Tell Us About It: Victim Research Convos


In this CVR podcast series, we talk with those doing research and serving victims and learn about the work they've done together.

Tell Us About It, Episode 19: Using Digital Storytelling for Research and Healing on Gun Violence

A convo with Dr. Joseph Richardson, Che Bullock, and Uzo IhekwoabaAug 02Time: 26:46

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On this episode of Tell Us About It, we discuss one of CVR’s supported fellowships: “Understanding the Social Contexts of Reentry, Criminal, and Trauma Recidivism in Prince George’s County.” The conversation features Dr. Joseph Richardson, the Principal Investigator for the study; Che Bullock, the Senior Violence Intervention Specialist for the project; and Uzo Ihekwoaba, the digital storyteller for the project. We talk about their qualitative research into the relationship between firearm-related injury and previous history of incarceration among violently injured young Black men, and their decision to showcase their findings through digital storytelling.

Dr. Joseph Richardson is an Associate Professor in the Departments of African American Studies and Anthropology at the University of Maryland, College Park. He is the principal investigator for this study funded by the Center for Victim Research, and for three other studies, focusing on four areas: 1) Violence, violent injury, and trauma among Black boys and young Black men; 2) Incarceration as a social determinant of health; 3) The social context of re-entry; 4) Parenting strategies for low-income Black male youth.

Che Bullock is the Senior Violence Intervention Specialist for this project funded by the Center for Victim Research. He works with men in the Capital Region Violence Intervention Program at the University of Maryland, Prince George’s County Hospital Center.

Uzo Ihekwoaba is the digital storyteller for this project funded by the Center for Victim Research. He works with Dr. Richardson on behavioral science research. He is also a Washington, DC area filmmaker, music producer, and sound engineer.

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Susan Howley: Welcome to Tell Us About It: Victim Research Convos, a podcast from the Center for Victim Research with support from the Office for Victims of Crime. On each episode of Tell Us About It, we talk to researchers and practitioners about their work, the tools being built for use in the field, and how we can work together to build an evidence base for victim services. Today we’re talking with the team from one of CVR’s supported fellowship projects: Understanding the Social Context of Reentry, Criminal and Trauma Recidivism in Prince George’s County. Gentlemen, welcome and can I ask you to introduce yourselves and your role in the project?

Dr. Joseph Richardson: Thank you. I am Dr. Joseph Richardson, Associate Professor in the Department of African-American Studies and Anthropology at the University of Maryland, College Park and I am the principal investigator for the study.

Che Bullock: I’m Che Bullock, and I’m the senior Violence Intervention Specialist. I work with the gentlemen with CAP-VIP (Capital Region Violence Intervention Program) at the University of Maryland, Prince George’s County Hospital Center.

Uzo Ihekwoaba: My name is Uzo Ihekwoaba. I am a Washington D.C. area filmmaker, music producer, sound engineer and also have the privilege of working with Dr. Richardson on behavioral science research.

Susan Howley: Dr. Richardson or, can I call you Joe?

Dr. Joseph Richardson: Yes you may.

Susan Howley: Please tell us a little bit about this project.

Dr. Joseph Richardson: So the project actually is an offshoot of another study that we conducted, which was funded by the University of Maryland patients’ program out of the school of pharmacy. So I have to give a little shout out to Dr. Daniel Mullins for funding that project. That project was to fund focus groups with male survivors of violence, their caregivers, and stakeholders. And after we completed that study, what we found is that criminal justice involvement had a significant impact on bringing young men back to the hospital for repeat violent injury. So as an ethnographer – and I’ve been trained as an ethnographer – I really wanted to do something more visual and get into providing a visual narrative of the young men that we work with. And so I applied for the Center for Victim Research’s proposal and was awarded that. Fortunately, was awarded the funding for that. And so we started the digital storytelling project for “Life After the Gunshot” and integrating young men who we work with at Capital Region Violence Intervention Program – which is our hospital-based Violence Intervention Program at the University of Maryland, Prince George’s Hospital – who had come into our trauma unit who were survivors of a gunshot wound but they also had histories of criminal justice involvement. So they were either previously incarcerated or on probation or parole. And so we wanted to understand, what was the intersection of the criminal justice system with the healthcare system for male survivors of gunshot wounds?

