Becoming a Preventionist

23 February 2022

Max Greenberg

I don’t know where I am or how to get where I am going. The GPS delivers me through construction and haze to a high school on the outskirts of Los Angeles, a sprawling complex of concrete wrapped in chain-link. I follow signs to the front office, where the woman behind the counter nods over to a sign-in sheet, hands me a visitor sticker, and I go in. I ask an adult, walking briskly, for directions. “You have to go the wrong way to go the right way,” she says. There is an elevated walkway over the street; on the other side, in the middle of the teachers’ parking lot sits a prefabricated one-room building. Students meet at the locked gate at the edge of campus at the bell and a teacher leads them over the quiet street. Students are told that if they run late then they will be left on the wrong side of the road.


The flickering halogen inside the square trailer is no match for the sun outside and my eyes squint to adjust. The desks are packed in nine dense rows and dotted with scraps of the previous class —worksheets and Gatorade bottles litter the desks and floor. I slide into a desk by the near wall and pull the heavy white curriculum binder out of my bag, crisp and barely used. I shuffle through the sheets of the curriculum and do a last-minute review of the day’s unit. The students begin to squeak and thud in.


For the next seven weeks, the violence prevention agency I am working with will present seven 50-minute “doses” of a teen dating violence prevention program to all of the school’s 9th grade students, at least seven hundred students. Like nearly all of the schools funded to receive violence prevention programming in Los Angeles, most of the students in this school were Latino, Black or Asian. Over the last twenty years, violence prevention programs have quietly become ubiquitous. According to one study, sixty-five percent of young people in the United States have gone through such a program, though the content varies, as does the audience. I was there to try to understand the way people made sense of this distinct kind of street-level work to manage violence. In just fifty minutes at a time, preventionists set out to provide a lesson that could, as one facilitator put it, “begin to challenge those beliefs that these young boys and girls have [had] for many years… to shift something so that this kid will make healthier choices, perhaps.” I wanted to understand what it felt like to try to change strangers’ lives with words, what it took to succeed – if that was even possible – and what it meant to fail.

Over the last twenty years, violence prevention programs have quietly become ubiquitous. According to one study, sixty-five percent of young people in the United States have gone through such a program, though the content varies, as does the audience.


Jennifer backs through the door of the permanent trailer, dragging a rolling plastic bin in after her. The kids are in all states: faces pressed against cool desks, screeching their chairs across the tile, tapping pens like snare drums. In the back, framed by the window, a young woman curls away from the room; another student has a comforting hand on her back. Jennifer arranges worksheets into neat stacks on the desk at the front of the room. With a nub of a marker, she squeaks Healthy Relationships across the whiteboard.


The PE teacher and baseball coach, in sweats with a whistle swinging from his neck, marches through the attendance, “gum in the trash, Powerade on the desk” as the students settle into seats. When he finishes, Jennifer rubs her hands together, steals a glance at the clock, and begins: “I’m here to talk about violence.” In my fieldnotes, I underline the words. The weight of this, that her job as a violence prevention specialist is to explain the legal—and in a way, the personal—shapes of one of the most terrifying and puzzling of human experiences to a brimming classroom of teenagers does not phase her, not anymore at least. If anything, a sliver of weariness escapes her set smile as she looks out at the audience of familiar strangers.


At this point, my fieldnotes go thin for a stretch. I write something about my building anxiety, Jennifer’s tempo. But barely anything of substance. Looking back now I can see all the things those early fieldnotes missed. I thought I was watching the straightforward enactment of the text of curriculum, but there was more to it.


My notes mark the time an hour later. It is my turn to facilitate. The students flood in. I write that I don’t even remember the last group leaving. My brain had been stuck on the order of operations for a particular exercise: what to say, the kinds of answers that might arise, the pre-written responses I had ready. Like the other facilitators I had observed, I asked the students to go around the room and “check in”: say their name and how they feel. They stare off, dragging out an “ummm” before shrugging out “fine.” It takes 10 minutes. I had written out a crib sheet of the days lesson, and across the top: Get through the content. Pace yourself. Don’t let it get away from you.


