his brother reached out and forgave me for what I've done and understood a lot of the mistakes that I made because he too was involved in that lifestyle. But he turned his life around as well, and even though he's forgiven me, there's still a sense of me that feels I still have not forgiven myself, and in large parts because I feel that society condemns people like me no matter how much good we try to do. And sometimes I have to ask myself I'm not sure how or why this pathway happened for me. But I find myself in this position, I find myself in the highest level of government and I continue to ask myself: “What can I do?” How can I bring my experience of the penal institution and gangs and — and what I've done around programs to really lift up and humanize the population that I think society has given up on, and that's how fundamentally I — I try to live my life and seek forgiveness through that process.
AMY SOLOMON: Thank you, Eddie, for sharing so much of your story. As you know and certainly for our listeners to know, it is all of the all of the what you have learned and — and given back over all of these years. There's so much wisdom there, there's so much contribution. I know from your work, which we're going to get to in this next segment, how many lives have been saved because of your efforts. Was there any outreach to you and the people that you were with to help you understand and deal with the trauma that you had been exposed to long before you were swept into the justice system?
EDDIE BOCANEGRA: Not at all Amy. I — you know, that reflect back in my life and in prison you spend a lot of time reflecting of all the mistakes you made in your life and where — where did — where did it begin? I have to admit that when I look back, I think about what happened in my home and I think about an incident where my — my dad was chasing my mom around the table. And my little brother was probably about five years old runs up to me as I was in the living room watching — and I was trying to just like not listen to the screaming into the chaos and my little brother's like, “Hey,” you know, “this is happening, dad's chasing mom. please help.” And I just ignored him, but then I looked up in his face and I saw the same look that I probably had when I was his age. So, I ran to the kitchen and I tried to get in the middle both of them and right behind me was the kitchen sink and so I pulled the knife out and I got in front of my dad and I said, “If you touch my mom, I would stab you.” Please keep in mind, that regardless of my dad's challenges, like, I love my dad because he provided for us and he was a good man, he just struggled with alcoholism. And I was about 15 when that happened, and from that point on it's almost like my dad disowned me. And he looked at me, he gave me that look, that I'll never forget to this day. And I remember on Fridays when my dad typically, traditionally in our family, we would order pizza or burgers or something, from that point on when food was ordered, I wasn't allowed to eat. You know — you know, I apologize I — I do — I do get emotional when I — this is really important for your audience to also understand, is that sometimes people see me in my suit and — they see the tie and they see the athletes and all that kind of stuff, you know, and — but if I took off my — my, you know, my suit — I took off my jacket and my shirt, you'll see several gang tattoos on me and you'll see some scars from fights that I've been a part of, but what people don't necessarily see are the emotional and psychological scars that people like me carry. And it's not to justify, you know, my actions. I know I've done wrong. I've done lots of wrong as a kid and I've done some wrongs as an adult. And I think about, you know, I’ve — I've met other people similar to myself, Amy, who had it much worse than I did. I had two parents at home and yet there's so many other people who've been part of the justice system who struggled a lot more than I have and I asked myself, “Why am I here, when there's other people that are more deserving than I am?” And you know, I went to grad school to really understand the impact that exposed to trauma really have and I've learned from folks like Bruce Perry and the ACES study these are studies that we at Congress and in other places we — we look at and help has helped inform our work. But the truth is that even someone like myself, I continue to struggle in these areas because the trauma never leaves. You just learn how to deal with it and I would say the same thing for many of the families that I've worked with in the past who lost their children to violence. That pain never leaves, they just learn how to work through it how to live with it and it's through that process that I keep telling myself and pushing myself. I hope and I pray that there's less mothers and fathers who have to bury their children at a young age and in fact they — just last week I, you know, there was three close people to me that passed away within five days. It was my neighbor, Lillian who was 78. There was my bishop from the orthodox church in Chicago who was 69, and then it was my grandmother who was 98, who passed away and I have to admit that the loss and the way I process that — that loss is very different in the way that I've processed the loss of young people. And I don't know how to process the loss of older people. I don't know how to make sense of that right now and I think that's what brings me to this work, this perspective, right. Again, I went to school for these things, to understand these things, and to make the argument to people that this population is worth investing. And let me explain why — let me just talk about the science — talk about the data behind this right, and I share my story, very openly, as embarrassing as it is, as shameful as it is, to say publicly that I went to prison for the extended time, that I did — and for what I went to prison for, I do it so that I could be able to build proximity with people.