Susan Howley: So now for people who are not familiar with it, what is digital storytelling and why did you decide that was the approach you wanted to take with this project?

Dr. Joseph Richardson: So it’s a creative way of weaving in the narratives. It’s not necessarily just simply a documentary where you have talking heads who are giving their story – which is great. But we were also wanting to do something more creative where we’re able to tell a story digitally, by using other mediums of visual ethnography to tell a really compelling story. So we added animation. Also integrating statistics that we’re getting from the United States Department of Justice on criminal recidivism, as well as health statistics from the CDC on gunshot wounds and survivors of violent injury. So we could tell a more compelling narrative that would be engaging for the viewers, of telling a story that can provide some real context. So someone’s telling a story that you often don’t get into the context of what are the real structural issues that kind of push gun violence? And I think through digital storytelling we’re able to weave that in with not only having individuals that have been affected by it, but also other mediums, which can tell a more compelling story.

Susan Howley: So as a researcher, are there special ethical considerations in this form of research when you’re asking people to share their story in a digital format?

Dr. Joseph Richardson: Definitely. So we had to go through an IRB, which is the institutional review board for the University of Maryland, and we have to do that with all of our studies. But for this study we had to add in an additional consent for our young guys that work with us – and I’m always going to refer to them as that, and sometimes I say my kids. But they had to also be aware and informed that we were going to use their images for a digital storytelling project and they had to consent to that. And then that was vetted through the University of Maryland IRB.

Susan Howley: Che, can you tell us a bit about your role with the Capital Area Violence Intervention Project and then how that fit into this research project?

Che Bullock: So I like to think of my role as the bridge between social services and the urban community. And one thing that I’ve noticed, you know I’ve been doing this work for about 45 years now, was that a targeted population are not used to articulating their trials and tribulations to social service members. So that’s when I step in. I walk into the room and I give them a brief description on what I’ve been through all my life. So 2013, I was stabbed 13 times and I was medivaced to the hospital and that’s actually how I met Dr. Richardson. So you know, once I tell them that story and let them know that anything is possible once you set your mind to it, they’re more open to counseling. In order for someone to get better, you have to acknowledge that you have an issue – PTSD, anxiety, things of that nature. But these guys can’t put a name on it. So once I let them know what they’re going through and have been able to give the situation a title, they are more receptive to seeking help.

Susan Howley: So that’s been such an important role in that Violence Intervention Project. Then how do you, when you have that relationship, how do you introduce potential participants to this project for the digital storytelling? I understand you’ve helped them get some of the initial help that they need and how do you introduce this new idea?

Che Bullock: Well honestly, it didn’t really take a lot of persuasion. They were very open to it. One of the things I like to do is I like to give them a part of myself, let them know who I am as an individual and in return they will give me a part of themselves. And this is 2019, so everything is visual. So they were very delighted to be a part of the project. I would assume it would take a little more persuasion, but it didn’t. They were very open to it.

Susan Howley: Have you ever experienced hesitation or wariness from these participants when they’re then put in front of a camera?

Che Bullock: Well honestly, I think it goes back to the credibility of myself and building that relationship with them. They know I’m not going to put them in a situation where something can happen or the courts can bring it down to the state, anything of that nature. I think it’s that trust, that relationship that we have. And I speak about my experiences very freely, so once they see me do it, once again, it makes them a lot more comfortable.

Susan Howley: So a lot of these participants have very complex histories. Does that make it difficult or is that a challenge then in getting their informed consent to help them think about what might be any risks in participating in this project?

