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What 44th Street Can Teach Us About Trauma

Ricky McCoy Sr. is coping with his grandson's murder by leading an effort on his block to curb youth violence.
Sam Hodgson
Ricky McCoy Sr. is coping with his grandson's murder by leading an effort on his block to curb youth violence.
Healing 44th Street
Healing 44th Street
GUESTS:Dana Brown, commissioner, San Diego Gang Commission and San Diego Compassion Project Dr. Audrey Hokoda, professor, SDSU's Youth Violence Lab

CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. A tragic act of violence this summer seems to have galvanized one City Heights neighborhood, and those who lost the most are displaying the fiercest determination to solve the problems that playing 44th street. Megan BROWN prepared this story for KPBS. NEW SPEAKER: Three guys parked on the corner, a block away, and they walked up. NEW SPEAKER: They came, put up a gun, and it happened so fast. NEW SPEAKER: They tried to kill everybody they saw. NEW SPEAKER: He said hold up, I'm shot or something, and just stumbled and dropped to the ground. NEW SPEAKER: I'm getting text messages coming on my phone, I see in all caps, dead. BROWN: Rickquese McCoy was dressed in the wrong place at the wrong time. He wasn't the shooter's intended target. He wasn't caught up in gangs. His murder shock the 4,400-block of 44th street. Ricky McCoy senior is Rickquese's grandfather. He says the silence was too much to bear. NEW SPEAKER: For about a week or two, nobody would come outside anymore. And we're right across the street from an elementary school. BROWN: McCoy and grief counselors from the San Diego compassion project organized a community meeting. Hundreds packed the auditorium of the elementary school to talk about their fear and the frustration of seeing another black teenager gunned down. For pent up residents, the emotional release was the easy part. Then counselor Dana BROWN asked about solution. NEW SPEAKER: It was silent. And then an individual looked at me and said no one's ever asked us that before. BROWN: Residents spent the rest of the night brain storming solutions. Ideas ranged from installing surveillance cameras to hosting a sports tournament for rival gangs. Was stuck was to heal the community, they'd have to heal its individuals. They told BROWN that ultimately, the tension in their community stems from poverty and a lack of resources. NEW SPEAKER: There's homeless, there's dropouts, there's gangs, there's domestic violence, there's bullying, there's just about anything that is in the world that is painful is on this block. On the flip side, brilliant opportunities. BROWN: The meeting inspired Rickquese's grandfather to get to work. A sign he printed up reads "neighborhood meeting" in big block letters. NEW SPEAKER: I decided I would be, instead of being a product of my environment, I would have my environment be a product of me. And the only way to do that is to get out there and change something. Okay, okay. Put your name on something. Put your favor out there in the world. BROWN: Each week McCoy welcomes neighborhoods to the Court yard of his apartment complex. He calls it his outdoor conference room. Neighbors sit down to work on getting neighbors' help. NEW SPEAKER: We always give out resources every Sunday. BROWN: McCoy and his neighbors pass around job listings and fliers for post traumatic stress disorder workshops. They talk about finding a Spanish speaker who will help them share the resources with their immigrant neighbors. The conversation always turns to the police department. NEW SPEAKER: Now we have to draw the line in the sand and say look, you guys, the San Diego police department, need to step up. Step up and step out and get to know us. BROWN: Mid-city police say they're listening. They're working with 44th street residents to start a neighborhood watch, and they've even gone door to door with McCoy to introduce themselves. McCoy is cautiously optimistic. He says he's waiting for the officers to come around again, and he's anxious to reach Marine Corps residents, especially the young ones. Jim Clark has been a 44th street resident for 40 years. NEW SPEAKER: An unhappy kid will take unhappy ways. In other words, if I don't feel good, I'm going to get even. Or if they have been treated good, then they trust you. People trust this, they're happy, they want to give back happy. BROWN: Already things are changing on the block. On a recent Sunday, kids threw down their bikes to scramble for money. The ice cream truck was back. CAVANAUGH: And this is KPBS Midday Edition. I'd like to welcome my guests, Dana BROWN of the San Diego compassion project. You heard her in that feature. Hi, Dana. BROWN: Hi hello. CAVANAUGH: And SDSU professor Audrey Hokoda, she co-leads SDSU's youth violence lab. Professor, thank you for coming in. HOKODA: Thank you. CAVANAUGH: Rickquese McCoy was not the only victim of that shooting. How many families were involved? HOKODA: Ultimately I would say hundreds. Steven McClendon, age 34, Rickquese McCoy, just turned 18, lost their lives. Tim walker also was shot and survived. However, it isn't thought the loved ones that were traumatized by what happened on June 30th. Hundreds of people, class mates that knew them, family and friends that knew them, neighbors that heard the shots, people around the block and the neighboring blocks. When you have helicopters flying overhead for hours and sirens, and screams. So ultimately hundreds. CAVANAUGH: Now, Dana, you go into communities throughout San Diego to council families after there's been a homicide. Often it's gang-related. Tell us what exactly project compassion does BROWN: San Diego compassion project is a group of volunteers. We call it wrap our angel wings around the grieving. We're trained by the San Diego police department, crisis intervention, and gang unit. And detectives. And we are individuals that when we're invited, we stay long-term. We never leave, literally. We started the end of December in 2008, and there were three homicides at that time in succession. And just a group got together and said we have to do something. So it is a collective group of hearts and souls that bring resources. We don't have any money. We're not an organization in that respect. But we have an abundance of love and unconditional support. And literally stay long-term. CAVANAUGH: And out of all those incidents, you say that's what happened in response to the violence on 44th street, how is that different? BROWN: The residents are leading this. It is purely 100% residence-driven, residence-led. And it's Phoenix rising out of the ashes. It is absolutely the community wrapping around the residents on this block, it's mobilizing the resources, wrapping around. And yet if the residents didn't own this and lead this, I really don't -- I mean, it's been 4.5 months. And we are in awe of what has been accomplished in 4.5 months, and that is because of the residents. Because of Rick senior, Rick junior, Jim Clark, are Kelly shields, some of Rickquese's friends: The youth are meeting every week also. So there is a transformation on that block from what was told to me at the beginning, this block is hopeless, now there is hope. And that is through the belief systems of the residents transforming and bringing hope and healing to this block. CAVANAUGH: Professor, let me get some of your expertise. As I said, you're a leader at SDSU's youth violence lab. Are the residents