New federally-funded project builds on research to reduce youth violence

Youth violence sends an average of 1,000 young people to emergency rooms across the country every day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Among Black youth ages 10 to 24, violence is the leading cause of death. Youth homicides and nonfatal physical assault-related injuries cost an estimated $100 billion a year, a total that does not include costs to the criminal justice system.

Behind such broad and overwhelming statistics are the individual members of communities affected by the violence. Working with those community members informs the strategies to reduce violence—and help youth succeed—pursued by Jomella Watson-Thompson.

Watson-Thompson leads one of only five federally-funded national centers of excellence on youth violence prevention, the Youth Violence Prevention Research Center-Kansas City (YVPC-KC). She said an effective approach requires long-term solutions, not quick fixes.

“What we know is that there's a lot of factors that contribute to youth violence prevention,” she said. “Many of them are broader environmental factors that we can change, or that we can modify.”

Those factors include access to education, employment, resources and opportunities that either reduce risk, or increase the likelihood that youth are able to succeed.

Funded through a five-year grant from the CDC, YVPC-KC builds on research on youth violence that has been realized for the past several years through another project led by Watson-Thompson called ThrYve, or Together Helping Reduce Youth Violence for Equity

A common thread to both projects is work that begins at the community level, called community-engaged research. Watson-Thompson and her team work with partners across Kansas City, Kan., neighborhoods, including schools and advocacy organizations, to contribute to solving problems that are identified by the community.

“Community-engaged research means longer term contribution and commitment to place, to the people, and to the partners that we're working with to contribute to collective problem solving,” Watson-Thompson said. “And that's a very different, non-traditional way of doing and supporting research.”

Watson-Thompson balances multiple roles at KU, where she is director of the Center for Service Learning, an associate professor of applied behavioral science, and a member of the KU Center for Community Health and Development at the KU Life Span Institute. 

But as a resident of Kansas City, Kan., her role as member of a community affected by youth violence, also drives her passion for the work.

“This community matters to me,” she said. “This is the community in which I'm raising my children. It is the community in which I reside. It's my neighborhood.”

Related: CDC-Funded Research Project at KU to Evaluate Initiatives to Reduce Youth Violence in Kansas City Metro Area