High Schoolers Map the Causes of Gun Violence

Community Engagement; Public Health

This summer, with the help of the Brown School’s Social System Design Lab, St. Louis-area high schoolers gathered to explore the causes of gun violence using system dynamics. Their insights are now being shared with community leaders throughout St. Louis.

The Changing Systems Student Summit, which took place June 28 to July 1, created a space for more than two dozen students from 19 area high schools to search for solutions, informed by their own experiences of gun violence. The use of system dynamics, a method of modeling complex problems, provided a powerful tool for uncovering the structures that underlie neighborhood gun violence. The summit was sponsored by Washington University’s Ferguson Seed Fund and Institute for Public Health.

The activities were designed, led and facilitated by 15 interns from Ritenour and Jennings high schools, who engaged their peers in scripted activities to map out the underlying system structure that leads to gun violence in St. Louis. Specifically, they focused on the cycles that perpetuate gun violence to identify ways to restructure the system.

The resulting models allowed students to identify ideas for action and to prioritize leverage points for change.

“Community-based system dynamics empowers people to understand the system and make informed actions,” said Saras Chung, a computational social scientist in the design lab. “We really wanted to capture the voices of youth,” she continued. “We wanted to gauge what young people who have seen and experienced gun violence had to say about what caused these problems and identify possible solutions.”

At the end of the four-day summit, students shared their findings with members of the Brown School and the local community, including regional nonprofit leaders working on similar issues.

Now the students who participated in the summit are being asked to share their insights with audiences and organizations in various ways, including the development of a youth activities council on gun violence hosted by the United Way and the university’s Institute for Public Health. They will also be presenting their work at the St. Louis Association of Community Organizers meeting, as well as hosting a course for students at Jennings High School.

“We sought to empower youth with the tools of system dynamics in a way that would help them make sense of their world,” said Chung. “Something we did not anticipate was the outpouring of enthusiasm and requests from adults in the community to elevate their voices and to enact their ideas. It’s incredible and speaks to the strength of our community.”

To learn more about the project as it moves forward, visit the Changing Systems: Gun Violence homepage.