IHSI's Brandi Barnes joins effort to address community violence in Danville

9/7/2023 3:08:15 PM Amy Clay-Moore

It is no secret that gun violence is a growing public health concern. In fact, 2021 saw a record 48,830 total gun deaths, a 23% increase over 2019.

One central Illinois community that has been severely affected by community violence is just a 30 minute drive from Urbana-Champaign. Danville, located in nearby Vermillion County, is home to around 30,000 residents.

A report released by the State of Illinois’ Office of Firearm Violence Prevention (OFVP) identified 15 Illinois communities outside of Chicago with the greatest concentration of firearm violence victims from 2016 through 2020. Danville ranked sixth over much larger communities, like Springfield (pop. 114,000), Joliet (pop. 150,000), and Champaign-Urbana (pop. 127,000).

University of Illinois School of Social Work Professor Kevin Tan attributes the root causes of Danville’s community violence to a number of factors, underscoring the significance of economic conditions—a staggering 79% of students in the Danville School District live below the poverty line—a history of racism, as well as a need for more trauma-informed behavioral health programs and services in the community.

The Danville community has come together in a variety of ways to respond to the issues they are facing. The Danville Community Consolidated School District No. 118 has implemented programming and services to respond to the changing needs of their students. Through a partnership with the Vermillion Housing Authority, The Hope Center has been providing trauma-informed and culturally responsive services to youth and families in living in the Fair Oaks public housing complex through after school programs, summer day camps, and family events and engagement activities.

In 2021, the Danville School District and Hope Center partnered with Tan to offer social and emotional programming and services to students and families through a Restore, Reinvest, and Renew Program grant.

Tan seized the opportunity to collaborate with a community beyond Champaign-Urbana.

“If we just step slightly out of the Urbana-Champaign community, there are communities like Danville and Rantoul with significant needs that often get overlooked. Many university researchers focus their efforts on the Urbana-Champaign community, creating a situation where we have overlapping resources. I reached out to Danville community leaders because I wanted to go to where I saw the greatest need and where I could have the greatest impact.”

It's about building capacity

Hope Center students creating Vision Boards as part of a socioemotional activity with Professor Kevin Tan’s team.
Hope Center students creating Vision Boards as part of a socioemotional activity with Professor Kevin Tan’s team.

Through this dynamic partnership, the project team has been able to serve more than 500 students and families in the Danville community. Students and families learned about social and emotional concepts as well as alternative ways to cope with, interpret, and express their emotions in response to the stressors they experience. Participants then have the tools to resolve conflict rather than resorting to violence.

“We are building capacity on two levels. The students and families are building their capacity to respond to the social and emotional stressors they experience at home, with peers, and at school. We are also building capacity for the community to respond to these needs,” Tan explained.  

In addition to the individual counseling and programming offered to students and families, the grant facilitates an opportunity to expand the capacity of the community to respond to community needs with trauma-informed interventions.

Danville Mayor Rickey Williams with Hope Center students during a community activity with Professor Kevin Tan’s team.
Danville Mayor Rickey Williams with Hope Center students during a community activity with Professor Kevin Tan’s team.

The University of Illinois team works with Hope Center volunteers and staff as well as the district’s social workers and psychologists to implement evidence-based resources and curricula such as Random Acts of Kindness and Strong Kids social and emotional learning programs. Tan’s team also provides professional development and consulting services to district personnel, fielding questions and requests for further research to aid the staff in working with their students in and out of the classroom. Importantly, the partnership expands the pipeline between the Danville community and the University of Illinois students. Twelve social work students and Community-Academic Scholar Eve Rubovits have worked with the district and the Hope Center so far.

Introducing a health equity lens

When Tan began to explore applying for Greater Illinois Trauma Informed Behavioral Health Services (TIBHS) funding, he reached out to Interdisciplinary Health Sciences Institute (IHSI) Research Scientist Brandi Barnes.

The TIBHS funding opportunity announcement called for programs that would use an equity lens when creating and implementing programs. Tan knew that Barnes would be a good fit for the program. She regularly works with researchers across campus who are interested in adding an equity lens to their work. She and Tan have worked also worked closely through the Community-Academic Scholars Program since its inception in Summer 2019.

Tan also saw great value collaborating with IHSI as a whole. “Through my work with the Community-Academic Scholars program, I know that IHSI understands what it takes to do community-engaged work. Throughout the grant application process, I felt really supported. I really feel like the whole IHSI staff – they have the heart to really serve the needs of the community.”

In addition to more than ten years of experience in advancing community-based health equity work, Barnes has expertise in preventing stigma in accessing mental health care services, the need for culturally responsive care, and addressing other barriers to treatment that lead to mental health disparities.

“Brandi brings an important health equity perspective to the project and will also help our team to understand the community health implications of the project,” Tan said.

As co-principal investigator on the TIBHS award, Barnes will work with campus and community stakeholders to identify, expand, and support initiatives aimed at reducing health disparities through a ‘social determinants of health’ framework.

Barnes believes it is important to take a more holistic approach when talking about health, specifically mental health and traumatic stress.

“Good health and wellness are not just the absence of illness. We are affected by all of the things around us and that is why it is important that we also look at conditions in which people are born, grow, work, and age, and the other factors and systems shaping their daily lives,” she said.

Tan and Barnes hope to build on the existing work being done in the Danville community to address the root causes of community violence. This includes continuing to help community partners build capacity to address the substantial needs of the community around community violence and trauma.

Tan and Barnes will also work with their partners to increase community awareness of the symptoms of traumatic stress and reduce the stigma around accessing much-needed behavioral health services.

“There is a lot of misunderstanding and fear, I think, that contributes to the stigma surrounding mental illness. Treatment for mental health conditions should be as normalized as treatment for any other medical condition like a sprained ankle. It is important that we address this barrier which leaves many too ashamed to seek the help that they need,” Barnes said.

Tan is excited about what the next chapter of this project will look like with TIBHS funding.

“We see this work as a way not only to empower youth and families, but to strengthen the Danville community by fostering interconnectedness and community engagement. Danville schools and the Hope Center have strong relationships in the community. By working with our partners to deliver these services, we can foster community-wide impact.”