I stick to the curriculum as best I can. When chaos or confusion rises, I fall back on it, turning to a new exercise or example. I try to make sure that the students will do well on the post-test. I bristle when they misunderstand a concept. I hear whispers. At any given time, I figure that between one quarter and half of the class pays attention. A boy likes to watch the air conditioner vent pull on a worksheet. My voice and mind move onto separate tracks. I wonder what is going on for the boy at the AC and at the same time, how to get him to pay attention, all while I move unsteadily through the activities. I worry that they see me as another white stranger who claims to be an expert on their lives and futures, only to disappear. I will write later in my field notes that I was trying hard to care about them because that is what I believe in, and they don’t know me from the rest and maybe they are right about me anyway. I get through the lesson for the day with a few minutes left. I’ve been talking too fast. I keep checking the clock and begin to speak slowly to burn time.


When the bell rings I feel myself breathe. The students rumble out and I’m not sure how, if at all, I figured into their day. I am exhausted and I gather up the sheets scattered around the class. I look over the agenda and make a note of what I covered and the exercise I am pretty sure that I skipped, so I can tell the other facilitators how to make up for it later. I collect my things and dash off field notes in my car. This was the bulk of them, edited for clarity. What happened to the program? Why couldn’t I capture it?


My early field notes in these programs are marked by absences. The notes begin with scene setting: the degradation of structure and materials, complex routes across a patchwork campus and into a room, recounting a thick catalog of sensory perception and materiality, descriptions marked by thuds, flickers and body-spray scents. But my notes on the program, especially when I facilitated myself, express a cellophane-thin level of description, and often, a collapse of temporal associations. I would take note of a boy in a hoodie asking a question, but not what question, or the answer. There seemed to be nothing there.

My early field notes in these programs are marked by absences. The notes begin with scene setting: the degradation of structure and materials, complex routes across a patchwork campus and into a room, recounting a thick catalog of sensory perception and materiality, descriptions marked by thuds, flickers and body-spray scents. But my notes on the program, especially when I facilitated myself, express a cellophane-thin level of description, and often, a collapse of temporal associations.

Over time, the work remade my thinking. Between early 2011, when I began participating in violence prevention programming and late 2013 when I left the field, the materiality fell away and my notes took on a temporal quality – a kind of map of if-this-then-thats running through my head. The materiality of the space became a dull trope, while the temporal possibilities unfolded in fascinating directions. The young people were no longer material and performative actors, they were vehicles for series of possible issues and opportunities to implementation. As I became practiced in the work of prevention, I drew new maps of unfurling moments, topographies of emotion, flow charts that linked various tools for engaging and steering back from the brink of pedagogical chaos. Becoming a preventionist had little to do with the content of the program. Instead, it meant learning to harness the emotional patterns of the repetitive work of program implementation.

Again and again, with feeling

In the basement of a courthouse, where young people waited to meet with a lawyer, a social worker powered down the television and gestured at Anne and me: “These folks are here to talk about a very important issue, violence, so please listen.” The please caught my ear, a little ding to our unsteady authority. I leaned against the back wall, but with not too much of a show of it. Days before, another white male facilitator had been called a cop, and I hoped a relaxed pose, along with my rumpled shirt and beard, might smooth off some of the referred gendered and racialized shape of state authority that I embodied. Cool teacher — maybe tries-too-hard — was the register I wanted to hit.

Anne clapped her hands together and eagerly, brightly, asked the young people to go around the room, say their name and how they were feeling. Anne pressed some enthusiasm into her voice. After months listening to young people answer this question, I had learned how this would go. There was a grammar of emotion among young people enrolled in violence prevention: be vague and unremarkable. As Anne snaked around the room, most of the young people said they were “good,” but some said “bored” or “tired.” One young woman said, “I have no feelings.” A boy said that he was “frustrated” and pulled his gray hood close around his face until only his eyes showed.

