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by Ali Goodyear

Though residents play a critical role in preventing violence and advancing community safety, they are an underused asset to these ends. Social cohesion—the extent that neighbors know one another, are connected to their community and their environment, and feel a sense of power and autonomy—can be a powerful protective factor against violence. The city of Boston, Mass., has realized this potential and enlisted social cohesion as a means to protect the health and well-being of all its residents, with a particular emphasis on communities that are most vulnerable.

With commitments from the mayor, the health commissioner, and the police commissioner in 2007, Boston launched a plan to address community violence. Recognizing that resident engagement was critical to informing the initiative, volunteers joined forces with more than a hundred city staff from across multiple agencies to knock on doors, introduce the initiative, and find out what was important to residents in terms of violence prevention.

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Youth and community members come together to share their visions and ideas as part of Boston’s VIP Initiative.

What did residents like about their neighborhood?

What did they feel were the biggest challenges facing their neighborhood?

What did they think the city could do quickly to resolve issues, and what did they think were longer-term strategies?

Out of this community input emerged the Violence Intervention and Prevention (VIP) Initiative, an ongoing program of the Division of Violence Prevention at the Boston Public Health Commission.

At its core, the VIP Initiative is a community-organizing, place-based resident engagement strategy that emphasizes community organizing and mobilization to prevent violence throughout five Boston neighborhoods. Within each neighborhood, the initiative funds community-based organizations to develop and coordinate resident-led coalitions to identify prevention strategies that work for residents where they live. The five coalitions are charged with developing a neighborhood-specific violence prevention plan that addresses the social, environmental, and structural factors that contribute to violence. Each coalition has a neighborhood-specific focus, and many coalitions involve local businesses, youth organizations, and community police officers, to name a few.

Through increased mobilization of community members and increased coordination of city agencies, the VIP Initiative works to promote positive out-of-school activities and employment options, address the built environment, develop community-wide responses to violence, and mobilize residents to create sustained change within their communities.

Refinements Since 2007
Since its inception in 2007, Boston’s VIP Initiative has seen some significant updates. Methods of gathering resident input now include a feedback loop enabling staff to reconnect with residents and make sure they have correctly interpreted the input provided. To allow for the development of new strategies and opportunities for residents to get involved, the VIP Initiative has moved toward an emphasis on trauma-informed organizing to take into account the experiences of many residents living in areas with high levels of violence, as well as other challenges.

A Twist on ‘VIP’
Continually, Boston’s VIP Initiative is enhancing strategies and finding creative ways of approaching the initiative’s original objectives. This includes using community arts to respond to incidents of community violence, in addition to more traditional peace walks. And in many neighborhoods, the term VIP itself has changed from ‘Violence Intervention and Prevention’ to ‘Village in Progress’ to emphasize and heighten the vision that the initiative helps to promote. This change emerged directly out of the neighborhoods themselves, as residents called for a reframing of the approach.

Partnerships Among Coalitions
Community mobilization is a large piece of the violence prevention puzzle. The city of Boston has provided violence prevention practitioners nationwide with a successful community engagement model. Although community organizing is essential to successfully preventing violence, it’s no easy task. Providing training and technical assistance to community organizations to build their capacity is critical to program success, as is assigning dedicated staffing to community violence prevention initiatives that ensure staff visibility within communities. To tap into the full potential of mobilizing communities to prevent violence, promoting partnerships between and among coalitions is important, such that they can build relationships and learn from one another. Through Boston’s VIP Initiative, the violence prevention community has also learned about the important benefits of ensuring diverse leadership in community coalitions, including young people, long-time community residents, and local businesses.

Safe communities are made up of empowered residents. The type of community engagement and support demonstrated in Boston is allowing residents to become the most powerful force for change in their communities.

For more information on Boston’s VIP Initiative, visit the Boston Public Health Commission.

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The National Forum on Youth Violence Prevention Newsletter is prepared under Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) Cooperative Agreement No. 2014–MU–FX–K021 with Development Services Group, Inc. The views, opinions, and content of this newsletter do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or policies of OJJDP.