Making Peace Contagious: A conversation with Marcus McAllister

A conversation with Marcus McAllister //
Interviewed by Johanna Depenthal, SC Co-founder

SC: Violence is often seen as an inevitable result of conflict. How do you make a distinction between conflict and violence in your work with Cure Violence?

Marcus: One of the things that we do is we look at violence being the root cause of violence, violence itself. So one conflict can lead to another conflict, which can lead to another conflict. One violent incident can lead to one violent incident. And we’re looking at violence from a health perspective, so we look at it as something that can be transmitted from one person to the next, and looking at it as a contagion, as a disease.  

We’re called Cure Violence, so when we look at violence from a standpoint of being like a disease, and having the same characteristics and traits. Because we look at it that way, we’re able to treat it the way that you would treat any epidemic, outbreak, or contagion that takes place. We apply these methods, and we received a lot of training and insight looking at it from that lens from our founder who is an epidemiologist, a doctor by the name of Dr. Gary Slutkin.

SC: I originally had it described as a turning point, but looking at it from the perspective of health, what really brings people to the point where they are ready and able to heal from violence, if we’re discussing it in epidemic terms?

Marcus: That’s a great question. I look at it like this. There are a lot of factors that can contribute to bringing people to that point. I think most people, most communities are ready immediately. I mean, nobody probably just wants to be in the state that they’re in, with violence and retaliating with violence. One of the reasons that I like the work that we do, and the role we play as not only an organization that can help with a certain approach—we look at it as an approach that we’re training and teaching all across the country—but that approach does more than just stop the violent incident or just stop the spread: it literally changes the culture of a community.

And so you say, “Well, how does it change that culture?” Most of the individuals that we hire that are becoming the change agents, the peace makers — those that have the influence to be able to mediate things on the front end and also things that already happened to stop retaliation — they become sort of like champions, heroes. So if I’m in a community, especially if I’m a young individual, and if I’m young and whatever the case may be, and I’m from an environment where I don’t have any hope, and I think there is no hope, the minute that I see people who also are from my community who have been in some of the shape that I’ve been in, but now they’re saying “Stop the violence,” and mediating conflict, i.e. a cure violence site in whatever city or country we’re speaking of…  That in itself can make a community or make people say, “Hey, you know what? If they can change, we can change.”

There’s a slang saying that “the proof is in the pudding,” so when you see results, as we’ve seen tremendous results throughout the country, it makes a community say, “Hey, we need that, we want that. We need that change in our community, because I remember when that community used to be real rough.”

So I usually if I’m giving an example, I’ll use East New York, Brooklyn. (And I’m using them for a certain reason.) So we have a site called Man Up, Inc. that’s doing this work in East New York, Brooklyn. The neighborhood is, historically, one of the rougher neighborhoods in all of New York City. But since they’ve been doing this work and had a site implemented there, they’ve had some of the best numbers throughout all of New York City. When I say numbers, [I mean] some of the biggest decreases, some of the longest streaks without a shooting or killing. So when you go to that community, and you go out with some of the team members, you can see that the community is all in. They believe that change is possible, because they can see it. So those are some factors that I think are a turning point for communities or individuals. When they see the change, when they relate to the people who are trying to change. And like I say, numbers themselves sometimes play a big role: you start to see that the violence is going down.  All that plays a role, but I think in general everyone would like to turn immediately, but they just don’t know how to turn. And I think that’s where I think this program comes into play. It helps people to change their mindset, to change their behavior when it comes to accepting violence as the norm, and realizing it is something that can be eradicated.

SC: Based on what you said about people being able to change when they see it in other communities and in other individuals, it sounds like stopping violence is also contagious; that it also travels from person to person and community to community, or that it can.

Marcus: Excellent, you hit it on the money with that. I’m a trainer, I train and implement sites throughout the country, and exactly what you said. We have a video on our Youtube station (it’s actually an infographic, like in a cartoon format). It’s like two minutes long, it shows the process, and it’s called “The Health Solution to Violence.” But at the end of the video, it says, “Let’s make the cure contagious.” So it says, in essence, what you’re saying: though the negative behavior and the violence and all that stuff becomes the norm, we’re changing the spectrum where now the contagious part of it is actually the reverse: not doing it, stopping violence, being a violence interrupter, wanting to see a community better, being a part of these events, etc.

SC: In your video you mention the term, “Formerly incarcerated professional,” so I just wanted to ask: Why is this such an important descriptor for you, and why should it be important to society as well?

Marcus:  I’m glad that you caught that I mentioned that. I go all over the world, all over the country, helping with this model, but we have quite a few sites that are replicated in New York City. I first started hearing the term visiting some of the sites in New York City, from some of the comrades who are doing the work. I would go visit them, and they would say that. And it really stuck with me, because me, myself, you know, I’m formerly incarcerated, but today I’m a professional. I’ve been doing this work now for 15 years at the highest level of being a professional. It’s important to me on a lot of levels. It’s something I’ve always believed in, but it’s one thing to believe something, but then you’re actually doing it. So I’ve always believed that just because I was incarcerated didn’t mean I couldn’t be someone that could find themselves, and be a productive member of society, and be a professional, and do my job, go to meetings, and sit and do interviews like I’m doing with you—I always believed that. But believing and doing is two different things, so when I started to do the work and become exactly what I knew I could do, then I jumped right into it.