AMY SOLOMON: As you know we're doing a lot of work here at OJP on prison reform and certainly on re-entry and trying to improve the prospects and the opportunities for people getting out of prison who are ready to start new lives in their communities. Can you just talk a little bit about your experience behind bars, and at what point that you made the decision to take a different road, and what motivated you and what helped you to change course?
EDDIE BOCANEGRA: Absolutely. I mean, you know, so when you're in prison everything else around you, your family, the world, continues to move forward and when you're in prison it almost feels like you've been buried alive. I could tell you that when you first start your prison sentence it feels like 14 years later, it's like, seems like a lifetime, and so you — so many people start reflecting, like what do I do with this time. And in my case, I was reflecting — I don't want to be the same person I was when I stepped in. And I also know that I'm not a bad person, I just made some stupid decisions in my life. And so what that led me to — to really think about is a — is education. I went in there with a completion of 10th grade level reading at — I mean the 10th grade level of school with — with a meeting at an 8th grade level, and after a few years I got my GED. And I was very excited when I got my GED because I wanted to go to college. Now at the time, in the state of Illinois, they provided some college courses. At the time we had the Pelt Program, and so I was able to capitalize of the program for the first maybe year or so. And my first class was actually a sociology class, and when I took that class for the first time I felt like there was this huge light bulb come on, because for the first time I — I learned these — these terms, these words that really articulated what I felt in my heart and in my gut — just didn't have the vernacular to share that or to speak on it. But I would also say that shortly after, going and starting college there, but a year later the program was taken out. And — and it was funny, because I would hear from correctional officers make the argument about, “Well, why should you be going to school for free when I — you know, join the military and — and I'm working here and — and I'm sending my kids through college.” And of course the people who will make those comments, because in most cases, in most states, correctional facilities are not in urban communities, right, they’re like rural areas. And the way that I see that is how certain populations, certain communities really capitalize off the misfortunes of other people who typically are Black and brown. And we're not always seen as human beings, but more like dollars, right, because it's a job security for them. And I have to say that through that process I got to have a raw understanding that there's not a lot of people that really care about your well-being or you rehabilitating yourself while you're in prison, so when you come home you're a better person. Like it really is up to you and what you want to do.
AMY SOLOMON: Yeah, thank you for sharing that. Talking about the Community Violence Intervention Solicitation, which is out there. There's 50 million dollars being invested from the Office of Justice Programs to the field. As you say, does it begin to get to the scale of the problem? It does not. It's a down payment, it's a first step, and you have helped design a very innovative approach with how this investment's being made. Can you talk through that, just a few minutes?
EDDIE BOCANEGRA: Absolutely, Amy. You know, one of the — one of the remarkable things about being at the Office of Justice Programs is that I'm surrounded by extremely brilliant and very passionate mission-driven colleagues that are making decisions not just on intuition but using data to support the decisions. And I — I want to — I want to lift that up. I also want to lift the fact that when I was in grad school I — I leveraged NIJ's research to make my arguments in school, too. To make — write my papers and I use a lot of that even in my career with the programs that I helped design. And so I say that to simply say, that while CBI is — is a new initiative under the Office of Justice Programs, on the Department of Justice, the work in itself — our colleagues here have been really working for years in this space in various capacities, whether it was with juveniles, or the criminal justice system, with trauma, and these are all related to what we’re — how we're talking about CVI work in our communities. And so, one of the — one of the large gaps that we do see in this field is that it's really underdeveloped and underinvested and if we’re — if we treat this like a business and we're in the business of saving lives and thinking differently about public safety, then it's really important that we think about how do we build the infrastructure of these organizations. How do we encourage collaborations between nonprofits among themselves and even with other institutions in government, and even law enforcement. It truly takes a community to really address the issues that we're seeing and that one agency is going to be able to solve for everything. And so what I love with our current solicitation that we have out right now, and we encourage people to — to please visit our website and apply, is that here's an opportunity to really think about how you could build the capacity of your organization not only to train the staff that you’re — you’re — who are doing the work on the ground, but you think about the infrastructure that it takes to really run a business in a community. We're talking about, you know, how do you strengthen the legal — the legal aspect of the organization or the policy and procedures, right, or HR Departments. How do we strengthen the middle management of these organizations that are constantly struggling? Because many of the executive directors are wearing seven or eight hats and it's really not fair, and yet we expect the most from them. And so I'm excited about these resources going into training and technical support. I'm excited that some of these research are going to go into direct service, because we need to start tackling this issue right now, we need to continue to focus on that. There’s — there's an increase of gun violence we're seeing in key cities right now, and in small areas too, and we need to continue to find ways. So, how do we create some — some relief for them as well? And then, at the same time there is this resources here to allow us to further evaluate and do some research, because there's still a lot that we don't know about — about this population.
