Shea Holt photo taken by Sarah Whiting at the 2023 Minnesota Women's Press event

How Youth Violence Happens:  A Conversation With Shea Holt 

Thanks to Minneapolis Foundation for enabling us to continue deeper content and discussions about gender-based violence in 2024. Our gender-based violence stories and conversations won a 2023 community service leadership award from the Minnesota Newspaper Association. 

 

Shea Holt photo taken by Sarah Whiting at the 2023 Minnesota Women’s Press event


At the 2023 Minnesota Women’s Press anniversary event, we met Shea Holt, a machinist by day, and a volunteer facilitator for Alternatives to Violence Project on occasional weekends and nights. He shared his story of incarceration: a brief but memorable overview of how he made a bad decision at age 17. It led to his incarceration for 24 years.

As we prepare to launch our “Re-Imagining Public Safety” series into a discussion guide for statewide conversation circles — lifting stories off the page — I sat down with him to learn more about his story, especially what led up to that moment as a teenager. 

Essentially, this is his story of what he has learned about the nature of violence.

 

The Youngest Days

I was the youngest of four. My older brother and sister were 10 and 11 years older than me. My other sister was closer in age but bullied me. Anytime we would “play,” I would literally get beat on. Most of the scars on my face and head came from her. 

After my parents divorced when I was ten, my sisters lived together and I lived with my mom, who wasn’t around much. We moved a lot. Neither of my parents and their families paid much attention before the divorce and were even more absent after. I kind of raised myself at that point.

As a child, I remember opening up the window to the one-bedroom apartment I lived in with my mom and hearing gunshots. It became natural. It becomes ingrained as nothing. It becomes easier to justify whatever is in your head later.

I didn’t grow up understanding empathy. I knew I wanted something, but didn’t know what it was. Being that young, I just knew that my family was absent. When I was at my lowest stage, I wanted somebody to be there, to be supportive and understanding.

I didn’t really form relationships. I quit high school. I didn’t know what it was like to be a part of a family. After we moved to Brooklyn Park, I got to know a cousin who lived nearby. That grew into a real friendship that still lasts today. I am very fortunate to have that. My older sister died in 2019; during my incarceration we became close. She was like my best friend and sister rolled up in one. 

I had a friend who came through the foster care system. He never had anyone who gave a shit about him either. We would hang out, talk shit, have fun. There would be small instances of bad behavior with him. It didn’t necessarily register with me, until the violent event that led to us being incarcerated when we were teenagers. Then I saw where he truly was internally. [He is still incarcerated, though we have not been in the same space for a few decades.]



Why Are Some Youth Violent?

I believe that where you are internally is what can come out externally. That “hurt people hurt people” concept. If you want to do bad or do good, you can — but at certain points of our lives, so much is reacting to internal conflict. The precipice of choosing which path.

Not knowing how to process things — because you don’t have a way to express them, or anybody to express them to — you learn to hold them in. For so many of us, it then comes out in other forms. A lot of times it is violent behavior because there is not a verbal outlet. Sometimes reacting with violence feels good because “if I’m hurt, I want somebody else to feel what I feel.” You are reacting without knowing what it is about.

If your family is not very close, then you don’t really understand what feelings are supposed to be. A lot of that is the absence of knowing what love is, or those other big feelings. If you’ve never been around it, or had it shown to you, you can’t show it to others.

Looking back, the more I’d hold things in, the less I cared about anybody. It did really come down to that: “Nobody cares about what I feel. I don’t even know what I’m feeling, other than I feel frustrated and angry and I don’t even know why.”

Some of us are afraid and don’t know how to release that. Or we lash out because we don’t know how to ask for help. Lashing out is a kind of cry for help for people who are truly hurting. 

I believe a lot of it is environmental, whether it is family or neighborhood. I’ve heard a lot of people’s stories — people feel something is missing within themselves. Not knowing yourself is where a lot of the emptiness comes from. 

They want friends. If you live in a shitty neighborhood, you pick up on what you’re feeling internally. If you’re angry or hurt, you tend to gravitate to people in those same lanes. If you’re around people who are doing positive things, you tend to do more positive things. If you are around people who are doing negative things, you tend to be wanting to go into the negative. 

Whether it is companionship or friendship, you just want to feel part of something, not alone — or even pushed into something where you don’t have to feel all the time. 

 

Why Are Men More Violent?

Growing up a boy is tied in with needing to be “strong,” not dealing with emotions because “that is for girls.” It is shitty, because everyone goes through the same things, but we don’t necessarily have the same outlets. When I was young, if I wanted to talk about feelings, I would have been ridiculed for being a crybaby. 

Where you are in your environment is where that energy comes out. If somebody says something when you’ve already gotten to a low point, it can lead to a blow-up moment. Especially when you are young, there is a lot less thinking it through. It’s just about needing to release energy. That looks different for each individual.

I have met men who were involved with physical violence against women. For them, they often feel justified. Or, “I’m hurting and I don’t care what you feel.” 

I know my traumas from youth that stuck with me were mentally based. A bruise I can feel today, tomorrow, maybe the next day. But the things that are harder to heal from are unseen. 

Are People Innately Violent and Unredeemable?

I don’t believe people are inherently bad; I think 100 percent it is a learned behavior [and can be unlearned]. Sometimes the only role models people have are, for instance, drug dealers — that’s all you know and that’s what you want to become.

It takes work for any individual to find out why they do what they do. When you can understand yourself, you can understand others better. That’s where true love and empathy resonates. 

After I learned about empathy, I finally understood much more. “I feel hurt or sad, and so does everyone else at different points in time. I can lean on someone and allow them to lean on me.”

I got introduced to the Alternatives to Violence Project about six years before I got out of prison. I went in as a skeptic, because I’d tried a few other programs but still didn’t end up knowing who I was. I wanted to be able to understand my behaviors, why I think the way I do, why I do the things I do. A friend told me about the AVP program and said, “the energy you put in is what you’re going to get out of it.” I realized that if I wanted to understand things, and heal, I had to let that wall down. 

Once I did that, and started connecting to people, and having true conversations with people — I began to understand that our backgrounds might be completely different but we’re not all that dissimilar. We’re all missing something. We’re trying to find out what that is. It’s about that self-discovery journey. 

One of the biggest things that we do in the AVP workshop is talk about the first incidents of violence. To be able to talk about that, over a weekend, builds a community. I finally got to a point of not holding on to things that I’d never expressed to anybody ever before. I felt that relief, especially seeing other people resonate as well. You see them, too.

To know that you’re not just by yourself is an incredibly huge thing. When you feel isolated, that’s when you close yourself out. “If nobody cares about me, why should I care about anyone else?” Within AVP, we really try to build a small community. Just to know that you’re not alone is a huge relief.

We all have done something bad, but it doesn’t make us bad people.