Faculty-started interdisciplinary group works against New Orleans violence

Cathy Taylor is an associate professor at Tulanes School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine. Taylor is one of two main founders of the Violence Prevention Group, an interdisciplinary faculty research initiative.

Cathy Taylor is an associate professor at Tulane’s School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine. Taylor is one of two main founders of the Violence Prevention Group, an interdisciplinary faculty research initiative.

Alexa Christianson, Associate News Editor

The differences in philosophy across fields such as the sciences and liberal arts can be vast — and “science people” or “humanities people” may not always agree or see eye-to-eye with those not in their respective categories. A “faculty working group” called the Violence Prevention Group crosses those divides to address this pressing issue in New Orleans.

For roughly seven years, Tulane’s Violence Prevention Group — first facilitated by Cathy Taylor of the School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine and Tania Tetlow, law professor and chief of staff as well as vice president in the president’s office —  focuses on how violence affects New Orleans’ youth and what causes youth, and therefore societal, violence. The Violence Prevention Group recruits faculty from multiple disciplines, including psychology, sociology, neuroscience, public health, and law, to identify and appropriately address the root causes of violence.

“The problem of violence is not one you can solve from any particular discipline,” Tetlow said. “You can’t look at it from just a legal perspective because you could miss so much. You can’t look at it from just a medical perspective or a biological perspective, or even sociological — it’s a combination of all those things and the solutions are really going to come from people like us working together.”

Tetlow contributes her legal knowledge to the group, but understands the importance of exploring academic areas unfamiliar to her.

“Too often, we just look at [violence] as a criminal justice and policing issue, but police can’t prevent crime very easily,” Tetlow said. “That’s got to be a much deeper discussion about education and economics and also profoundly protecting kids from abuse.”

The various guest lecturers that Taylor brought into one of her courses, Violence as a Public Health Problem, inspired the formation of the working group.

“It seemed to make sense to me, since I have all these great people [lecture in] my class, that they should be able to actually talk with each other about what they’re actually doing,” Taylor said.

After the formation of the group, members worked to make meetings “fun and interesting,” Taylor described, in order to learn more about everyone’s perspectives and what they were aiming to learn. Intensive research ensued in places ranging from laboratories to local middle schools.

“We have everything from the neurobiology of kids exposed to violence,” Tetlow said. “From a biological perspective, we have faculty who work on the impact of trauma on children’s DNA, we have faculty who are sociologists or psychologists who work on how to intervene with kids.”

When it comes to studying the causes of violence, regardless of context (domestic, crime-related, international, etc.), children are prominently sought out.

“You’ll hear kids talked about because a lot of what we work on are ways we can [intervene] in some ways,” Telow said. “If you’re trying to intervene with a potentially violent person after the age of 5 or 6 you’re almost too late A lot of the focus of this work becomes how [to] protect kids from exposure to the kinds of forces that makes it more likely that they will behave badly later.”

Faculty members in the working group can be found doing research not just at Tulane, but around New Orleans. Tulane psychology professor Stacy Overstreet teaches resilience to middle school students and trains teachers on how to help kids who have experienced trauma and are at risk for behavioral difficulties. David Seal, from the School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine’s Department Global Community Health and Behavioral Sciences, previously worked with NOLA For Life, a program formed as part of the City of New Orleans’ Comprehensive Murder Reduction Strategy. NOLA for Life works with particularly at-risk youth and young adults in the New Orleans community to offer resources and interventions in an effort to increase quality of life for all city residents.

Since the working group is essentially composed of several different researchers hoping to solve the same problem, challenges naturally appear.

“[The] biggest challenge was navigating the many different agencies that contribute to violence reduction,” Seal said. “At same time, it was rewarding to see diverse stakeholder groups develop trust and cohesion around a goal of reducing violent crime.”

Faculty members had to find a way to effectively communicate ongoing research and findings with each collective meeting.

“There’s always some ‘language’ barriers, but I think one of the great things about the group is that we all work hard to break down those barriers and help each other understand the different language around violence in public health versus psychology, versus sociology and medicine,” Taylor said.

Some members of the faculty working group are continuing research in their respective fields, which will benefit from the $5 million gift provided through the Carol Lavin Bernick Family Foundation. The gift will provide $1 million to Tulane annually over five years, and President Michael Fitts has stated that he hopes to see the funds go towards interdisciplinary faculty research.

“We all understand that the doctrinal differences we have are useful, that it’s the way you can take the same set of facts and perceive them very differently depending on what angle you’re looking at them from,” Tetlow said. “You’re much more likely to get the truth if you have a lot of different perspectives on that problem.”