AMY SOLOMON: Yeah, thanks Eddie. We're really excited about these resources. There is — there will be a webinar really talking through the solicitation but we're trying to meet communities where they are and we're really trying to build up the community infrastructure to address community violence. And when you look at the solicitation, you're going to see opportunities to start community violence intervention efforts. There are opportunities to scale and to expand efforts that are already underway but might need to go to new areas either in the city or the state. And there's also some very innovative opportunities to scale and build capacity for smaller CBO's that are doing this work. We will be awarding work to intermediary organizations that have the capacity both to train and — and help build up capacity in the smaller organizations, and to offer sub-awards. So for those smaller organizations, applying to the federal government is a really high bar, and we're really trying to think about ways to help scale up and build up their capacity. There's also technical assistance; as Eddie mentioned, some of that's going to be able to help the sites that are awarded here, but part will be available as a resource to the field because we know that cities all across the country are grappling with — with addressing violence, and looking for best practices, and best ways and tools and resources to do that. So as Eddie said, there's also evaluation and research that will be a part of this, as well, and we hope that cities, jurisdictions, organizations will take a close look and be part of what we hope is just the first wave of investments to address community violence intervention. And really looking forward to learning along the way with — with all of you and beginning to build and scale up some of the infrastructure and the best of the programs and best learnings from the field. Eddie, I want to offer a last thought. I know that you need to go catch a plane, so we need to wrap up. Is there anything you want to add here?
EDDIE BOCANEGRA: Well there's two things I'll just simply want to add briefly. One is an acknowledgement of the people on the ground who are advocating for these resources. The fact that we have 50 million dollars right now in our arsenal to really provide the support came in large part because of the people on the ground, you know, screaming and fighting for these resources. And acknowledging their contributions in this and — and ensuring that we could steward these resources the best that — way that we can; so that's one thing. I think the second thing that I want to just — for all the listeners especially for those who are still kind of up against the fence one way or another, whether you believe in this population or what we're doing or not, at the end of the day it's going to cost taxpayers money. And so we could invest in the front end and help to reduce some of these issues that were happening, that we're seeing today, reduce the cost in local government and federal government as well. And we could use this as an opportunity to also strengthen our relationships in the community, not only with our neighbors but with institutions as I mentioned just a moment ago: government; law enforcement; other institutions like the corrections; hospitals; and I think that this is a way that we could start thinking differently to some extent of how we partner with them. And how do we hold each other accountable so that we can provide the best quality and the best coordination that we can. And so, I'm looking forward to this journey, I'm excited. At the end of the day, I'm trying to make this world a better place for my kids, as well and for all those men and women that I've been able to support in the past. And so, I think this is echoing what most of my colleagues have also expressed here. And so, I just want to thank you, Amy, for the opportunity and for your leadership as well.
AMY SOLOMON: Thanks, Eddie. Thank you so much for joining this podcast, but much more importantly, thank you for joining our team here at Justice. We're honored to work with you. We're learning so much from you and I'm just so pleased that your insights and work and expertise is able to influence how we're able to partner with the field. And, you know, we have the same goal here: we want to help make communities safe for all of our families and all of our communities. So thank you so much for being with us today. For the listeners, please visit our website at OJP.gov to learn more about our programs and to listen to more justice today episodes. Thank you.
EDDIE BOCANEGRA: Thank you.
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