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Photo by Suchact Pederson Yasser Payne (left) with Darryl “Wolfie” Chambers, one of 15 residents selected to help with the survey project. Chambers, who has been shot twice and lost a son to street violence, is now a graduate student at UD.
Photo by Suchact Pederson Tony Wilson (seated, left) and his son Shawn filled out Payne’s survey at Winston A. Truitt Park in Southbridge. “We don’t even have a community center,” Wilson said.
Photo by Suchact Pederson More than half of the 520 people surveyed had a relative who had been killed with a gun.
Photo by Suchact Pederson Payne’s research revealed a deep connection between physical and “structural” forms of violence, such as unemployment and poor schooling opportunities.
Photo by Suchact Pederson Memorial on the outside wall of the KNF corner store in Southbridge, a neighborhood ravaged by violence in Wilmington, Del.

Shootings and drug deals go down in the shadows of the world’s corporate capital. Newspapers tell the story in boldface type:

  • Man faces murder charges in connection with June shooting
  • City’s 19th homicide victim killed this morning
  • Wilmington named most dangerous city in the U.S. by parenting magazine
  • Wilmington, Del., had 27 homicides in 2010, setting a record for the city. It was matched in 2011.
  • Nearly half of all U.S. murder victims in 2005 were black. Most of the victims (93%) were killed by another black.
  • The U.S. violent crime rate rose 17% in 2011. It was the first increase since 1993.

Yasser Payne sees the headlines. He reads the articles. Indeed, he’s quoted in many of them. But for the associate professor of Black American Studies whose research centers on “the streets of Black America,” there’s a far more meaningful story being told, a prevalent message upon which he sees arguments, opinions and policies increasingly being based.

And it’s simply this: resiliency.

“Time and again, it’s the same message: Black men are not resilient. They’re not employed, not in school, not marriageable,” says Payne, rattling off the criticisms with the fluid voice of someone who has built an academic career studying them. “And that’s not true.”

Studying “street life”

Payne’s research has long been focused on the theme of resiliency in black, urban communities, with the overarching belief that “whoever controls that argument controls the people.”

His most recent study took him into the headline-making East Side and Southbridge sections of Wilmington, where 10 percent of the city’s homicides took place in 2010.

He was tasked by the city’s HOPE Commission, which aims to revitalize Wilmington’s underserved communities, to document the relationship between structural opportunity and physical
violence in these two areas.

Funded with $200,000 in federal stimulus money, $200,000 from the University’s Office of the Provost and $35,000 from the United Way, he and a team of 15 researchers from the community—all black, some ex-felons, each one trained by Payne in the areas of research methods and statistical analysis—canvassed the two neighborhoods.

From February to August 2010, they surveyed 520 people between the ages of 18–35, a representative sample of one-third of the area’s total population of 1,584 in that age group (based on 2000 census data), for their pilot ethnographic community needs assessment.

The findings served to validate Payne’s theory on resiliency.

The silver lining

More than 80 percent of the survey respondents reported satisfaction with their lives. Nearly 95 percent labeled themselves “useful to have around.” Three in four felt a responsibility to improve their communities.

“Our data challenges status quo interpretations of low-income black youth,” says Payne. “Participants love themselves, love their communities, want to work and want to be educated even in the face of overwhelming social and structural violence.”

It’s an “inherently counterintuitive” finding, he acknowledges.

In fact, the very same survey shows that nearly half have less than a high school education and only one in five holds full-time employment.

“So then how do you explain optimal psychological well-being,” Payne asks, rhetorically, adding that his next research study will aim to better understand this paradox.

An affected community

Payne’s 18-page questionnaire, which examined all aspects of daily life and exposure to violence, found a deep connection between community violence and structural inequities.

In one of his interviews, he asked a 20-year-old man from the East Side to define community violence.

“It means a community is basically disagreeing on something, and the only way they know how to solve their problems is through physical violence,” said Mohammad Dominique Chambers, the son of Payne’s lead research associate, Darryl Chambers.