As sometimes happened, a young person, in this case a young woman, said that she was “not good, not at all.” This seemed to set off a small alarm in Anne and her posture shifted. I could feel it too. When a young person says that they are not good in front of a room full of peers and strangers with authority, it means they may be on the verge of crisis. Anne nudged in a smooth drawl, “What’s going on that is making you feel bad?” The woman started to answer, “My mom, she—” but then, like something caught her, she stopped and shook her head. “Never mind.” “You sure?” Anne nudged again, gently. “Yeah,” the young woman said as she looked to the wall. Anne paused for several seconds, then moved on. There wasn’t time to push further.

In early lessons facilitators strove for a gentle slowness and vocabulary of personal feeling that they hoped would build trust and connection. Emotion management was the closest thing to power that facilitators had. They didn’t give grades, they couldn’t dole out punishments and so emotion was the tool they used to manage students and carry out their program.

The spaciousness of early lessons quickly collapsed through the middle sessions into a propulsive campaign of emotional urgency intended to sustain engagement through a tight timeline. Here is how I wrote about it once: I tried one tactic I had learned – “put it on them” one facilitator called it – and I told young people to read from the sheet and respond in real time. The volunteer, a young man, read a couple words then trailed off, and did this over again and then again. Whispers bubbled up at the edges of the room. My heart sped up: I was losing them. I scrolled through a mental stockpile of strategies to get the energy up and pulled out a “warning sign” that had sparked a lively conversation in another section, even though it wasn’t on the list: “what if your partner says you are not a real man or woman?” Students scanned the sheet, confused. Jennifer, looking on from the side of the room threw a lifeline: “If your boyfriend or girlfriend has been acting strangely, can you sign into their computer and check their email?” This worked and energy crackled through the room as young people began wiggling in their chairs and started talking over one another.

Session after session had moments like this, when the emotional temperature of the room began to dip, and facilitators responded by asking a charged question or jumping to a divisive exercise. After I left the field, while reading through my fieldnotes, I was struck by how I had come to see the sessions not as exercises in power and authority, but as performances with the young people as an audience to be “had” or “lost.” When I asked one facilitator how he knew if the program was working, he told me that he didn’t put much stock in the formal pre and post evaluations. Instead, he wanted to “see those tears” that signaled he had connected on a deep emotional level. The audience – a term I kept finding myself writing despite my conflicted relationship to it – congealed into a thing, a sea of shifting faces reflecting emotions back at me – nods, eye rolls, clenched jaws. Those emotions guided my path more than their statements. I became, my fieldnotes show, deeply invested in the “mood” of the room and how to shape it.

After I left the field, while reading through my fieldnotes, I was struck by how I had come to see the sessions not as exercises in power and authority, but as performances with the young people as an audience to be “had” or “lost.”

At the end, facilitation returned to a lingering form of connection. “Today is my last day,” a facilitator named JJ said as he put his hands together, “so I won’t ever see you again.” The 25 eleventh graders in front of JJ let out a chorus of “awww.” This class appeared genuinely sad to see him go. One young woman asked if he would be her friend on Facebook and he smiled, “Of course.” A few young men stopped on their way out to shake his hand and thank him. This scene played out often, not just with JJ, but with all the facilitators, who believed that a sense of connection would encourage students to take the time to invest in the post-surveys doled out on the last day to assess changes to attitudes and behaviors. Once the survey was complete and the sheets collected, the room flooded with a long, flat tone and the students hustled to their next class period. JJ walked down the halls, through the front office, phones clanging nonstop, and out to the heavy gates at the edge of the campus. Once he got to the sidewalk he peeled off the neon yellow badge proclaiming “VISITOR” and took a deep breath. In a few hours he was scheduled to be at another school to do it all again. I would be with him.


Max A. Greenberg is a lecturer in the Sociology Department at Boston University. His most recent book is Twelve Weeks to Change a life: At-Risk Youth in a Fractured State.

Find Max on Twitter @mxgr 

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