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First class of violence interrupters graduates from Peace Academy

Privately funded program is meant to train those who mediate conflicts on the streets of D.C.

Lashonia Thompson-El, executive director of Peace for DC, addresses the D.C. Peace Academy's graduating class. (Emily Davies/TWP)

Antoine Thomas did not know how to reach one of the young men he was supposed to steer away from violence. The teenager, he said, had told him not to bother offering any more city services. He was just not interested in being helped.

Then, Thomas, 47, remembered a training session about empathy and childhood trauma at the D.C. Peace Academy, a privately funded program for the people tasked with mediating street conflicts.

“I realized the boy was probably used to people giving up on him, so I decided not to go down that road,” said Thomas, an advocate with the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services. “I showered my love on him instead.”

He said the boy eventually agreed to complete his high school education.

New academy will train workers who mediate conflict on D.C. streets

On Thursday, Thomas was one of 23 community violence intervention workers to graduate from the D.C. Peace Academy as part of its first cohort. The 13-week program had violence interrupters attend six-hour sessions every Tuesday and Thursday, where participants learned about everything from conflict resolution to cognitive behavioral therapy to how to treat bullet wounds. Academy leaders say they plan to train the roughly 250 violence intervention workers employed by various nonprofits and arms of the city government by the end of next year. The next cohort begins in September.

The graduation ceremony sought to offer hope for a city struggling with rising homicides. Violence intervention workers — community members hired by the city to engage one-on-one with those most at risk of committing crimes — can be an important tool for the government to keep people safe without relying too heavily on police. But experts say that those workers are only as effective as their training.

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), who attended the graduation ceremony Thursday, praised the academy and thanked the students for “doing a really tough job” on behalf of the city. But facing questions about a recent spate of shootings — including one in which a violence interrupter was wounded — the mayor said she had “limited information” about whether violence intervention was an effective strategy to reduce crime.

“I hesitate to say it’s 100 percent right,” she told reporters. In a separate statement, she said that areas with the most violence interrupters have seen violent crime drop by 16 percent.

The academy was funded by donations through Peace for DC, a nonprofit organization founded by local restaurant owner Roger Marmet after his 22-year-old son, Tom, was killed by a stray bullet in 2018.

Lashonia Thompson-El, executive director of Peace for DC, said one of the most important components of the academy was creating space for the students to heal from their own trauma. Some people hired to work in the city’s most dangerous neighborhoods have served time in prison themselves. Some have lost family or friends to gun violence. Each one is asked by the city to put themselves in harm’s way to protect others.

Andraè Brown, a psychologist and president of a consulting firm, provided life coaches and mental health sessions to the academy. He said there were multiple sessions where violence interrupters began to notice ways they were misdiagnosed as children by people who did not understand the environmental pressures they faced.

“Trauma can dull your cognitive abilities,” he said. “People want to be healed.”

Some violence interrupters said they had started meditating and using cognitive behavioral therapy exercises since enrolling in the academy.

Nneka Grimes, a former violence interrupter who recently launched a nonprofit organization to bring technological training to underserved youths, said she has used a “tragedy exercise” she learned in the academy with teenagers in her community.

“I have put in a lot of effort over these last three months,” she added. “I haven’t had this much information given to me since college.”

After each graduate walked across the stage, their classmates cheered and hollered inside jokes.

“Stan the Man!” one student shouted.

“That’s right, Stan!” another yelled.

Stanley Jones, a program coordinator with the Alliance of Concerned Men, walked across the stage. “Appreciate it,” he replied with a grin.