Che Bullock: Honestly I think I have a special kind of delivery and I always articulate life is about decisions. When you jump off the porch, you can either go left or you can go right. But you have to jump off the porch. And when I explain it that way, everyone wants to do good. You just have to have a direction to follow the goodness. Just giving them an opportunity to be a part of a project of this nature. And a lot of guys want to live in service to humanity anyway. Once the guys actually see the full video of “Life After the Gunshot,” they say, “Look I want to be a volunteer. I want help my community. what can I do to help my community?” And this is a perfect example.

Susan Howley: This gives them an avenue to do that work.

Dr. Joseph Richardson: I would also add to that Che was in the study that I conducted at Prince George’s and he was part of the previous study. So the way that the project at Prince George’s Hospital Violence Intervention Program really got off the ground and the development of it was informed was by the study that Che was in. So myself and my postdoc at the time, Dr. Chris St. Vil, who’s now a Professor at SUNY Buffalo School of Social Work, we recruited 25 young men who were shot or stabbed at bedside and Che was one of the participants in our study. So he was very familiar with what it was like to be in a research study because he was in our study and we interviewed him three times over the course of a period of two years. And so Che had been familiar with that, but also in his role at Prince George’s Hospital within our program. He’s also trained in human subjects research and has completed the CITI, which is a requirement for all research investigators to complete. So he had familiarity from being in his study and also –

Susan Howley: And then the formal training.

Dr. Joseph Richardson: Right, the formal training as a researcher as well.

Susan Howley: Uzo, let me turn to you. As a filmmaker, how does this process of digital storytelling differ from the other work that you do to capture people’s stories on video?

Uzo Ihekwoaba: One of the main things is the fact that I was a former student of Dr. Richardson and so seeing how informative his curriculum was, for me as a young African-American man in the United States, how it impacted how I looked at myself and my community. I approached his project like none other, just simply because of the magnitude of the research he was doing, as well as the information that would come out of the research and how it could impact other people who want to become functional members of society. So my approach, my dedication to it was very different than any other project I’ve approached. I definitely had to find ways to enhance what he was doing because when I got here, they had already put in incredible work – incredible leg work, incredible infrastructure, and so I just had to calculate and find ways that I could help improve what they had done in any way that I could. Creative Energy or with just my experience with the tech side of things, whether it was sound, whether it was visual. I just thought whatever can enhance this experience. Because I know how much I learned in his class, so if this can now become content that could be viewed anywhere in the world, like imagine the impact it could have when maybe in this class you might have 50, 80 people, but if thousands of people could get their hands on this information, it can change life. Because it changed mine. So that’s just how I approached it. I’ve never had a project I’ve approached like that.

Susan Howley: So you were able to use your talents and your knowledge as a filmmaker to really bring stories to life with your understanding of sound and visuals and all that?

Uzo Ihekwoaba: Absolutely. What I also have to say is that I commend Dr. Richardson for also seeing the talent and helping to enhance it. He saw the talent in me and was able to help create or inculcate an environment where I could help him. So it was like that. It takes a lot of humility to tell someone that it’s like, Help me help you. But it’s like, it’s a two way street and it takes a whole lot of humility, for Che as well. I met Che in 2013 or 2013 or 2014, for the first time, when he was still just interning for [Dr. Richardson]. And I saved his number. I still had his number! And the first time we met, we had an amazing dialogue, an amazing conversation – almost like a debate – because he was literally just fresh off the street, if not still in it. And I had some things in my past, but coming to college, going through Dr. Richardson’s courses, going through – there’s another professor, Dr. Rashawn Ray, he does amazing work, as well, in the Sociology Department. Those two teachers and the information in their classes were extremely important for me in reshaping my life, reshaping my decision-making. So when I encountered Che, who was still fresh off the street, we had a really interesting like back and forth about his reality versus the reality I wanted to create for myself and the reality I saw possible for our community. So once I saw them teaming up, it was only right that I reached out to them and I was like, “hey if I can help in any way.” And Dr. Richardson made it happen.

