CeaseFire: Harnessing Epidemiology For Social Change


CeaseFire is an innovative non-profit organization working to stop violence in inner city Chicago and around the United States and the world.

Treating Violence Like an Epidemic

CeaseFire was founded by Gary Slutkin, an epidemiologist by trade. After spending years in Africa fighting infectious diseases such as cholera, tuberculosis, and AIDS, Slutkin returned home to Chicago. There he had an epiphany. Chicago, a city with one of the highest homicide rates in the country, was experiencing an epidemic of violence. When most people describe violence as an epidemic, they are speaking metaphorically. For Slutkin, the description was completely literal.

Studying maps and statistics of homicides within the city, Slutkin realized that the spread of violence in Chicago’s inner city neighborhoods shared many of the same patterns and characteristics as the spread of infectious disease. Violence also has many of the same effects on the surrounding community: the spread of fear keeping children from school and adults from work, discouraging businesses from moving into the area, and causing a breakdown in local community and infrastructure. Slutkin theorized that the solutions might also be the same.

According to Slutkin, the cure for any epidemic, when broken down to its simplest components, is two-fold. You must first interrupt transmission, and secondly, you must change the social norms allowing the disease to spread. If you are treating influenza, for example, encouraging infected individuals to isolate themselves is one way to interrupt transmission, and starting a hand-washing campaign helps change the social norms allowing the disease to spread.

How They Work

CeaseFire uses a multi-pronged approach to changing the social norms that lead to violence. One of the main focuses of the program is a group of trained employees called “violence interrupters” to interrupt the transmission of violence by breaking up fights, mediating conflicts, working to prevent retaliatory violence, and other measures designed to change the social norm that violence is normal. Many of the Interrupters themselves are former perpetrators: gang members, felons, and others with a history of violence. As a result, they have a degree of credibility and influence within violence prone communities that outsiders lack.

The hands-on work of the Interrupters is combined with other programs including community mobilization through demonstrations, advertising campaigns, youth outreach, and more to change the social norms that encourage the spread of violence. Slutkin compares it to the change in social attitudes around cigarette smoking. If it’s just your doctor telling you not to smoke, you might ignore his recommendations, but if it’s your doctor, and your friends and family, and ads on TV and magazines then you might start thinking twice. If total strangers start looking at you like a freak for lighting up, then you know the social norms are changing.

CeaseFire’s program was launched in West Garfield Park, Chicago in 2000, and reduced shootings by 67% in its first year. Since then, independent studies by several universities and the US Department of Justice have confirmed CeaseFire’s effectiveness. The model has been replicated in several other US cities, including Baltimore and Kansas City, and internationally in Iraq.

CeaseFire has not rested on its laurels, however. Currently, CeaseFire is working to expand its program to more US cities and violence stricken regions around the world, including possible partnerships in Mexico, Brazil, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Afghanistan, South Africa, and more. CeaseFire is also working in partnership with PopTech, FrontlineSMS, and Ushahidi to develop a pilot program called PeaceTXT that will seek to utilize the power of mobile technology to increase the effectiveness of CeaseFire’s crisis response efforts.

You can learn more and connect with CeaseFire on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and MySpace.

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