There hasn’t been a year quite like 2020, said Kim Filla and Justice Rajee, longtime employees at POIC + Rosemary Anderson High School. Filla, Director of Family Outreach & Community Programs and Rajee, CHI Program Manager, are leaders in the Community Healing Initiative, or CHI, a program tailored for youth of color involved in the juvenile system and their families.
COVID-19 set the stage, shutting down schools, businesses and everyday life last year. Then, in June, George Floyd was killed after a Minneapolis police officer held his knee on Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds — sparking protests here and nationwide as a reminder of a catalog of racial disparities that reach back centuries.
In the midst of all that, last summer, shootings and other crimes locally increased. The violence, along with the pandemic, hit Community Healing Initiative families and POIC families particularly hard, Filla said.
"Our priority was creating safety and stability for our youth and families. We hoped for school to begin in the fall,” she said.
And even that never happened. COVID-19 remained just as threatening, with wildfires choking the air in September, adding another burden and danger in a rough stretch, Rajee said.
“That’s when it really ticked up and it just didn’t let up. The first night [of the fires], things slowed down for a time. We spent a week and a half in the house and that was really the apex of challenges. People are at home, and you have a sense of the broader spectrum of issues,” Rajee said.
“Community violence got worse and it was tied up in the experience.”
The deluge of crises that hit the community in 2020 has left an indelible mark. It was a year full of fear, anger, pain and cries for racial justice, joining crises that continue to unfold into 2021.
Yet in times of crisis, CHI families go back to the strengths found in relationships, health, hope and healing, Filla said. It’s work that’s bolstered by investments from the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners last summer, with increased culturally specific parent mentorship, beds for youth experiencing family violence, grief counseling, tailored curriculum for youth and parents, and more.
Dealing with the impacts of gun-related deaths, the pandemic, racial trauma, loss of jobs, while meeting client needs safely in the community was our team’s focus,” Filla said. “We were all affected.”
“We were personally and professionally impacted in supporting youth and families through shared grief and trauma. There are many different layers of grief. And our parents have found support with each other through their connections and to know that grief is a process.”
The Community Healing Initiative was established in 2011 in partnership with Multnomah County’s Juvenile Services Division, POIC + Rosemary Anderson High School, and Latino Network. The program is designed to reduce disparities experienced by Black, Latino and other communities of color in the juvenile legal system.
It is just one facet of ongoing reform work to push the criminal legal system toward restorative — and healthy, humane and upstream — answers to gun violence, and away from older, more punitive responses that disproportionately harmed youths from communities of color.
“The magnitude of the work ahead — particularly as it pertains to racial justice — requires continual commitment, particularly as we go upstream, before someone ever enters the justice system,” said Erika Preuitt, director of Multnomah County’s Department of Community Justice. Our role, as public servants, is to saturate our community with the support it needs. We are actively partnering with CHI to support the health of families and create a more just and equitable system.
CHI wraps around families with culturally specific services — families affected by violence or on the cusp of being affected by violence — by providing direct relief in the form rent, utilities, internet access, laptops, and even air purifiers when toxic air from wildfires permeated the skies in September.
Those supports were desperately needed throughout 2020 and continue to be needed in 2021 as families struggle with everyday life compounded by setbacks due to COVID-19 and community violence.
“People needed to be able to make that bridge,” said Rajee.
But the program also provides a vital component: connection. The organization changed in-person meetings to virtual ones.
“Our groups were already strong in keeping parents connected, with all the grief and loss that has happened, we focused on healing together,” said Filla.
“It’s the importance of proactively staying connected with people through whatever means we have available,” Rajee said. “And honoring that people have the ability to adapt to the circumstances. There was still a strong effort to connect and a strong wish by families to stay connected. People did not want to be left behind.”
Like every year, CHI will host a parent summit in May. This year’s summit will be a virtual forum for parents to dissect and navigate legal matters, education, advocacy, and health. Parent mentors help guide other parents through the stress of experiencing the juvenile system. There’s even a handbook for parents.
CHI will also launch a new curriculum on coping with anger during one of the most trying times in recent memory. The Step Up curriculum, which originated in Washington state’s King County, focuses on families during violent or abusive engagements. It includes safety planning combined with direct intervention work.
“What do we do when things go wrong and things are not safe?” said Rajee. “It models things that would be applicable in other homes, but specific to how this happens in families. The shame, embarrassment and control, and things related to the behavior. But also to challenge that you have people who love each other and are family.
People have to get to a place where they actually understand what’s going on.”
For youth who may become involved in the juvenile system due to an altercation in the home, there are safe refuges in the form of shelter beds that the Juvenile Services Division funds through Boys and Girls Aid.
“Our programs are rooted in the idea that people have the capacity to get through,” said Rajee. “And they need other people to get there."
“Conditions are difficult, economically and socially. But our business is trying to help you see what you have, that despite these circumstances, they’re doing the best they can with their circumstances.”
There is always an ability to recover and to make different choices and find the opportunity to help others heal, Rajee said. “The reality is if you keep going you have a chance to get better.”
“Our participants are the center of our work, it’s our relationships, health, hope and healing,” said Filla. “That has been our strength.”