Susan Howley: That’s great. Now as part of the process, what do you do to get people comfortable sharing their story in front of a camera, which can be intimidating for people. Is there any anything that you credit your ability to make this project work, from a filmmaker’s perspective?

Uzo Ihekwoaba: Honestly, it’s like a triangle offense. I don’t know if you heard that term before. It is really a triangle offense. [Dr. Richardson] gave me an amazing perspective on it. He calls it “The goons and the geeks.” The goons and the geeks teamwork is probably the greatest that we could see in our urban slash modern era. Because you need the street smart, you need the wisdom from the street. You also need the intellectual and the philosophical perspectives to come together in order to change the world. So I feel like anybody that comes into our triangle, it doesn’t matter what part of life they’re from, they’re going to fit in and they’re going to feel comfortable because the energy in here is life-changing and it’s world-changing. So I just feel like when the geek and the goon come together, anyone can fit in between. Anyone can feel comfortable. I don’t care, I’m a nerd. I also have love for the goons. So it’s like, it’s just the energy is perfect.

Susan Howley: Che, what do you think participants get out of this process, the ability to share their story in this research or participate in this research?

Che Bullock: I think we spoke about it earlier, as far as this population walks around with a chip on their shoulder. And it’s a stress reliever. You know if you walk around with all this animosity and anger and all these types of emotions that you’ve never articulated or let it out, it can build up. Like a Pepsi: you keep shaking it, it’s going to explode. But if you release some of that pressure off the Pepsi, it’s going to decrease. So I think this is the perfect example of an individual just coming on camera and actually telling their truth. Once you tell your truth, you can accept everything that you’ve done. Now you’re able to grow. So I think that’s one of the best qualities.

Susan Howley: So do you have any ability to check in with people later to find out how they’re now viewing their experience or whether they were satisfied in participating?

Che Bullock: Yeah for sure. So my guys, they reached out to me 24/7. So our main line of communications is Instagram. Not only can we direct message each other but I can also watch what you’re doing every day. And these guys are moving on to become very successful individuals and I think it just took someone to really sit down and listen to their story and their triumph. We give them some words of wisdom. They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results. So now that they articulated to us what they went through, and now that they have the proper tools to move on, why go back to old ways? And that’s one of the examples I like to use.

Susan Howley: Joe, what’s the next step for this project?

Dr. Joseph Richardson: We definitely want to take what we have, put it in to some film festivals locally, nationally, and internationally. But we also we also have other big plans for projects – not just visual projects, but projects that also will focus more on gun violence and specifically on guys that are offenders as well as victims, which I don’t want to reveal too much right now. But we’re definitely going to continue to do our visual work. I think it’s important that we keep telling the stories of the young men and women that we work with, and the caregivers. And that’s another piece that was part of “Life After the Gunshot,” when we were doing the focus groups was interviewing the mothers, and we’ve interviewed the surgeons as well. So we really need to tell a fuller story about the ways that we intersect a lot of different systems. So our lives aren’t isolated to working with the young men that come into the trauma unit, we cross all kinds of contact. So in any given day in eight hours, we could be working with a guy who has been shot multiple times to talking to a legislator or a councilman for Ward 8 or Ward 5 – shout out to Kenyan McDuffie – to going in front of Congresswoman Holmes Norton, which I did maybe two or three weeks ago, to talk about gun violence in D.C. and pushing for more gun violence funding. We deal with probation and parole, so talking to the probation officers to make sure our guys don’t get violated again. So we cross the gamut, and we really want to tell a more complete story of the intersections of all of these different institutions and systems that we come across. And the guys, their lives intersect not just with the healthcare system but how does it affect their family? And I think you saw in the trailer, some of our guys brought their kids. And the number one reason why many of them told us in their narratives what led them to actually staying alive when they were shot and waiting for the EMS to arrive was they thought about their kids. So we have a lot more work to do as far as bringing in the families and letting the families tell their stories, and the other stakeholders, the trauma surgeons, the attorneys, everyone who is a player in the system because it takes all of us. And the advocates – we’ve had Moms Demand [Action] call us and had seen us and saw our story in The Huffington Post and contacted us about donating, which was really generous on their part of donating. They raise some funds and establish a GoFundMe page for us as well. So there are a lot of groups out there that are really engaged in the work and want to see these stories get out.

