Harvard Public Health Review
Summer Fall 2006

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Stopping the Violence

By teaching forgiveness and reconciliation, Ana Diaz helps disaffected youth find a better way

Ana Diaz wends her way up the long, neon-green ramp to the second floor of Roca Inc., a non-profit dedicated to helping Greater Boston's low-income youth draw on their strengths to build social, educational, and vocational skills. Here, Diaz, who graduated in June from the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) with a masters in science degree in Population and International Health, witnesses how these teens struggle daily against the temptations of drugs and the camaraderie of gangs. She talks excitedly about Stacy and Iris, two teenaged moms who recently completed a Roca employment program, Tacos Unidos, that Diaz helped launch while at HSPH. The women now hold jobs in Boston, Stacey at a clothing store and Iris at a restaurant in Logan International Airport.Then there is the young woman who, having left behind a gang and a home life marred by her mother's battle with drug and alcohol addiction, has just completed a year at Dean College in Franklin, Massachusetts, and will transfer to Northeastern University this fall.

There have been failures, too. "Many of these kids, when they come to Roca, avoid thinking about their future. They don't see that they have something to offer," Diaz says. But being able to affect even a few lives is why she continues to walk through those doors, and up that ramp.
Born in Barranquilla, Colombia, Diaz grew up in a climate ripe with violence where collective helplessness and displaced anger shaped the attitudes of many Colombians. But Diaz never succumbed to this mindset. Instead she got involved, volunteering at a home for children displaced by the guerrilla warfare then plaguing the country. Through that experience, Diaz discovered two elements essential to influencing change in a community: her own actions--model the behaviors you hope to see in others--and building partnerships. "Pockets of help can go a long way," she says.

In 2000, Diaz moved to the United States to study psychology and sociology at the University of Massachusetts Boston. During a class in restorative justice, she learned of Roca ("the rock") and started down the path that would lead her to HSPH. Encouraged by a professor, Diaz began volunteering at Roca, training teens to lead peer workshops on issues such as HIV/AIDS and drug abuse. Roca's results-oriented approach impressed her. "I have to work in a place where things get done, where you see people turning their lives around," she says.

MAKING A CONNECTION
Working next with Roca's VIA (Vision, Intent, Action) Project, Diaz recruited gang members in Lynn, Massachusetts, to participate in community-improvement projects. "There are very few people who can make a connection like that with troubled youth," says Anisha Chablani, deputy director of Roca's Youth STAR program, of Diaz's ability to form bonds that keep these teens coming back.

After college, Diaz signed on with Roca full-time, but the idea of returning to school began to tug at her. "Psychology and sociology taught me the ins and outs of problems, but nothing about solutions. I wanted to learn how to keep the violence from continuing," she explains. In 2004 she enrolled at HSPH, drawn to the Harvard name and the School's coursework in methodology, outcomes measurement, and community intervention.

LOOKING FOR EVIDENCE
For two years, Diaz coupled classes with field work at Roca and in Colombia. In the spring of 2005, an Albert Schweitzer Fellowship for students working with underprivileged populations supported Diaz while she helped open Tacos Unidos, a self-sustaining catering and restaurant business that teaches kids skills they will need to find and keep jobs. That summer, Diaz returned to Colombia, traveling to Bogotá to work with Fundación para la Reconciliación. The organization, started in 2001 by Harvard Divinity School graduate Leonel Narváez Gómez, teaches victims and perpetrators of violence to use forgiveness and reconciliation to influence lasting behavioral and emotional changes through 80-hour workshops. With Fundación, Diaz led 11 former guerrilla members through this intensive program and helped them start a mail-distribution business.

These experiences have "brought home to Ana the importance of measuring the effects of programs intended to lessen violence," says one of her mentors at HSPH, David Bloom, the Clarence James Gamble Professor of Economics and Demography and chair of the Department of Population and International Health. Frustrated by the gap between grassroots organizations' experientially-based theories of change and the evidence-based theories of academe, Diaz aimed to bridge that chasm with her thesis by designing a methodology to validate the work of Fundación. Evidence of its effectiveness has been largely anecdotal, she says, and it has been difficult to pinpoint and quantify the magic ingredient that makes the program work.

The obstacles in her quest have been numerous: The long-term monitoring of an often transient population and the self-selection of participants hinders efforts to measure progress at a community level, and forgiveness--a cornerstone of Fundación's program--is a concept more prevalent in psychology than in public health. Diaz has had to forge her own way, marrying the two fields to measure the efficacy of the forgiveness model.

With graduation behind her, Diaz continues to chip away at refining her methodology--one that will benefit her work at Roca, where she returned as VIA's co-coordinator in July. At her initiative, Roca now works closely with Fundación, and has adopted its forgiveness and reconciliation model. Diaz appreciates that her two worlds have come together. Hoping one day to return to Colombia, she says the connection makes her feel a little closer to home.

Jesse Nankin is the development communications coordinator in the Office for Resource Development at HSPH.

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