An elementary school child looked out the window and saw his mother shot and killed in front of their home. Another saw his slightly older brother shoot their father during a domestic violence altercation with their mother. Local children have been killed over shoes and during school kickball games.
These are the kinds of situations in which Minneapolis-based Next Step tries to intervene, by talking with anyone from young students to middle-aged adults, sometimes during basketball games, and sometimes alongside them in a hospital room as they recover from a gunshot wound or stabbing. For those who survive a violent situation, the 20 teammates of Next Step ask them to voluntarily engage in after-care that can last years.
At the Black Men Healing conference at Metropolitan State University in Saint Paul, three members of the Next Step team talked about what they do and how they do it. They see how cycles of unhealed family trauma, and a need for belonging, lead many people into situations they do not know how to talk about or get away from. Today, they connect with patients as employees of the Hennepin County Medical Center (HCMC); they also have contracts with North Memorial, Children’s Hospital, and Abbott Northwestern. Funding comes from grants, state, and federal sources.
When a victim comes into the hospital, members of the team receive an alert. A first step at the hospital might be to talk with staff and police about how to adjust their treatment of the person, giving them equity and respect regardless of the situation. Police officers previously took all belongings — such as keys, identity cards, and cash — as evidence alongside the clothes; teammates helped to change that policy.
A second step is to be the spokesperson with sometimes dozens of family members and friends who come to the hospital. They work to determine which two people can best serve as the liaison for the survivor and suggest that the others go home to wait for more information, knowing that their loved one is in good hands.
Then the deep work begins with a survivor in the hospital room. The Next Step team calls this a “golden moment,” when people are vulnerable, perhaps with a new perspective in surviving death, and are potentially open to discuss what they would like to do with their one life. “When they see someone in there, who looks like them, you can actually see their walls and defenses come down,” says team member Larry Burgess. “It’s that alone time, when they are sitting with their thoughts. They have someone alongside them who is a positive, helping them see where they possibly could go next instead. We try to make sure we are with them at least daily.”
After a patient is discharged, if they voluntarily opt to be part of the Next Step program, being connected with the team especially in that first 48 hours is important. Teammates are sometimes the ones who bring in a fresh set of clothes, funds for groceries while they rehabilitate at home, or even help them relocate if they are in a triggering neighborhood. “We want to make sure to take that burden off,” says Burgess.
According to Kentral Galloway, program director of Next Step, the data shows that before the program started in 2016, a survivor had a 36 percent chance of returning to the hospital as another victim of violent crime, sometimes after a chain of vengeance. Today that number is down to 5 percent. From 2016 to 2022, they have supported more than 700 individuals. The program is one of the largest in the country — part of the national Health Alliance for Violence Intervention network — but the caseload is high for 20 individuals. In one year, roughly 650 cases come from HCMC alone.
Galloway says the program’s most valuable assets are not the resources provided, but the relationships. There are worksheets for goals and critical thinking, but there is no formal discharge. “What happened to the person has changed their life forever. We’re on a journey with them as long as they need us,” he says.
Next Step members also work with family members, giving them a safe place to grieve and process emotions. On third Thursdays each month, they host a men’s group, and a different women’s group, for anyone impacted by violence. They want to expand that work with other community partners, including facilitators from diverse cultures.
These are intergenerational conversations. “A lot of these young people believe that they are more than their environment, but they don’t have validation, or the ability to let out emotions and thoughts,” says team member Quincy Jones. “I wish when I was ten that I had had an older man to validate these things, to let out his feelings and tell me about his experiences in life.”
Jones understands why this work is so necessary. “We’ve been taught to sweep a lot under a rug and not process our emotions, not get them out in the open. It’s like having a ton of weight on your shoulders,” he says. “I work the night shift, from 10pm until 6am. I’m going into those rooms late at night; nurses wonder why I want to talk with them when they are tired and their body is recovering. When I was a child, losing so many friends and family in the neighborhood, those worries happened at night, when a lot of the crime happens. It stopped me from sleeping. When I enter their room, you can see the worry right there on their faces. When I sit with them, we unpack the trauma they have experienced. I tell them not to focus on why they were shot or stabbed but focus on the fact that they are still breathing — that it is a blessing to be here, with another opportunity to get things right in life.”
Jones says over time — and it can take months of conversation and activities together — “people can go back to issues from way back in childhood that they have been holding in for years. Trauma that sometimes has been passed down from one generation to the next. Helping people unpack that has been an incredible experience.”
One survivor had been living with no positive male influences in his life; he got his sense of validation from people on the street. Now he is coaching football and working to be a positive influence, talking to youth about accountability and long-term goals.
Adds Jones, “With the pandemic, and since George Floyd, I don’t think any of us have had to walk that and look at life through the lens of a child, feeling almost like the world is going to end, and you have been forced to stay in the house, not able to go to school anymore. Then they say, everything’s back to normal, go back into the streets. What has been put in place to address the mental health of the children?”
Burgess believes there should be regular opportunities for discussions with kids in middle school. “That’s a key age,” he says. “At middle school, you feel that you’re grown and want to prove yourself. By the time you are in high school, you are already shaped and molded. But at that middle school level, you can still make an impression on them. Connecting in more schools is something we are working on.”
Says Jones: “We’re starting to see younger and younger kids in the hospital. And with the kids stealing cars, [even if they haven’t been hospitalized], people wonder why we try to sign them up for the program. It’s because they will be the children shot, stabbed, or assaulted in the next five years. We try to be proactive. We have groups of kids in the gym to shoot the ball through the hoop and have fun. I point out parallels: ‘Where else can you learn to fail over and over, pick yourself up? That’s like life.”
One child who witnessed family violence told a Next Step member that he was doing okay; he had been back in school two days after his father was killed. The team hopes he will join the program, but they have to rely on schools and family members to reach out to them.
When people try to shake off violence as ‘just the way it is,’ says Galloway, “You have to let them know that’s not normal. You start having a conversation about why they feel like it is normal. They start telling you what’s going on in their life and you remind them, ‘That’s not normal.’ There might be friction at home, between mom and dad, or between parent and child, and we also want to figure out how we get that that repaired. Many times, kids are desensitized because they don’t feel valued. They don’t feel like there’s anything for them. Nobody’s paying attention. Sometimes that is why they find something in the streets that they’re willing to risk their life for. We have to give them a different option. Maybe talk to them about how to be an entrepreneur and help them grow their ideas. Sometimes as adults, we shut that down.”
Jones adds that being part of a pack is a way to be accepted and feel safer. “If I walk outside the door, trying to defend myself daily, it’s almost this mentality that if I cannot beat them, I have to join them. They feel loyal to the gang, the streets. I tell them, ‘The streets have no loyalty, and the loyal person is going to be preyed on, tricked out of their position.’ If they choose to be an individual, and get out of that environment, they start to rehumanize and make different choices. It is one of the most difficult things, walking away from a gang or clique.”
He shared the story of a young person he had been working with who wanted to go to a party, but knew some troublemakers were going to be there, and the location didn’t feel right. Jones asked him to use his critical thinking, to use foresight, asking: “What do you think might happen if you go?” The youth decided not to go. Within two hours of the start of the party, 85 kids were outside in the streets and one of them was hurt.
Training for the job consists of lengthy shadowing. Says Galloway, “This isn’t a job where we can just explain what you’re going to experience. I can’t tell you what it’s like to walk into the stabilization unit and see a young person whose body has been opened up, or a [family whose] baby who has been shot. I can’t explain it. Any new person on the team shadows until a person feels comfortable doing more on their own. But we always keep a close eye, because this type of work is not something that we can explain.”