On the first day of class, gunshots alarmingly rang out in the hallway of the Professional Community Intervention Training Institute (PCITI) in Los Angeles, where former gang members sit alongside grad students working toward their doctorates in psychology from the Chicago School of Professional Psychology.
Executive director Aquil Basheer soon arrived to tell the students that he had fired harmless blanks as an experiential learning technique to get the students to pay attention to their own reactions and those of others in the face of violence.
Why the seemingly extreme teaching method? It’s a way to make violence prevention lessons more authentic and more helpful in case the soon-to-be-doctors some day find themselves in truly dangerous situations.
Basheer knows what he’s talking about. After all, he was once a gang member himself. After leaving the criminal lifestyle behind, he began PCITI in 2002 to give firefighters, psychologists, and other professionals standard techniques to apply toward violence intervention. In the past, the people who live in violent neighborhoods usually wouldn’t talk to the psychologists who tried to launch violence prevention programs — but they’ll talk to Basheer.
Former gang members come to his classes to talk about what situations spark violence and the best ways to diffuse tensions. They teach the doctorate students how to control rumors, restrain people safely, hold candlelight vigils for victims of violence without prompting more shootings, help bystanders, and perform CPR.
The former gang member instructors even teach the students what body language is acceptable in poor communities. Nikko Deloney, one of the streetwise teachers, told Melissa Pandika of Ozy Magazine, “You need to know if you have a holier-than-thou look in a place where people are hopeless.”
Once the program participants have a basic understanding about how to intervene in or prevent violent situations, the teachers take them out on the streets of Los Angeles for tours of “hotspots.”
Deloney says one of the most important lessons is to observe and listen more than they preach. “We call it grandstanding for no one. ‘I have all the answers in my book.’ If you show up without your book and a little communication and integrity … you can actually help somebody.”