The Youth Violence Systems Project (YVSP) is a study that incorporates academic, institutional and community perspectives on the interrelated causes of youth violence in Boston. Through a community learning process, YVSP is capturing the collective thoughts of three high-violence neighborhoods in Boston (Uphams Corner, Bowdoin-Geneva, and Grove Hall) regarding youth violence: who is involved, how is the violence committed, what are the tools involved, and why it happened. We are asking how violence is happening right now and, from that insight, evaluating causality. This community understanding is being combined with academic research and institutional data to create a virtual laboratory – or a computer model – that simulates the expected results of various intervention strategies on youth violence. The YVSP computer model will enable a cross-section of stakeholders – everyone from neighborhood youth to policy makers – to analyze the effectiveness of various youth violence intervention strategies (based on different assumptions) and engage in a higher quality of dialogue about these strategies.
A significant body of work exists which assesses various factors associated with urban youth violence. For the most part, though, people attempt to address the issue of youth violence by engaging only a small portion of the problem based on their personal experience or their field of expertise. But youth violence is a complex issue with multiple factors that must be considered collectively rather than individually if we are to have a significant impact on the problem. Our approach looks at the bigger process (the system dynamics) and brings together work from many fields into a unifying computer model which incorporates existing data and grassroots community input into a predictive simulator. Our project will help understand the systemic relationships of youth violence so that we can address the problem as a unified system rather than on an “as need” basis.
The Youth Violence Systems Project has identified what we consider to be the eight most influential components in the system of youth violence. These are: gang activity, culture of violence, personal predisposition, community context, social institutions, public institutions, family and peer influence, and individual and collective trauma. Although these may seem to be obvious components, to date no one has looked at how these are connected in a non-linear fashion. YVSP is looking at the measurable connections between these different components.
We are gathering perspectives from a broad spectrum of disciplines (academia, law enforcement, church, government, etc.) as well as neighborhood leaders, youth work practitioners, families and youth. YVSP’s computer simulation model will enable a variety of stakeholders to see how specific actions can affect the system of youth violence and what the likely results will be. This will allow community residents and other stakeholders to evaluate different strategies of reducing youth violence in Boston.
Our project will involve a phased, iterative development process. Each subsequent phase will incorporate a deepening understanding of the system's dynamics and will reflect increasing model complexity and stakeholder input. A functional system model has been developed and demonstrated in Phases 2 and 3, and will be enhanced (based on community input) and demonstrated in Phases 3 and 4.
This phased-approach permits us to receive input, build a portion of the model, test the model and improve it based on what we've learned, and then receive more input so we can build more of the model. Simulation results will be compared to available source data as well as qualitative assessment by youth work professionals to sharpen the accuracy of the model in reflecting reality and strengthening its viability for scenario planning.
Community involvement is integral to the success of building a viable simulation model. We have and will continue to use the relational contacts of the Boston Capacity Tank, the High Risk Youth Network, and other partners and community consultants to engage key community leaders, important neighborhood organizations, youth workers, families, gang members and other youth in the three neighborhoods selected for particular focus. We have convened neighborhood Design Teams, talked individually with community leaders, held meetings with neighborhood groups, conducted Listening Sessions with key stakeholder groups, and presented the simulation model at community meetings in our three focus neighborhoods. In these high-violence neighborhoods, we have sought to capture and will continue to pursue the "lost voices:" the youth who act violently, the victims of youth violence and incarcerated youth. At the conclusion of the Project, we will hold two forums for the broader community to identify what the next steps should be in light of the model's findings.