Better known in the community by his nickname Pop-Pop Solid, the young Chambers was shot and killed in September 2011.

The tragedy was one of 27 homicides to take place in the city that year.

“Residents, by and large, report countless incidents of being directly and indirectly exposed to experiences of violence in the form of physical assaults, knifings, shootings, drug use and sales and homicides,” Payne and his team state in the executive summary of their findings, which will be released next spring.

They also report high rates of “structural forms of violence,” such as unemployment (64 percent), poor schooling opportunities (44 percent with less than a high school diploma), unhealthy living conditions (64 percent in low-income housing), and “failing,” “corrupt” or
“impotent” civic and political leadership.

Approximately 20 percent had been chased by gangs or individuals, about 25 percent had been attacked or stabbed with a knife and nearly 20 percent had been victims of gunshots.

More than half (54.6 percent) had a relative who had been killed with a gun. Nearly 60 percent had lost a friend to gun violence, and on average, most of their friends’ deaths had occurred before their 18th birthday.

“Structural inequality is chiefly predictive of physical violence,” Payne concludes. “There’s no quick and easy fix, but to reduce the violence and, ultimately, the crime, residents need more and better opportunities, educationally, professionally and socially.”

Training a ‘guy from the hood’ creates positive change

Yasser Payne had seen it done before, and he was intrigued.

The Participatory Action Research (PAR) model, in which members of a population under study conduct research in and on their own communities, had been successfully adopted in public health campaigns, in education initiatives, even in his own mentor’s scholarship.

So why not in black men from the criminal justice system, he wondered.

As the UD associate professor soon found, the methodology has proven to be a highly effective research tool, and more importantly, “an action in social justice.”

In a recent study of two of Wilmington’s high-crime neighborhoods, Payne worked with the city’s HOPE Commission to create a 15-member research team composed of neighborhood residents charged with interviewing and surveying their communities on the causes of violence.

“Send us your hardest guys,” Payne remembers saying at the outset. His goals were big: “Let me train a guy from the ‘hood,’ and train him like a doctoral student.”

Of the 150 who applied, Payne chose 15 participants—both males and females, all black and many with criminal records—for his “Safe Communities” employment and training project.

True to his word, “I taught them survey design, data analysis and research methods like I teach my graduate students,” he says. “Nothing was watered down.”

The team, who referred to themselves as the “PAR family,” conducted advanced-level research on the East Side and Southbridge communities of Wilmington, reviewed subject literature, formally presented their findings and created numerous public service projects, including a soundtrack, public service announcement (PSA) and memorial video for the city’s homicide victims.

Today, two of his 15 participants are enrolled in graduate school, including Darryl “Wolfie” Chambers, a research associate in the Center for Drug and Alcohol Studies and UD student with research interests in the mental health needs of high-violence communities.

Chambers first met Payne through the HOPE Commission, and the professor’s words had a profound impact on the Wilmington resident.

“Studying the streets is a billion-dollar industry,” Payne told him. “Federal and state dollars are poured into understanding the community, with researchers studying our community from afar. They tell our story through numbers and data. We need to be part of that conversation.”

For Chambers, the message was clear: I need to be part of that conversation.

“I’ve been shot twice. My child was murdered. I’ve seen friends killed in front of me,” Chambers says. “I’m part of this community, but now I’m also a translator—the connective tissue, the linchpin—between the University and the streets.”

For Payne, Chambers’ story—indeed, the stories of the entire 15-member team—epitomizes his overarching belief that the black community is far more resilient than mainstream scholars, politicians and policymakers surmise.

“These are success stories we want to replicate,” he says, adding that one of his next areas of focus is to move PAR methodology into high schools, with a particular focus on recruiting students from alternative discipline schools who have failed in traditional education environments.

“The PAR model of research speaks to the very heart of our goals as scholars, as social activists, as promoters of social justice,” Payne says. “If you arm your community with knowledge, you can create lasting change.”