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Hazelwood native balances violence prevention with mental wellness | The Homepage

By Juliet Martinez

Does giving back to your community necessarily mean giving everything? Rick Butler would say no.

A brown-skinned bald man with a smile and a trim black beard stands near a bank of windows on the left of the frame. Fluorescent lights and library stacks are visible behind him on the right side of the frame. He is wearing a gray sweatshirt that has a maple leaf logo and says Canada.
Rick Butler in Hazelwood. Photo by Juliet Martinez

Mr. Butler is a Hazelwood native and father of 22-year-old and 14-year-old children. He has worked in youth programs, addiction and recovery and behavioral health for more than 20 years. For the past two years, he has been an outreach worker doing violence prevention with REACH. The REACH team implements Pittsburgh's group violence intervention strategy. In addition to helping police identify areas where violence is likely, he mentors youth in Hazelwood and at Allderdice High School. It is a line of work that demands a lot. I spoke with him in December.

“I'm born and raised in Hazelwood,” he said. “So [a youth] might say, ‘I'm beefing with these kids from up here.’ And I'm like, ‘Well, let me see what I can do.’”

First responders with deep roots

Knowing the different parties allows him to step in and mediate conflicts so they do not escalate. But being rooted in the community means violence can hit close to home.

A 2021 University of Chicago report on the trauma exposure of violence prevention outreach workers described them as first responders who often share deep community connections where they work. When they are called to the scene of a crime, the people they are consoling and supporting could be friends or family. It is a kind of trauma that can cause burnout and affect their mental health.

This is a fact that Mr. Butler is all too aware of.

“It's hard because, when you grow up in a neighborhood, you know everybody. Any instance of violence that happened out here, I get a phone call.” he said. “The last one ended up being my godson.”

His godson, Darrian Davis, was shot and killed on July 1 last year. Working and spending time among lifelong friends, the grief he feels and problems he wants to help solve are ever-present. Even taking a vacation to Jamaica did not allow him to escape that reality.

“I did have fun,” he said. “But you know, we had that trip planned before [the shooting]. Darrian should have been with us.”

Finding balance

So he has learned to take deliberate steps to keep himself balanced, as he puts it. One of those steps is living outside the neighborhood. When he goes home to East Pittsburgh, he can leave work behind. He said when he lived in Hazelwood, he would get 7 a.m. phone calls from parents asking him for help with their child. He said at one point in time he was so focused on working in the community that, “I have lost some friendships and important relationships.”

Now he can see that he needed more distance. He counsels friends who are doing the same kind of work to step back and rest.

“What you're doing is going to be there, but you cannot lose yourself in it,” he said.

He also sees a therapist.

“I'm a fan of therapy,” he said. “Not because I'm crazy. Not because I want to jump off a bridge or anything. I'm a fan because sometimes we’re going through it, and it's bad.”

Fighting stigma

Research on attitudes towards therapy and mental health care in the African-American community has shown that although many Black people are open to seeking help, some may have trouble finding a therapist, starting therapy or opening up to someone they do not know.

Mr. Butler tackles these issues head-on with the youth he mentors, recommending support groups and therapy resources they can access. But he said they scoff at the idea of talking about personal problems to someone outside their community.

“They say, ‘I ain't going up there because I don't want to start talking to that white lady or that white man.’ I'm like look, homeboy, you need to,” he said. “I purposely go to a therapist who I cannot relate to with anything, so when I sit down, our conversations help me.”

Mental health should not be a purely individual endeavor for violence prevention workers, according to the University of Chicago report. Organizations that employ them can adopt practices that actively promote the well-being of front-line staff. These range from offering paid time off and adopting a trauma- informed approach to engaging in public relations campaigns that educate society about the importance of violence prevention workers.

So far, Mr. Butler said his quest for balance is working.

“I'm enjoying it,” he said of his outreach work. “It's where I'm supposed to be.”

Juliet Martinez is the managing editor of The Homepage.

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