Kids in violent environments find a path to non-violence more often than we give them credit for

6a0105369e3ea1970b0147e0788976970b 320wi - Kids in violent environments find a path to non-violence more often than we give them credit for When kids grow up in neighborhoods that terrify adults, they learn to survive fast. 

In one study, 76 percent of youth living in urban areas were exposed to some form of community violence including fighting, the use of weapons, and gun violence that led to murders. 

When violence is a moment-to-moment experience, when it always seems to be happening just around the corner, it’s easy to assume that the kids are part of it, that they’re stuck in it, and that only a few of them will ever escape it. 

It’s easy, but it’s wrong. 

A recent study shows us why. Teens growing up in these neighborhoods have developed their own way of coping to survive — to survive not just to the end of the day but into a brilliant future.

Dexter Voisin, associate professor at the School of Social Service Administration, wanted to go beyond the stereotype to find out how actual kids thrived in violent neighborhoods. 

He interviewed 32 youth from the Chicago area, boys and girls ages 14 to 17. They ranged in socioeconomic background with nearly 40% reporting that their mothers had some college education.

In the interviews the youth described their neighborhoods, their experiences with violence and how they responded to it. Boys were more likely to witness and be victims of community violence than girls. Girls usually heard about the violence from friends, neighbors and other community members.

The stories were hard — watching friends die in front of their eyes, witnessing street “beat downs” or physical attacks, and hearing about girls and boys being raped.

Some of boys felt that police surveillance was a form of community violence. They reported that being stopped and questioned by the police was terrifying and humiliating – and this is from the youth who are not the criminals but just the targets of criminal investigations. Witnessing the police chasing after others or coming into their homes late at night to arrest a relative is a charged and violent experience, and unfortunately is a part of life. These types of interactions between the police and youth led to mistrust of the police and their intentions.

So what do they do to be safe?  Their strategies to make it through the violence around them without becoming part of it involve staying away from trouble as much as they can. They go to those in their communities who are not directly involved in the violence, who share their perspectives on life and will most likely not betray them.


  • Hang out with friends who are non-violent;
  • Avoid the “mess” that leads to violence;
  • Focus on doing well in school;
  • Accep that violence is part of their lives

Some of the teens did report that the violence dragged them in:  that they coped by becoming part of the violence through acts revenge (or as some saw it as acts towards protection). The good news is that they were in the minority.

It is possible for youth to rise above their circumstances, given the social/community support that will empower them to do so. This research article reinforces the idea that many nonprofit and grassroots organizations have known for some time – given support most at-risk kids can do so much more.

The idea of providing youth with something else to do and somewhere else to go for emotional, physical and spiritual safety is be the best way to implement the research of Voisin and many others.

Here are just a few Bay area youth organizations that work within this vision

Urban Peace Movement

Ella Baker Center for Human Rights

Youth Uprising

Voisin’s research can be found in the latest issue of the Journal of Interpersonal Violence. “Everyday Victims: African American Adolescents Living and Coping with Exposure to Community Violence in an Inner-City Neighborhood” 


— Makenna Berry