‘My country is in trouble’: Central Pa. volunteers fighting targeted violence share their stories
Three central Pennsylvania residents who volunteered to serve in a federal program aimed at addressing violence targeted at vulnerable populations and others, say the experience has been a lesson in “the ABCs of constructive dialogue.”
Twenty-eight people from across Adams, Dauphin, Franklin and York counties, began serving in the U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security’s program known as Uniting to Prevent Targeted Violence in South-Central Pennsylvania, according to founder and executive director Joseph Bubman, last month. Each county will have $10,000 in program funds to support their efforts, drawn from a two-year project budget of $770,000.
The program “works to help prevent incidents of domestic violent extremism, as well as to bolster efforts to counter online radicalization and mobilization to violence,” according to the URA’s website.
The URA defines targeted violence as “physical violence aimed at someone because of their perceived group affiliation or identity and intended to intimidate the entire group and call attention to the perpetrator’s beliefs,” according to Kira Hamman, who co-directs the local program with Bubman.
Local residents who have chosen to get involved have done so for an interesting mix of unique and overlapping reasons.
“My country is in trouble, and it is up to us, the people, to address the issues,” Betsy Hower, of York Springs, told the Capital-Star. She identifies politically as right of center and reports never having feared she may find herself in the cross hairs of targeted violence.
Hower, 76, retired, describes herself as a “conservative” in the tradition of Abraham Lincoln “who stated that government should only do for the people what they cannot do for themselves or collectively in a group.” She is former Adams County Republican Party chair.
Tom Cassara, 22, a philosophy major at Gettysburg College, said that his academic research is centered on political extremism and polarization, which he sees as “the number one issue facing our country as we head into the 2024 presidential election and beyond.”
Urban Rural Action to select 28 volunteers to prevent ‘targeted violence’
Cassara is concerned by the increase in hateful rhetoric and actions, not just in the US, but around the globe. “I hope that through this project I can help to prevent targeted violence before it happens by quashing the flames of hatred through honest, open dialogue and education.”
Cassara said he doesn’t fear that he may find himself caught up in targeted violence.
“I am a straight, cisgender, Italian-American man, and since I do not belong to any underrepresented groups, I do not fit the profile of those victims a perpetrator of targeted violence would usually seek out.” he said.
His research generally focuses on authoritarian and populist movements with an emphasis on fascist and religious fundamentalist movements. “A huge part of this work is acknowledging our biases,” he said.
Cassara said he realizes labels can be harmful “but in this context they’re a launchpad from which to learn more about their biases and ways to have honest dialogue.” He identifies as left of center.
Remember those candid discussions you heard in a barbershop growing up?
They still happen, according to Lance Walker, who owns a barbershop in Chambersburg, with a diverse clientele. “I love people, and I love my community,” he said, and “at any given time an eclectic group of people come together in one place for haircuts.”
“The barbershop has always been an institution, a place of gathering, a place of dialogue and dissemination of information,” Walker pointed out.
‘Rich, intentional dialogue’
He said he especially enjoys the “rich, intentional dialogue” that takes place in this environment. He feels he has “a great responsibility to my community to facilitate” good communication.
For Walker the possibility of violence has been real.
“My experience growing up in America as an African-American,” he said, “made targeted violence seem like it could happen” to him. “I remember being removed from my elementary school to attend school in another city because of desegregation. I remember white people riding past me yelling the “N” word.”
Walker, 56, said that “at this point in my life, I’ve grown weary of the boxes people and society try to put you in.”
Identifying with the political center, he said that he’s “a multifaceted complex human being as are all the rest of us. I believe most of the time these boxes don’t represent the fullness of who we are. Therefore, I’m not comfortable allowing labels to represent me.”
The diverse clientele Walker mentioned also resembles the volunteer group and the communities they’ll engage with down the road. Hower said she’s found “the experience of working with others who have different points of view a challenging and rewarding learning experience.”
Casara, who said he thrives on debate and open dialogue, told the Capital-Star that he “greatly enjoys working with members of my volunteer group who are not on the same political page as I am.” He feels it’s “a treat to engage with people with radically different perspectives.”
For Walker, “It feels natural because of my daily interactions with people as a barber. I’m literally having conversations every single day for at least 30 minutes with people I totally disagree with.”
“For some years now we have been meeting with others who have different points of view and find we can discuss or share things in a calm manner,” Hower said.
As part of an initial training session for all 28 volunteers, there were “ icebreakers and exercises practicing listening skills,” Cassara said.
He said he found the exercises beneficial to expanding his listening and conversation skills.
The ABC’s of constructive dialogue
Walker said he learned “the ABCs of constructive dialogue…to help us engage in conversation and better understand the person we’re talking to.”
Hower would “like to learn from the different points of view how to solve problems…and maybe we can collectively come up with some solutions.” Far too many academics remain cloistered in their studies and don’t engage actively with the community,” Cassara said. He’s looking to “advance my conversation and empathy skills.”
Walker wants to “learn how to implement communication strategies to affect positive change in my community. It’s early in the program but I have great expectations.” He also hopes “to network with others to make our country a better place. I’m here to remove wedges and build bridges.”
Hower said she’ll feel successful “If we come up with some ideas to pursue, so that we can individually make a positive difference.” Preventing “even one person who might have gone on to commit an act of targeted violence from doing so” is Cassara’s sign of success.
“It is the connective tissue of a community which prevents these acts of violence,” he said, adding “When that connective tissue is eroded through economic hardship, spiritual struggles, ethnic conflict, or other stressors, the result is this sort of violence. But that tissue can be repaired before the violence starts,” he concluded.