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Heal 901 cultivates the minds of young leaders to help cure community violence


Violence is a social disease that has become an epidemic in many cities across the country. And like any epidemic, ending it requires three key steps: interrupting transmission, preventing transmission and changing norms.

By approaching violence as a public health issue, Heal 901 in Memphis, Tennessee, seeks to proactively interrupt and prevent violence to stop its spread across communities and generations.

Founded in 2018 by K. Durell Cowan, Heal 901 cultivates youth leadership and well-being through evidence-based programs that address youth violence. Heal 901 also provides multiple community outreach services and is a licensed mental health service provider.

Leading with lived experience as residents born and raised in Memphis, Heal 901 staff provide culturally responsive coaching, education, mentorship and mental health services to more than 1,000 primarily Black youths through programs such as Coaching Boys Into Men, Athletes as Leaders and Shifting Boundaries.

“As a Black-led organization, we possess the cultural knowledge to provide services that are community-centered and community-driven. The majority of our organization leaders are from Memphis. This makes the work personal,” Cowan said.

Heal 901 Cures

Through a partnership with the Shelby County Health Department and Cure Violence Global, Heal 901 launched the Heal 901 Cures pilot project in 2022.

The Cure Violence approach includes three components:

Detecting and interrupting potentially violent conflicts

Trained violence interrupters and outreach workers prevent violence by identifying and mediating potentially lethal conflicts and then following up to make sure the conflict doesn’t reignite.

Identifying and changing behaviors of people at highest risk

Trained outreach workers implement a culturally appropriate and trauma-informed approach to reduce the risk of those most likely to commit violence and to promote health equity. Outreach workers meet those at highest risk where they are at, talk to them about the costs of using violence and help them get the social services they need – such as job training or treatment for substance abuse.

Mobilizing the community to change norms

Staff engage leaders in the community, residents, local business owners, faith leaders and service providers to coordinate and convey the message that violence is not acceptable.

As part of its pilot, Heal 901 placed violence interrupters throughout the Whitehaven neighborhood in South Memphis to help de-escalate threats of violence before they could possibly turn deadly.

Other efforts are school-based and embedded into the school day in Memphis-Shelby County Schools.

By meeting with principals and other key stakeholders, Heal 901 staff train and teach them the fight against youth violence is not hopeless, and that prevention with sustainability can have a long-lasting impact.

Let's stay in touch Sign up for our newsletters SubscribeIn a city where nearly 75% of its citizens are people of color, Cowan said that Heal 901 wants to be a permanent fixture in the school system.

Memphis has the highest rate of youth violence in the state, Cowan said. By working with young people during their developmental years, their efforts will have lasting results that carry on into adulthood.

“We’re also looking at implementing the same programs that we do in schools for our athletes into the community as well. We’re partnering with HopeWorks to get ready to start GED classes inside of the target area. So we’re bringing a lot of the resources directly to those who are in need of the services the most,” Cowan said.

“The need is great in our area. And the reason that this organization grows is because of the investment that we make in the community and making sure that we’re a presence in the community. We want to make sure that we’re available when the community needs us the most.”

Taking care

Cowan acknowledged that the work is challenging, and it is stressful.

There are roadblocks, funding hurdles and political issues to navigate, but Cowan said it’s important not to get discouraged.

Whether it’s taking time away from work for a week, or taking a few moments in Heal 901’s meditation room, self-care is crucial, both for himself and Heal 901 staff.

“You’ve got to take care of yourself first. You’ve got to heal yourself,” Cowan said.

“We’re all flawed individuals, we’re humans, we’re all going to make mistakes. But it’s about making sure that you’re always putting your best foot forward when you’re in the community and in your private life. Just making sure that you’re representing everything that you say that you’re teaching others,” Cowan said. “We are living examples.”

While not everyone is receptive to Heal 901’s efforts, Cowan believes that people are more than the circumstances they find themselves in.

“But I’ve moved away from using the word resilient. Because to say that someone or something is resilient means that you understand that there were obstacles in front of them that they shouldn’t have had to face that they overcame. The goal is to remove the obstacles. We should remove these obstacles and make sure that everyone has a right to live their best life,” Cowan said.

“We need to give people opportunity. People need living wages,” he said. “What we invest in our young people and their future will determine how far we go not only in Memphis, but as a country as a whole.”

Supporting systemic sustainable change

Heal 901’s success with “Cultivating the Minds of Young Leaders” illustrates a new way of dealing with conflict by giving young people strategies to do so.

The organization collects data from all its programming, and has shared results and lessons learned at several local, statewide and national conferences.

While Heal 901 has had great success, they are also looking to the future and developing strengths that create systemic and sustainable changes for the youth in Memphis, said Heal 901 Chief Compliance Officer Brandon Ousley.

“Their future is important and proper investments must be made in their lives to be the leaders our communities desperately need,” Ousley said.

That means that Heal 901 intentionally integrates economic opportunity in its programs. Heal 901 Cures has helped to provide more than 60 young adults secure employment with wages of at least $17.65 an hour, with six youths entering trade school or college within three months of programming.

The work of Heal 901 is driven by the principles of community mobilization, which means the community works together toward a common goal, Ousley said. Because many have expressed concerns about youth violence, Heal 901 hosts community forums to listen and strategize with residents to develop an action plan with clearly identifiable goals and objectives.

For example, housing is a significant barrier for young adults in Memphis. In fact, 30% of Memphis neighborhoods experienced a rapid increase in housing costs (an increase above the regional median) between 2000 and 2017. Nearly 25,000 low-income Memphis households (18% of all low-income households) live in low-income neighborhoods at risk of, or already experiencing, gentrification and/or displacement, especially within the urban core and in northern Memphis neighborhoods.

Hearing the voices of people living in the city, Heal 901 joined the Community Alliance for the Homeless. The Alliance works collaboratively to address the housing needs of residents in the city, which can include assisting with rapid rehousing or providing emergency shelter.

Even with these barriers, there is still hope. Memphis currently has about 670,000 available jobs, the highest number of openings ever, and continued economic gains in the city will help with some of the issues communities are facing, Ousley said.

“Because Heal 901 sees violence as a disease, we recognize it must be treated at all levels. We focus our efforts at every entry point of this disease – the individuals, schools and neighborhoods to be the cure that stops the spread,” Ousley said.

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