Last fall, Boston Fellow Samantha DeAndrade was facilitating a focus group for a community needs assessment in Dorchester, a neighborhood in Boston with several high-crime areas. Asked their opinion on the most pressing issue in the community, the focus group participants overwhelmingly agreed on their biggest problem: gun violence.
“I’ll never forget how pained they sounded, describing how they really wanted to protect their kids from all of the violence in the community,” DeAndrade recalls. “But they felt like they couldn’t.”
DeAndrade, who at the time was on leave from medical school to study public health at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, began reviewing the research on the health impact of exposure to community violence. She learned of the many correlations between community violence and indicators of poor mental health, stress, and even chronic diseases like hypertension and diabetes. DeAndrade also found research showing that exposure to violence early in life can impact brain development, affecting how children learn, behave and interact with others. Children who grow up in neighborhoods with high levels of violence often manifest this stress with emotional instability and aggression towards others.
The residents of Dorchester and Roxbury—another Boston neighborhood with pockets of serious violence—with whom DeAndrade spoke, told her personal stories of being affected by violence in these ways. They also told her there were few outlets in the community where they could process and recover from their experiences.
The lack of resources prompted a discussion between DeAndrade and fellow public health and medical school student Devin Cromartie about how to provide such an outlet in the local schools, where there is a captive audience, so to speak. They approached Pauline Lugira, the principal of the Lilla G. Frederick Pilot Middle School with their idea and she enthusiastically invited them to work with some of her female students.
DeAndrade and Cromartie adapted evidence-based, social-emotional learning curricula designed for adolescents for Frederick Pilot School using an asset-based approach, which meant that rather than recruiting girls to join their group solely because they had behavioral issues, they recruited participants who exhibited leadership potential, be it positive or negative. They also created workshops aimed at building leadership skills through social-emotional learning.
They now meet weekly with a group of 15-19 eighth grade girls, leading them through mindfulness, leadership and problem solving exercises. They practice how to self-regulate in stressful situations and discuss topics like healthy relationships, managing emotions, goal setting, and aggression. DeAndrade and Cromartie also serve as mentors to the girls, often venturing into discussions about college and current events. sThey have even taken the girls to see the movie Hidden Figures and just recently completed an ‘Escape the Room’ challenge with the group.
DeAndrade’s goal is to instill in the girls the belief that their happiness and mental well-being are important enough to merit daily activities aimed at achieving and maintaining both of those things.
“Our message has been pretty consistent: good leadership starts with self-care, followed by concern for how you interact with others,” says DeAndrade. “The things we discuss in the group are important life skills that nobody necessarily explicitly teaches you. I hope that someday the students will appreciate that we took an hour out of their week to empower them to care for their emotional and mental well-being. We also hope that by seeing and developing a mentoring relationship with someone who is pursuing a career in medicine and also looks like them, the girls will remember that such a path is attainable for them, too.”
To DeAndrade’s surprise and delight, the program has succeeded far beyond her own expectations. She has seen many subtle, but significant changes in group participants—how they talk to each other in a nicer way, how they bring up things they learned weeks ago, how a member who never spoke up before suddenly raises her hand to participate, and their disappointment when group is rescheduled or cancelled due to a school assembly or other conflict.
Recently, they heard from a science teacher who was floored when a student who is also a member of DeAndrade’s group explained to the class which part of the human brain is responsible for emotional decision-making and why, evolutionarily, humans evolved to feel fear, anxiety and other emotions—information she had learned in a group discussion about emotions just a few days earlier.
“Obviously, I set out to make a difference, but the trauma of exposure to community violence is a mountain of an obstacle in these girls’ lives,” says DeAndrade. “There were many days when I thought, how am I going to move the needle here? Is anything I’m doing going to actually make a difference? Now, I think that I am.”
One of DeAndrade’s proudest moments, however, came when a student who was a frequent instigator of negative behavior voluntarily took herself out of a difficult group discussion and instead spent her time journaling, one of the approved “alternative activities” that participants can do if they need to de-stress or take a break from group interaction.
“She was able to write out her feelings instead of manifesting that stress by distracting or antagonizing her classmates,” says DeAndrade. “We were so proud of her for recognizing that she needed to take some space, and for using her time so productively.”
Based on the positive feedback DeAndrade has received from group members, she and Cromartie are now working to sustain the program beyond her Fellowship year by recruiting other graduate students to continue doing the workshops.
DeAndrade is also looking forward to joining the network of Fellows for Life and continuing her commitment to service.
“Being part of this community of individuals who are like-minded in this way is already so inspiring,” she says. “I love my co-fellows! They are just amazing humans. It’s so validating to find other people who care about these issues, especially as they relate to health. It just reinvigorates you to do more, or to keep doing at all. I am entering a profession that’s all about service to others, so I anticipate that the skills I am learning here will be used every single day in my career.”