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An Interview with Eddie Bocanegra, Senior Advisor for Community Violence Intervention, Office of the Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Justice Programs.

In 2022, Eddie Bocanegra joined the Department of Justice as a Senior Advisor for Community Violence Intervention in the Office of the Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Justice Programs. He provides counsel and coordinates outreach on OJP’s Community Violence Intervention and Prevention Initiative (CVIPI), a centerpiece of the Biden Administration’s public safety and violence reduction strategy. Prior to joining the DOJ, he held many positions within the city of Chicago, including serving as senior director of READI Chicago, where he oversaw implementation of its evidence-based and trauma-informed program to reduce gun violence and promote safety and opportunity in the city. We spoke with Eddie in the lead-up to the DOJ’s 2024 CVIPI Grantee Conference in Chicago in April 2024.

Eddie Bocanegra: First let me say thanks for this opportunity. I’ve been looking forward to this conversation, particularly for this audience. I feel like I owe quite a bit to philanthropy, and I’m hoping that whatever light I can share might encourage your stakeholders to continue to think about this work and the impact of their investment.

Let’s start with the big picture. In your LinkedIn profile, you include a quote from the Swiss psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross: “The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern.” Why does that quote resonate with you?

I come to this work knowing that at a young age, I’ve harmed my community and as a result, I bear some of the responsibility for what my community struggles with today, safety.  Which is why I am always thinking: How can I do the best with what I have and with what I know? 

And so when I think about Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and that quote, I think about people that I’ve been so fortunate to work with, people who, in some of the most vulnerable times in their lives, have invited me into their homes and to witness some of their suffering and their heartache. I’ve witnessed people forgive those who have harmed their loved ones. I have witnessed people take their suffering to help others heal. I’ve witnessed how people come together to show compassion for one another. This group of people embodies what Elizabeth shared.

For the last 13 years, my church comes together to support families in my old neighborhood, in the Chicago, to celebrate the loved ones they have lost to violence. We do this on the day before Thanksgiving, and we typically have 300-400 people in attendance. And at the front center of the dining room, is a quilt with the images of their loved ones in remembrance of them.  

I know those guys, those young kids, those grown men and women, some lost to suicide and some to overdose, but the majority to gun violence. And it’s a stark reminder of just how privileged I am to be in this space and to witness how they’re coming together to create voice for a population that’s been overlooked and often dehumanized. So that to me, it’s what that quote really means. What am I doing with what I’ve struggled with, and how am I honoring those that I’ve impacted both positively and negatively?

So that sense of witness and responsibility – how do you bring that into your work with the Department of Justice? When have you felt you’re in a position to contribute something different because of that experience?

The perspective that I bring to DOJ or any table I have the privilege to sit in, is largely informed by someone who grew up in an immigrant family, in poverty, and who became involved in street gangs and the criminal legal system at an early age. 

I also leverage my work with criminalized victims and survivors of gun violence, my training as a community organizer, and my professional identity as a social worker to the DOJ. All aspects of my experience have been embraced by my colleagues in a way that I have felt is authentic and sincere. 

I have frequently witnessed ways in which one’s race, ethnicity, and trauma can be tokenized by organizations and philanthropy- people like me are invited to speak to boards yet rarely invested in, and infrequently provided opportunities for leadership. 

However, at the DOJ I have been given opportunities to inform policy, funding, programs, and future directions in CVI drawing from all aspects of my experience. I’m able to draw upon my experience as someone previously involved in the streets and an outreach worker to emphasize the importance of prioritizing worker wellness and investing in frontline staff. I’m able to draw upon my social work education to advocate for new and innovative ways to evaluate CVI practice and examine program implementation challenges. And I’m able to draw upon my community organizing experience to think creatively around how we change community attitudes and public narratives around people who are impacted by violence. 

The grassroots CVI work is ultimately very local, and in your work you’ve seen so many different communities and their unique elements. How does a national strategy for CVI work?

We know that community violence prevention takes many forms and looks different in every jurisdiction, but ultimately, our frame is about an expansion of community capacity to address local public safety challenges. It’s like going to somebody’s kitchen and finding out what ingredients they have. In a few cities we have strong assets, they have the right ingredients, but most cities don’t have all the ingredients yet.

As we’re thinking about preventing violence, we must think about how to build a holistic approach. First is the importance of building an ecosystem within the community context. And the second is that law enforcement and community stakeholders are co-producers of public safety. So if you think about the investments that we’ve made, it’s been with a clear objective of building capacity, building the foundation for this work, and helping to pilot these efforts in cities that haven’t had CVI programs. That’s why we have specific Training and Technical Assistance Providers to help us do that. We’re also thinking about ways to measure the impact that CVI efforts are having in community.  

I think that’s where philanthropy comes in. I’ll give you a prime example. In Chicago, I was very fortunate with the READI Chicago initiative. In the five years I was there, there was well over $50 million in private philanthropy supporting this model, which now gives me the ability to say: If we have a workforce, if we have behavioral therapy, if we have case management, if we have victim support services, and housing, we can do this. 

We often think about how we define success. And I think it’s important that in philanthropy and in government, we reassess how we are defining success. I think success for us right now is building the capacity, the infrastructure that we need. I think success is investing in the people that have been directly impacted by the systems and seeing how they are taking experience to care for themselves and others. Many of them want to give back but just don’t know how. And even when they do realize how, you still need to equip them with the right tools. This is an emerging workforce that no one is really talking about.

Anything you’d like to share in closing?

There is one more thing I wanted to share. I’m going to make it personal here just for a second. 

When I decided to leave READI Chicago, I went to just about every foundation that was supporting the initiative. The White Sox, for example, the MacArthur Foundation, the Joyce Foundation, and others. I went one by one and started by saying, I want to share some exciting news with regards to being tapped to join DOJ.

I also said, I know you’re nervous because you’ve entrusted me to manage your resources to implement this program. And you might be like, oh no, what are we going to do? When you’re talking to your board and update them, please relay this message: Sometimes the investment in this work isn’t just about the program or the policy changes or the research.  Sometimes it’s really the people who are carrying out this work that your investments are supporting. You’re supporting them in their own development, and you’re creating career pathways for many of them. 

Make no mistake, I am here today because foundations invested in this work 15, 16 years ago, when I was an outreach worker and didn’t even know what foundations really were. I’m very grateful that I’ve had the opportunity to meet with many presidents, many program officers, to build trust with them, to demonstrate what’s working and what’s not working, so they can make informed decisions. And ultimately, I am here at DOJ in large part because philanthropy invested in my ideas or invested in my leadership, and they’ve done that with so many other people who are now in these positions, whether they’re in local government or the federal government. 

So this is really a shout out to the 30+ foundations that are really helping support this work and tell the story. I just want you and your members to know that.