that we heard in the feature, are they right when they say that to stop violence, they have to improve the lives of individuals? HOKODA: Yes, absolutely. And mobilize, as they're doing. They're bringing together the youth and the parent leaders, and they're working alongside law enforcement, faith-based organizations, school, government. CAVANAUGH: What role have you found that poverty plays in youth violence? HOKODA: It's another trauma. This neighborhood as Dana says has poverty, racism, immigration problems, child abuse, domestic violence, gang violence, high crime. You put all that together, that's a lot of trauma and stressors. So that an incident like this that would lead to post traumatic stress disorder is more likely to be enhanced by all the different traumas. CAVANAUGH: I think people have a difficulty understanding how if you are not directly affected by losing someone, if you're not a direct witness to violence, how that trauma can actually impact you. How can it affect your life? Can you describe to us some of the ways that that aftereffect of violence changes people? HOKODA: Sure. The McCoys put it really nicely. The neighborhood shut down. They closed their doors, they wouldn't let the children go out and play. So the children are immediately sent a message that this is a really unsafe place. They go to school, they're expected to learn and concentrate, but they're thinking about their safety and their neighborhood. So they have been traumatized by hearing this, by seeing their parents' reaction, by all the cumulative traumas and stresses that they have been exposed to. Of CAVANAUGH: Dana, we hear about trauma workshops in the feature. What kind of training are residents getting? BROWN: On October 13th, the commission on beginning prevention and intervention in partnership with the San Diego compassion project hosted the first in the county trauma-informed symposium. And there are 164 attendees, and it was roughly 50% community members that had been impacted directly by a traumatic event. So the entire day was a direct partnership small group, think tanks, activities, learning, educational awareness of the physiological, biological, emotional response to your body when you are impacted by a traumatic event. When you're in a neighborhood with a multiple of risk factors, that becomes the norm and the condition, then it internalizes. And there's a myriad of dis-eases and challenges, you disconnect, you disengage, you're hyper vigilant. Our body is trying to protect us from these traumatic events. So we are striving, we don't have the next date of the next one, but we are striving very intentionally of this being another model of getting out this word and raising awareness on the impact of being trauma-informed. Virtually being informed about trauma. CAVANAUGH: Doctor, I heard that stories of people coming out of this trauma workshop basically saying I didn't realize that I was affected by this as much. I didn't realize that this event that happened years and years ago may have rippled down and affected my life in significant ways. Is that common? HOKODA: Yes, it is common, without therapy, without help and resources and an opportunity to process it. These kind of trauma have direct effects on brain development, influence, the way they think, how they can problem solve, how they react to stressors. But they don't know it. Of it's a natural reaction. We act maybe more fearful, more anxious or less anger-control than they would if they hadn't been traumatized. CAVANAUGH: Dana, I want to talk about one of the big missions we heard from Rickquese's family, to break down the barriers and distrust of police, and to sort of have a dialogue happening with the police and the community. Get police to step out and step up, what's been happening on that front? BROWN: Many, many pathways. Rick senior is meeting regularly with captain Jarvis of the mid-city police division, and captain McManis. We have officers that join us at the weekly Sunday meetings. Officer Renee morillo, the CRO for mid-city resource officer, walks the block with Jim senior and Rick Clark. 100% of everything in life is relationship building. That's where trust begins. That's where understanding evolves. That's where solutions rely. And it is beautiful the relationship that is evolving between the mid-city police division and the City of San Diego police department, and the residents on 44th street. CAVANAUGH: You use the word evolving, and I think you've really hit on something there. When you have a situation that has come from perhaps the police feeling threatened in a certain environment and the residents feeling harassed and disrespected, this is not something that happens overnight resolving an issue like that. BROWN: Absolutely. CAVANAUGH: And I was also going to ask you too, there's more to -- as big a problem as it is, dealing with the trauma of violence and dealing with trying to get some sort of good relationship between law enforcement, we heard talk of more resources. What kinds of resources are talked about in the meetings that happen each Sunday at 44th street? BROWN: Well, the solutions when the residents designed, what they wanted in the first neighborhood dialogue that Megan shared about, there were literally 15 pages of strategies. And we align those into themes, so it was activities, relationships, building relationships, information and resources, are safety and systems and policy change. Because ultimately any work that we do in any career that we have is to constantly be reevaluating our policies. Are our policies punitive? Are they about the people or about the policy? It is a caring, compassionate policy? So there is this movement that is evolving on 44th street with the residents on myriad strategies. So they are right now planning a neighborhood block party, they have already initiated their neighborhood watch and it's called Our Kids' Safety. Who wouldn't want their child to be safe? There's philosophies that are evolving, relationships that are building, are connections that are being made that are going to be lifelong at many levels. There's service levels coming to the home. So there's a policy shift there with resources that are provided in the community, bringing those to the community, that is one of the challenges for many people, transportation to get to the resource. So there's many, many strategies unfolding. CAVANAUGH: We're still very close to this tragic event. Only four months since these two young boys were killed and the third was seriously injured. Do you see this particular movement having the momentum to actually change things? BROWN: Absolutely. Absolutely. This is a model resident-driven community wraparound mobilizing with faith-based as an under pinning and embedding service models that come to the home, understanding the impact of trauma, ultimately creating restorative practices, which is healing, bringing healing where harm has been done to ultimately get to policy change so we can transform punitive systems. We believe it is a model for the world. Truly. We really do. These residents are deeply committed, invested in -- they're already being educated and trained in communication skills etc. They want to ultimately become resident leaders for the next block to teach them. It's called train the trainer, so that it will permeate out and be a ripple effect and ultimately a tipping point. CAVANAUGH: I want to thank you both so much for coming in and speaking with me.

