Reducing violence and advancing justice-oriented policiesQ&A with Alia Harvey Quinn: Nonprofit Journal Project

Alia Harvey Quinn is the founder and executive director of FORCE Detroit (Faithfully Organizing Resources for Community Empowerment). Through community organizing, coalition development, and other efforts, FORCE works to reduce community violence and establish justice-oriented policies and solutions that lead to a safer, freer Detroit.

Could you tell us a little about yourself and the work that FORCE Detroit does?

I've been doing some form of advocacy and community organizing for over 20 years. In that time, I've enjoyed many facets of community organizing. But there seems to be a need to work with activist groups to design community-led safety programs. That is the work we do at FORCE Detroit. We focus on four core things: narrative building, participatory research, direct organizing, and coalition building.

How did FORCE Detroit come together?

In 2015, I was hired by the Faith In Action Network to create a landscape assessment of organizing potential in Detroit. They lead traditional clergy-based organizing in over 100 cities across America and roughly seven other countries. That landscape assessment allowed me to have some really impactful conversations with grassroots activists. I wanted to figure out ways that we could support their work within the nonprofit ecosystem. Because it was work that was vital, but it remained largely unsupported by philanthropy and largely didn't engage nonprofit tools for streamlining and evaluating their work and ensuring that the impact was robust. So that was the initial vision and from there, we've just grown.

In your work with youth and millennial organizing, who are you trying to reach in those age groups and what does that work look like?

We want to reach young people that are impacted by criminalization in Detroit. Young people that are part of cycles of violence. We want to expose them to opportunities to think about life differently, generally life in a safer way. But we'd also like to expose them to the world of advocacy and the solutions that are possible regarding criminalization and programs that help end cyclical and retaliatory violence in urban neighborhoods.

How are you connecting with other groups that have been doing this work for a while?

When I started, it was just by listening. I worked with several groups that were driving an agenda for this work, but had not yet been able to access philanthropy, didn't use nonprofit tools, and hadn't had any formal experience in the nonprofit sector building out programs with benchmarks and measurable outcomes. I helped show some of these groups how to grant write, how to build programs, connected them to funders that offered them their first seed funding. This was a dynamic process in which, in exchange for these skills, they were assisting me with building a coalition.

Looking towards the future, what are some of the opportunities and challenges you see in regards to reducing violence and addressing systemic barriers that are affecting Black and Brown youth?

It's interesting that the challenges and opportunities are also the same. I think one of the challenges is that we don't have a huge ecosystem of this work. It's really necessary to have very neighborhood-specific models in which people have really close relationships with people in the neighborhoods that are dealing with cycles of violence. That's essentially how people are able to slow down or begin to turn the tide on cycles of violence. The fact that we don't have that in multiple neighborhoods makes it hard for the existing programs to partner outside of their immediate territory to prevent violence that may occur between a person in their community and a person in another community.

That is simultaneously the opportunity that there is this space where we can build out programming. We can have the opportunity to shape it – be on the forefront of thinking with the community about what that programming should look like. Another opportunity is the gift that keeps on giving, the 2022 White House Community Violence Intervention Collaborative initiative, which really created a national spotlight on the potential of the work and its models. It has become a subject of interest for city and legislative leaders, for philanthropy et cetera. So now there's all this interest in this work that we've been researching for quite some time, and that offers great opportunities too.

Anything else you'd like our readers to know?

I would just [have them] look up the programs that already exist for community violence prevention. It's relationship-based violence intervention that works in the same way that you would stop a friend from drunk driving. You literally leverage a relationship to challenge a harmful behavior in love, suggesting that we know what the outcomes of this are. We don't want to see you in prison. We don't want to see you dead. We don't want to see you and those around you harmed. And the credible messengers are community members that are impacted by violence, that have legitimacy in the eyes of the community. These are folks who have been through cycles of violence, have experienced them, maybe have been incarcerated and have this social legitimacy. They can leverage that to stop violence. The model offers so much. It offers opportunities for community members who often don't have meaningful employment options. It offers mothers a place where they can send their sons if they're going down the wrong roads.

It's an opportunity for adults who are in the middle of a cycle of violence – and want to get out of but don't know what it looks like to reimagine their lifestyles – to have a partner who will walk them through the process. And then there's advocacy opportunities to speak powerfully to our legislators about the need for this work and how impactful it could be in a city like Detroit, where there is so much poverty and there are so very few ways out of poverty that high-risk lifestyles become common.

Oftentimes we don’t draw a connection between poverty, economic oppression and high-risk behavior overall. But many folks are just trying to figure a way out of a cycle of poverty and that leads to riskier and riskier behavior. The folks who are at the center of these really, really traumatic experiences are literal experts on those experiences. And these advocacy opportunities lead to people having opportunities to drive programs and show up powerfully in the world in ways that lead to quite a few other opportunities.

This entry is part of our Nonprofit Journal Project, an initiative inviting nonprofit leaders across Metro Detroit to contribute their thoughts via journal entries on how COVID-19, a heightened awareness of racial injustice and inequality, issues of climate change, and more are affecting their work--and how they are responding. This series is made possible with the generous support of our partners, the Michigan Nonprofit Association and Co.act Detroit.
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