Che Bullock: And then I also think it’s an individual by the name of Troy Robinson who’s on the trailer and will be in the documentary. Troy’s been shot on three separate occasions, one year after another. And Troy had a colostomy bag. So Troy went to prison for seven years and still had the colostomy bag on him while he was in prison. So he came home and he got enrolled with the program. Now Troy has no colostomy bag. But he needed the resources and an advocate to maybe articulate for him and also then for someone to know the anatomy, because when surgeons speak, they speak in like cryptic tone and we have no idea what they’re talking about. So that’s when I found myself reading up on anatomy and things of that nature, so I’m able to articulate to Troy what’s going on with his body and this is how we’re going to get it done to have it taken off.

Susan Howley: So that really illustrates the benefit of having research joined with practitioners so that not only are you learning great things about this issue in the community, but because you’re right there and because you, Che, have the connection to these other resources, you can really give the participants something tangible to move on with.

Che Bullock: I always look at Dr. Richardson as the GM and the coach and I’m just a quarterback. I just direct plays and get the ball where it needs to be.

Susan Howley: What do you see as the future of this form of research – digital storytelling – that can lift up the stories of some of these communities that have been overlooked by research in the past?

Dr. Joseph Richardson: It’s the next frontier, really, and to be quite honest, it should have been done much earlier. As I mentioned a few minutes ago, since 1996 there’s been the Dickey Amendment, which has prohibited, to a certain extent, gun violence research through the CDC and NIH. So our gun violence researchers like myself had to be more creative in telling the story. And fortunately, there was the funding through the Center for Victim Research to do this researcher-practitioner project. So I really see that it’s a really wide open space for us to tell these stories, but also I think it’s a mechanism and a medium that we can use to really inform policy. And how can we use this platform to change policy? How can we inform gun control policy with the work that we’re doing? How can we even form healthcare policy and criminal justice reform policy with the work that we’re doing? Because clearly there is an intersection with the criminal justice system and felony disenfranchisement, which leads our young men to go back to the street because they may not be able to get a job. So all of these things are really important to us, and in fact, we’ve already conceptualized doing PSAs, which will be along the lines of the way that you see Truth commercials, where we do really informative creative pieces on gun violence and how much it costs, the cost to society, and ultimately hoping that those narratives will get out there to change the way that not only people see the culture of gun violence, but also the structural issues that prevent us from moving policy ahead.

Susan Howley: So there’s really a lot of great work coming out of this and out of this whole line of research.

Dr. Joseph Richardson: Definitely. And it takes a research to practitioner partnership. I think ultimately what really has held many of the organizations back who do really great work on violence prevention and intervention in D.C. and other cities and communities across the country is that those organizations haven’t been able to partner with a university-based scholar and academic. Which I don’t think necessarily brings more credibility to their work, but as Uzo mentioned, we need a partnership between the people who are on the ground, who really understand what’s going on, and then the scholars who can provide contextual context through data analysis. Okay, these are the problems and if we can come together and inform each other on this work, it makes it much more powerful. So hopefully many more organizations and universities will benefit from this kind of work and the grant that was provided, because I think whoever created the idea, it was spot on.

Susan Howley: Well that’s fantastic. And I agree, we have so much work to do and there’s so much potential for these kinds of partnerships in being able to lift up previously hidden areas and then to, as you mentioned, get the attention of policymakers.

Dr. Joseph Richardson: Exactly.

Susan Howley: So I really want to thank you all for your time today.

Dr. Joseph Richardson: I want to thank you.

Che Bullock: Thank you so much.

Uzo Ihekwoaba: Thank you.