Researchers Work with the Community to Address Causes of Youth Violence in Surrey

Focusing on “at-risk” youth isn’t enough to solve the problem, citizens say

KPU Psychology instructor Gira Bhatt is a researcher and advocate for the prevention of youth violence in Surrey. (Submitted)

Surrey residents have been vocal about their desire to end gang-related and youth violence for years. In late October, two teens were stabbed a few blocks away from Guildford Park Secondary School. This attack followed a high-profile shooting in June that left two teenagers dead and led to a rally at city hall calling the government and members of the community to take action.

KPU Psychology instructor Gira Bhatt, along with her colleagues Dr. Roger Tweed and Steve Dooley, founded the Acting Together Community University Research Alliance, which facilitates collaboration between researchers and community partners who share the goal of stopping youth involvement in violent gang activity. The project examines factors in youth and gang violence and explore ways to prevent it.

“The trouble is that there are always newcomers, new recruits who are willing to step into the shoes of the people who are gone,” says Bhatt. “This is where, in our observation and research, we find that for these young people, we need to focus on their positive development.”

Surrey is home to several programs which strive to end youth involvement in gangs, such as the RCMP’s Wraparound Program, the Gang Exiting Program, Yo Bro/Yo Girl Youth Initiative, and the City’s Youth Empowerment Mentoring Program.

“We have observed over the past eight to 10 years that so many resources and programs are targeting at-risk youth,” says Bhatt. “And these are very important valuable programs; we’re not discounting the importance of them, but if you look at the larger picture and look around our society, the question keeps surfacing: why are the gangs not going away?”

“Despite all the well-meaning efforts that we have been put in place it’s still going on,” she adds.

In 2017, Surrey created an initiative called the Mayor’s Task Force on Gang Violence Prevention, which released a report in July detailing strategies to curb gang activity among youth deemed “at-risk” due to exposure to criminal activities, violence, or difficult socioeconomic circumstances.

“We focus so much on the shining stars, those kids who do really well in school who receive medals and awards, so we celebrate them. We also focus too much on those who are really lagging behind and we call them the ‘at-risk’ kids, but it’s the middle zone that we seem to kind of ignore,” says Bhatt.

The South Asian Community Coalition Against Youth Violence, which Bhatt works with, has been advocating for the safety of Surrey youth since 2004. In a press release, the coalition noted that researchers found that fostering feelings of gratitude and forgiveness early in life reduces the chance that children will engage in “harmful antisocial activities.” Bhatt suggests that, as Surrey citizens, “we should celebrate kids who have these kinds of characteristics.”

The report also notes that, “whereas the police seem to excel in taking the criminals and gangsters off our streets and showing them the way to the prison, the sad reality is that they are being replaced just as quickly by upward moving new gang members.”

Bhatt argues that having kids volunteer with community organizations is another method of encouraging positive socialization rather than criminalization.

“A very important research finding we have is that when kids have a very strong community connection, somehow a sense of belonging is created,” she says.

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