But let’s get away from just me. I have the privilege of training and meeting so many individuals throughout the country that do this work. Now, the good thing about this work is that being someone who’s been incarcerated or something doesn’t mean a strike against you in this work because, in most cases, you may be more relatable, or people in the neighborhood might know you more. I think what the “formerly incarcerated professional” terminology does is lets society and people know that just because a person has been locked up and incarcerated, for one, it’s not a death sentence, and number two, it doesn’t mean that they are not professional and cannot become somebody great in society. And so I think this work is showing that, and you know, the more you become a professional… everything is about what you think and see yourself as. And that’s what I love about this work.

I love the fact that in this work we’re able to save lives. Don’t get me wrong, I think that’s great, we’re able to mediate conflict… But anyone that knows me… [knows] that I fell in love with this for what it does for the staff. It changes our lives as well. That’s why I really love this work, because I get to see all these great individuals who might’ve been through something, who might’ve been locked up for 20 years, 10 years for whatever reason, and now they’re out there making a difference, and they’re feeling good about themselves. They’re doing something–they’re not coming out of jail flipping burgers, you’re out there stopping someone from going down the same path you went and getting shot or killed. And guess what, you’re getting paid to do it! You’re a health worker now, that’s how we look at it, you’re a change agent. And you’re just as important as a nurse, you’re just as important as doctors, and everyone else who plays a role to make a healthier neighborhood. That’s why I think it’s very important [to use the term “formerly incarcerated professional”] in the work we do, because you’re definitely a professional when you’re doing this type of work.

SC: What I found striking about it as well is that it isn’t “Hey, this is a part of my past that’s going to come up at some point and surprise people.” By using that term, “Formerly Incarcerated Professional,” it puts it out there at the front, and people can recognize that and move on and grow in that.

Marcus: That’s right. You’re not trying to hide anything. You’re meeting it. It’s a truth, but it’s a truth now that it’s a positive thing that you’ve turned it into, not looking at it as something that’s going to be a negative scar on you forever. “Yes, I’m formerly incarcerated, but I’m a professional today.”

SC: I noticed on your biography that you said you like to talk about what motivates you for your work with Cure Violence. I think you just went into that some, but I don’t know if there’s anything you would like to add on that front?

Marcus: Obviously what I just mentioned, that motivates me. I started out working on the ground, doing [Violence] Interruption and Outreach work. I was motivated by that, and [since] the minute I became a trainer—someone who helps the city get implemented—I’ve been constantly traveling. I was in Michigan a couple weeks ago, I have to go to D.C. next week—I’m constantly going to different cities. That fuels me, when I can go somewhere and see the new batch of individuals that are trying to do this, or when I realize a city is considering doing this model. I’m in negotiations right now with Jacksonville, Florida; hopefully I’ll be visiting them soon once we get some things together to see if this model will work there.

All those factors motivate me, but lastly… I can only speak about myself on this last motivation, but at the end of the day I feel like in life I’ve done enough wrong, and I’ve taken a lot from society in my time. And so to be able to give back, to do this type of work—I look at it as God’s work. We’re really pushing peace throughout the country.  And so for me, in my spiritual beliefs, to be able to be a peacemaker… You know the Bible says that the peacemakers will be called the children of God, so I’m a sure ‘nough child of God these days because I’m doing peace work, I’m pushing peace work. Those are some of my motivations. My children are my motivation too, because I want them to know that too many people are locked up right now because they were so quick to want to prove themselves, be it in pride, or anger, to pull the trigger real fast, or stab somebody, or assaulted somebody, or went back to jail for violation. And they get in jail and think about it like, “Man, I responded so fast, with my behavior…” It motivates me to show my kids that you don’t have to respond so quickly and fast, in a violent nature, because the end result is sometimes something that you can’t get back.

Johanna: I went to school outside of Chicago and am living in Durham, North Carolina now. I know Cure Violence started in Chicago and is currently doing some work through Bull City United in Durham?

Marcus: Yeah, Bull City United—it’s one of our better sites. I like Bull City United a whole bunch. We started this movement in Chicago, but today we are an international program. So we’re not a Chicago program, we’re not a Durham program, we’re not a New York program, we’re really all over the world, all over the globe. We have 61 sites throughout the country, and we’re operating in 25 cities and 13 countries. But Bull City United there in Durham is doing great work, they are an excellent team. I’ve been in the neighborhoods with them, I’ve been on the ground with them. And they have a team that’s made up of quite a few FIPs as well, and they are outstanding, with the relationships and in the neighborhoods. They have results where violence has been reduced by, I don’t know the exact percentage but more than 30%. More than that, but at least 30% reductions since they’ve been implemented. They’re working in two areas there in Durham, and they’re doing great work.    

SC: We had a shooting in my neighborhood this past year, so I recognize the need for the continued work and am obviously appreciative of the work that’s being done to mitigate and to prevent retaliation.

Marcus: I appreciate the opportunity to add to what we do. I’m always thankful to anyone who’s going to shed light on the good work that we’re trying to do and that we are doing.



Marcus McAllister is a National Trainer for Cure Violence, which was named a top 10 global NGO in 2018 by NGO Advisors and the #1 NGO focused primarily on violence prevention. In 2005, Marcus was approached by CeaseFire Illinois (now known as Cure Violence) where his street background was considered an asset and his status as an ex-offender could actually be used to change lives for the good. He became a violence interrupter, a highly-trained community health worker, whose job was to stop shootings and killings using a public health behavior change approach. Since joining Ceasefire, Marcus has devoted his life to helping others change their lives, just as CeaseFire helped him to finally turn his own life around. Marcus and his wife of 17 years live in the Chicago suburbs. They are parents of a 14 year old daughter and a 10 year old son. Marcus travels regularly and is a frequent guest speaker/presenter on the contagion of violence at events across the U.S.

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