Sasha Cotton’s poignant mission can be summed up in three words: Safe. Alive. Free. Cotton, who grew up in the Historic Rondo community of St. Paul, worked for years for state and federal agencies before feeling called to more grass-roots work as youth violence prevention coordinator for the city of Minneapolis.
Today, she oversees and implements the city’s Blueprint for Action to Prevent Youth Violence, a comprehensive public health approach to addressing youth violence, collaborating with city leaders and elected officials to develop programs and tools “to stop youth violence before it starts.”
More often than not, the mother of a young adult son can be found doing equally important work building community by attending block parties and basketball games. Cotton talks about the cyclical nature of violence but also her belief that all of us have the capacity to change.
Q: It’s hard to grasp that homicide remains the leading cause of death for Minneapolis residents between ages 15 and 24. What are the root causes?
A: We do know that some of it is due to early exposure to violence. When we study the earlier lives of high level offenders, they had contact with the criminal justice system before age 5. They experienced maltreatment, neglect, exposure to violence in the home, a door broken down to make an arrest. And no one ever stepped in to repair that harm. They find themselves mismanaging their emotions and they ultimately manifest that in violence. The victim becomes the perpetrator.
Q: Yours is a public health approach, rather than the more typical criminal justice model. Why is that key?
A: It comes from believing that violence is preventable. The public health approach looks at violence as it would look at polio or any other chronic disease. Who are the populations most affected? How do we prevent those populations from catching the disease and affecting others? Law enforcement is one solution; sometimes, people need to be removed from a community to make it safe, but that shouldn’t be our only solution. We’re working with mental health experts, too. Instead of being adversarial, it’s about getting everybody lined up.
Q: You have your traditional stakeholders such as neighborhood associations, faith communities, schools and businesses. But your “nontraditional” stakeholders are crucial, too.
A: These are the people most impacted by violence. We work with, and take into account, people who have been perpetrators or who are former gang members.
Q: Why is this effective?
A: Most are now older and wiser, and they realize the error of their ways. The average span of violence for a shooter is two years, not 10. They move on, grow up. They want to give back in a meaningful way. Most youths vulnerable to violence are not going to the YMCA after school, even though they really need it. It’s these people, who know them and know their parents, who do see them and can say, “I’ve been you. Don’t get shot four times to learn the lessons I’ve learned.”
Q: So, intervene before violent behavior has a chance to root?
A: If we can wrap our arms around them, we might be able to interrupt that pattern. We talk about making sure these young people are safe, alive and free — free from incarceration. It might take a while but eventually, they are going to want real things. A job, a home, a family. Most people will outgrow the circumstances that caused them to be involved with violence.
Q: What are challenges you weren’t seeing 10 years ago?
A: Social media has definitely changed the game in terms of violence. Most of our young people are online. You did this to me … Come to this park … They have live streams and Snapchat. It’s super easy to show up immediately and perpetrate violence.
Q: Is the growing diversity of Minneapolis changing your approaches?
A: We are seeing diversity in the violence. That’s why the health department is starting a new initiative focused on culturally specific strategies in the African-American, East African, Latino and Native American communities. Services can’t take a cookie-cutter approach.
Q: How do you help youths believe in themselves and their potential?
A: A big part of it is giving them real-life examples of success to show them that they have opportunities beyond what they may see around them: Low incomes, low outcomes, public assistance. They sometimes see drug dealers who seem to have all they need. Or they see rappers and basketball players. They don’t see a lot of regular, middle class families and people saying, “Hey, I grew up in north Minneapolis or Chicago and I worked really hard and now I own my own home or I’m a financial analyst.” Everyone we have working with group/gang violence intervention is a former gang member. They’ll say, “Look, my whole job is to show you a way out. I own a home and a car and I have a family and I was you 15 years ago.”
Q: So, everyone can change?
A: We all have the ability to change. It’s super easy to become cynical. Part of what keeps me going is staying connected to my community. I show up at basketball games and block parties. I still say, “Hey, guys, where are you headed?” to kids in the neighborhood. Even though they might think, “Who is this lady?” I want to hear about their experiences in the world. It is heartbreaking to lose a young person to incarceration or a shooting and to know there are hundreds of others vulnerable to that violence. But I believe in the good in humankind. We’re all one bad decision away from being the people we serve. We shouldn’t judge others.