Speak City Heights is a media collaborative aimed at amplifying the voices of residents in one of San Diego’s most diverse neighborhoods. (Read more)

When I first met Ricky McCoy Sr. in August, I wasn’t sure if he was Rickquese’s grandfather. Rickquese had died in a horrific shooting on 44th Street just one month earlier. McCoy was energetic. His browline glasses moved with his smile, bouncing up every time his teeth showed.

The more I got to know him, the more I realized he was grieving — intensely. Keeping busy and helping the community as a leader on his block was how McCoy coped.

Trauma can be a tricky thing to spot, it turns out.

That was the subject of a KPBS radio and TV segment yesterday. Hosts Maureen Cavanaugh and Peggy Pico spoke with Dana Brown, a grief counselor who appeared in my story on 44th Street, and Audrey Hokoda, a San Diego State University professor who specializes in youth violence.


The pair work together in City Heights and are pushing for more training in trauma-informed care. They said first responders, teachers, police officers — even you and I — need to understand the different ways people react to traumatic events.

“There isn’t a personal life that doesn’t experience a traumatic event,” Brown told Cavanaugh.

Hokoda added that situations related to adversity can amount to “cumulative trauma.”

“This neighborhood has poverty, racism, immigration problems, domestic violence, child abuse, gang violence, high crime,” Hokoda said. “You put all that together and that’s a lot of stressors.”

Trauma isn’t just being depressed or scared temporarily, they said. It can impact classroom behavior, prevent the sufferer from forming healthy relationships and make regulating stress and anger difficult. Brown said trauma is also a biological reaction meant to keep the body safe.

During the course of my reporting on 44th Street, McCoy suffered a mild heart attack. I reluctantly scheduled an interview with him shortly after he had recovered. He told me it was his “body’s way of telling him to slow down.”

Corrected: March 21, 2023 at 8:35 PM PDT
You can donate to 44th Street's efforts to curb youth violence by sending checks to their fiscal agent Harmonium, a 501(c)(3) organization, at 9245 Activity Rd., San Diego, CA 92126.