Firearm Injury Prevention Series: Youth Violence Prevention and Community Engagement

This episode of Michigan Minds is part of a special series from University of Michigan Public Engagement & Impact in collaboration with the Office of the Vice President for Research on firearm injury prevention.


Marc Zimmerman, the Marshall H. Becker Collegiate Professor of Public Health, focuses his work on positive youth development and youth violence prevention. In this episode of Michigan Minds, which is part of the Firearm Injury Prevention Research Series, he explains his work engaging communities with the goal of reducing and preventing violence, and explores the importance of the multidisciplinary research being conducted at the University of Michigan to address firearm injuries in the US.

Zimmerman has been conducting work in youth violence prevention for most of his career and is the director of the Michigan Youth Violence Prevention Center, which conducts scientific research to reduce and prevent violence among children and adolescents.

Some of this work focuses on the “busy streets” theory, which is the idea that improving the physical environment in a neighborhood not only promotes physical safety, but also inspires empowerment and a sense of connection between neighbors.

“We’re finding that when you do community improvement, do greening, try to create a busy street with community engagement, there’s less crime and there’s less firearm violence. We’re even finding results like there’s fewer child protective service referrals, there’s less intimate partner violence. So you change the environment, people feel cared for, people see each other as neighbors,” he says.

“Greening,” he explains, includes mowing an empty lot, creating a garden, or just cleaning up a vacant area so people can’t dump there. Zimmerman has conducted this work in Flint, Michigan and Youngstown, Ohio, in addition to other communities. The work is done by the community members themselves, and they determine what works best for their neighborhood. It then becomes a place where residents are proud of where they live, and they begin to feel like the institutions in their community are paying attention to them, he says.

“Kids can be involved in that process as well. It could be a summer job. We have a youth violence prevention program called YES, Youth Empowerment Solutions, which is basically an after-school or a summer program to get kids involved in community change and community improvement. They might do murals, they might make a garden, they might create a celebration in a neighborhood as a way to both develop their confidence, develop their sense of identity, and to actually make change that they could point to and say, ‘I helped do that.’”

Zimmerman emphasizes the importance of community engagement in firearm injury prevention.

“Think about people as being part of the solution rather than the focus of the problem. That’s related to the idea of victim blaming, but especially with kids, giving them success experiences, helping them to think about their communities, and giving them something to be proud of will help them develop skills that can take them into adulthood,” he says, adding that the neighborhood projects depend on creating involvement opportunities for community members.

“Whether they help us identify what to do or they are participants in the process, giving voice to the people in those communities that we’re working in so that it’s not always us coming in and saying, ‘What can we do?’ Because it should be us experts coming in and saying, ‘How can we help?’”“We’re finding that when you do community improvement, do greening, try to create a busy street with community engagement, there’s less crime & there’s less firearm violence... Think about people as being part of the solution rather than the focus of the problem."

He concludes with a few final takeaways about the significance of the new U-M Institute for Firearm Injury Prevention, highlighting the importance of expanding the research pipeline and having diverse experts in terms of ethnicity, gender, and also methodology. He compares the current work on firearm injury prevention research to that which was done in the 1950s to make automobiles safer.

“Those of us who have worked around firearms and violence often use the example of cars. Cars were often deathtraps in the ‘50s. [Car accidents were] the number one cause of death, and we really did a moonshot. We said, ‘We have to make these cars safer. We have to make driving safer.’ So, we had engineering solutions, we had policy solutions, we had solutions around how to help parents teach kids how to drive. We did it on all different levels and it’s that kind of moonshot that we need to address firearm violence in America.

“I also want to just say that we’re going to do that without taking away people’s guns, and without addressing the debates about whether you should own a gun or shouldn’t own a gun. This isn’t about that any more than it was about taking away people’s cars. So that’s what we want to do is use science to improve lives.”


View the full Michigan Minds Firearm Injury Prevention Research Series