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Central Pa. community group prepares plans to tackle identity-based violence in their communities

Uniting to Prevent Targeted Violence group members discuss plans to enhance the social services in their communities.
Robby Brod
Uniting to Prevent Targeted Violence group members discussing plans to enhance the social services in their communities during a meeting on May 13, 2023.

It’s a rainy Saturday in downtown Gettysburg as two-way traffic intermittently churns past the borough’s oldest standing church building.

It’s tightly situated on a residential street two blocks from the square.

Originally a Methodist church constructed in 1822, the pentagonal brick building with a graveyard in the back became the Civil War home of a local post of the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.), a veteran’s organization, in 1880.

Inside are 28 people from a variety of political, religious, and ethnic backgrounds. They are here as part of Uniting to Prevent Targeted Violence (UPTV). The group is working to identify the root causes of violence in their communities — and develop ways to help social service organizations better tackle the problem.

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Destiny Newman works at a vape shop downtown. She joined because she grew frustrated by the lack of resources that could have helped her girlfriend, who committed suicide last year during a mental health crisis.

“For me, personally, there was a lot of issues with the crisis line and the way that it all went down with the police and the hospital. I just feel like if things were tightened up a little bit and were more organized, maybe things could have been different,” she said. “They’re understaffed. I feel like they need people. So, I think (with) programs like this, we can train more people and be more prepared for future things.”

The four groups spent the day with their service organizations analyzing targeted violence — and made plans on how to reach the people they identified as most at-risk.

Newman plans to work with the Suicide Prevention of York to create a “buddy system.” The approach would make it easier for people experiencing a mental health crisis to connect with a professional.

“Most people that are feeling suicidal are usually people that don’t have a lot of support. They don’t really feel loved or wanted,” she said. “With our program, that’s basically just going to be giving somebody a person to talk to, a shoulder to cry on, just know that somebody cares about them.”

Part of her plan involves creating a network of activists and politicians to help fund her proposals.

“We’re pretty much ready to start putting things into action, making phone calls, getting our networking going, start meeting new people, and just build a bigger team, really,” she said. “So, hopefully we can get this working and get some volunteers.”

Lance Walker owns a barbershop in Chambersburg. He partnered with the CONTACT Helpline in Franklin County to expand its reach to non-English speakers and low-income communities.

He said these conditions make people more susceptible to political polarization, the spread of misinformation, and social isolation – all of which are key motivators behind identity-based violence.

“Whenever you have these marginalized people in the community, or a lack of resources – which causes people to be in tight or bad situations – then they may either make bad decisions or act out,” he said. “We’re trying to craft a program that’s going to be as all-encompassing… to help facilitate getting these resources out there… but if you don’t know it’s there, you won’t be helped.”

Walker said UPTV has helped him better communicate what he hopes to accomplish both at home and the barbershop – even if some customers were skeptical of the program at first.

“I’ve had some people who were a little leery when they found out that Homeland Security was funding the program. Some people who have – which are understandable – little apprehensions about government and whatnot. I’ve had some mixed conversations. The majority of them have been either positive or neutral.”

He said he’s “still learning” how to have difficult conversations.

“I’ve always had to be a facilitator in the barbershop. I’m trying to juggle these different conversations with a bunch of different people in the room who are coming from different walks of life. So, you have to be somewhat of a mediator in that space,” he said. “I’m learning more how to better facilitate conversation, maybe some ‘do’s and don’ts’ of it.”

Destiny Newman said UPTV has already taught her about how to be an active listener, even when she’s uncomfortable.

“I suffer from anxiety. So, when I first started this, I was very uncomfortable. Now, I come here and I’m comfortable with everybody. I feel like I speak stronger to people outside of here. So, they’re helping in a lot of ways with this.”

The next phase of UPTV’s program begins in September, when the four groups will begin to meet monthly to discuss and support each other’s programs. The four social service organizations partnered with the program include Mediation Services of Adams County, Just for Today Recovery & Veteran’s Support Services in Dauphin County, the CONTACT Helpline in Franklin County, and Suicide Prevention of York.

Read more from our partners, WITF.