Omaha's YouTurn interrupts cycle of violence by going into the thick of its aftermath

May 15, 2019

Group answers calls to CHI Health's trauma units


When Stewart Giddings was a gang member in New York City, deadly violence was a constant threat.

Today, as the violence prevention director for the YouTurn program in Omaha, Neb., his job is to help cool down conflicts before they go that far.


Giddings and his staff get called when victims of violence arrive in the emergency room at CHI Health Immanuel or CHI Health Creighton University Medical Center – Bergan Mercy and other Omaha hospitals.

"We immediately go to the nurse in charge, get information about the family and introduce ourselves to the family," Giddings said. They offer a card that explains how processes work in trauma care, so the family has a better understanding of why they may be waiting without information on their loved one's treatment or condition.

"Tensions are high, and you need to help loved ones get support and guide them about what will happen next," he said.

Next, they go into the community to try to prevent violent retaliation, working to defuse whatever disputes erupted into gunshots or stabbings.

Retreat from mayhem
Does the approach work? Giddings spoke proudly of results in one of YouTurn's neighborhoods of focus selected because it had the most shootings and homicides in Omaha for a period before YouTurn was formed in 2016. As of late April, 240 days had passed without a homicide.


YouTurn began its street outreach work in February 2017. To Executive Director Cecilia Creighton, the reduction in violence recalls a time when she was growing up in a much calmer Omaha. She said YouTurn's work is not really new to the community. Concerned about their sons, African-American fathers have been bringing the lesson of peaceful conflict resolution to their families for decades.

Then, she said, mayhem gained a foothold in the city. According to a story last year in U.S. News & World Report, police suspect there are 2,700 gang members in Omaha, in nearly 90 gangs. Those individuals, and the areas where they live, are the locus of YouTurn's efforts, Creighton said.

"This model really looks at what we can do to work with these individuals at the highest risk," she said. "We see ourselves as change agents. We're hoping to get them to see different alternatives, to resolve conflicts without violence."

Violence as a public health issue
YouTurn's work uses an evidence-based model developed by the organization Cure Violence, which approaches violence as a public health issue. Its program has three core components — detecting and defusing potentially violent situations, working with those at the highest risk of becoming a victim or a perpetrator, and changing group and community norms.


YouTurn posts anti-violence signs in the community and holds rallies to honor those who have been advocates for safety. YouTurn's outreach workers get to know people living within Omaha's most violent ZIP codes. With that foundation, said Alicia Gentle, the trauma coordinator for CHI Health's Omaha area, the YouTurn team is better prepared when they are called to reduce hostility following a violent incident.

"They really try to get to the core of where the violence is coming from," she said.

Quick response
She said the YouTurn team aims for a 30-minute response time from when they get called to a hospital to provide information and assistance to patients and families.

The hospital staff responds to the situation as a team too. "My role in this is to get everybody on the same page," Gentle said, "and make sure that everybody is involved, and everybody can talk the same language — security, chaplains, the nurses. We make sure everybody understands what their role is."


Ashley Carroll, CHI Health's healthier communities coordinator, called violence prevention the top priority throughout the system. And the effort extends beyond any particular violent incident, to what happens next.

"If we can change the trajectory of individuals whose lives have been affected by gang affiliation," she said, "we can reset the clock and move toward education and gainful employment."

A fork in the road
That ideal trajectory mirrors Giddings' journey from Harlem to Omaha, by way of college in Iowa and other wise choices. He recalled an incident that transformed the way he looked at his life.

"I was standing with a guy, maybe one or two feet from me, and watched him get shot," Giddings said. An acquaintance of the victim had approached him on the street and cracked some jokes. "Five minutes later — there was no argument, there was no discord — he turned around and shot him.

"That changed my equilibrium and made me question who I was. It changed my perspective." It put him on a path that led to his work with YouTurn.

Situational awareness
One incident where Giddings' team intervened demonstrates how the system can improve life on the street.

"There was a shooting where individuals shot into a graduation house party," Giddings said. "There were about six or eight victims. When we got there, there were parents, grandparents, friends dispersed around. One mother was off to the side, and I was able to talk to her about what was going on.

"The key was that she had no support. She wasn't getting answers, and she didn't know what to ask or who to ask. We could give her support where she needed it the most and help her get through that situation. Once you hear at least that your loved one is OK, then you learn about the next steps. It eases a lot of the tension in that atmosphere.

"When we go in (to a situation) we can look to see those individuals who may be there thinking about how to retaliate — it can be family or friends of the victim," Giddings said. "Our approach is to attempt to prevent retaliation."

And, Giddings added, the timely intervention may help restore lasting peace to the community.

"It's when things are not happening when we feel that we're getting some success," he said. "When we feel like we can get individuals to say they're not going after each other.

"There may be words exchanged, but there is no violence exchanged."


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