Brandon Jones knows the streets of South Philadelphia, and he understands what his young clients are going through in their daily lives. He can relate.
Because he is able to communicate with the 14- to 25-year-olds who have become involved in crime and violence, Jones was one of three applicants selected from a pool of 300 to be an outreach worker in Philadelphia CeaseFire. He is one of three ex-offenders going into a high-crime police service trying to keep young people from ending up back in jail, or worse.
What makes this program different from so many others is that it is based in a medical school and supervised by academics and scholars. And though its outreach workers are out in the neighborhoods working with youths on a daily basis, the parent organization has a title that definitely lacks street cred: The Center for Bioethics, Urban Health and Policy at the Temple University Medical School.
Marla Davis-Bellamy, director of Philadelphia CeaseFire and the Temple center, says outreach workers “identify potential clients engaged in high-risk activity or who have some prior history of offending and intervene in their lives to offer them alternatives.”
These alternatives range from job training and placement to drug treatment and education. Jones explains that the job involves more than handing out fliers and providing information. “We don’t just send them to the job training center or the drug treatment program, we walk in there with them,” Jones says. “We are mentors, but we are also more than mentors. We go with them to see their probation or parole officers. We help them get the right clothes to wear — whatever we can do to change the direction they are going in.”
The center’s interdisciplinary team consists of faculty from throughout the university, including the schools of education and business, the law school and the college of criminal justice.
The outreach workers, who are full-time employees of the school of medicine, are directly supervised by a staff coordinator who holds a master’s in social work. The goal is for each of the outreach workers to mentor up to 15 clients and guide them to successful outcomes. CeaseFire originated in Chicago and was hailed as a success in 2008 after the Justice Department reported a 73 percent reduction in gun violence in the areas where it was implemented.
It is just one of several programs developed by the center. Others that are either in development or underway include a “medical home for the homeless” and a science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, program geared toward preparing youths for hospital careers.
Dr. Kathleen Reeves, founder of the center, says it is the result of a merger of two previous ventures at Temple — the Center for Minority Health and the Center for Urban Bioethics and Humanities — with funding from public and private sources, including a $500,000 donation from an anonymous trust and a federal planning grant from the Health Research and Services Administration.
“We believe Temple has the experience and opportunity to be recognized nationally as an expert in urban health, and we wanted to approach it in a collaborative way,” Reeves explains.
In addition to operating the community programs, the center is seeking research opportunities to examine the disparities between poor and affluent communities and barriers to good health practices in low-income areas.
Meanwhile, out on the streets, Jones and the other outreach workers continually face new challenges. As the outreach team was being hired and trained during the summer, the phenomenon of flash mobs — large groups of young adults congregating in particular locations — emerged in Philadelphia mainly through the use of social media. Some of the gatherings erupted in violence.
Jones, 26, says he understands the high energy level of youths and the need “to blow off some steam.”
He says the unrest, however, is fueled by a lack of jobs and community activities. “We’re trying to cultivate relationships with some of the flash mob leaders to see if we can redirect that energy for positive actions,” Jones says.
Reeves says the faculty and staff involved in the center are carrying out the university’s long-standing commitment to service, adding, “We see service not just as volunteer work but as part of our professional responsibility.”