Eddie Ellis, Credible Messengers, and the Neoliberal Imagination of Anti-Violence.

AuthorBrotherton, David C.


I trace the socio-historical pathway of the concept of the credible messenger and related youth anti-violence interventions from the 1930s to a more radically imagined iteration by Eddie Ellis in the 1980s. The focus shifts to its present-day iterations as I review two widely adopted anti-violence programs. I conclude that today credible messengers and anti-violence interventions are: (i) primarily imagined within a framework of neo-liberal possibility; (ii) valued for their contributions on individual and/or group behavioral change; and (iii) conceived in programs outside of any discourse on the structural roots of crime, collective agency, or the historical struggle for social change and empowerment.


In 2014 the New York City Department of Probation became the first state agency in the United States to employ the radical concept of transformative mentoring (TM) as part of its multifaceted efforts to reduce recidivism and enhance the social rehabilitation of its youth charges. In TM, "mentors learn how to motivate youth by drawing out what is within rather than merely imposing information from without. In a nurturing pro-social environment, they help youth focus on changes in cognition and behavior that precede the ability to make progress in education and employment" (Austria & Peterson 2017, 2).

TM was a departure from the usual mentoring praxis, both in terms of its practice and its practitioners. (1) Those recruited for this important task did not come from the usual range of backgrounds with some having lifecourse experiences like their mentees, while others came from more stable working-class and middle-class populations with formal educational credentials and professional training. The radical concept of TM now implemented by the city agency turned instead to what is called the credible messenger (CM) to carry out the mentoring, social actors whose primary qualifications were that they came precisely from the same communities as their mentees, with insider knowledge of both the community and the criminal justice system that had impacted them (Brotherton et al., forthcoming). These requisite qualities of the credible messenger placed a different value on the experience, profile, knowledge, and engagement of the new recruits. For this intervention was not imagined in the hallowed halls of an academic institution but in the prison cells of an infamous maximum-security facility within the vast system of the New York State Department of Corrections. (2)

In the following, I trace the sociohistorical pathway of the credible messenger from its 1930s role in an intervention promoting informal social control and its 1950s version aimed at youth deviance and violence prevention, both of which were conceived by mainstream social scientists, to the more radically imagined iteration in the 1980s. The focus then shifts to present-day iterations as I critically review two widely adopted anti-violence interventions, one utilizing versions of CMs and the other relying on conventional state agents and community collaboration. There are similarities across all the interventions, but the conceptual frames, goals, and practices vary markedly with the prison-originated version remaining a radical outlier compared to the rest. I conclude that today credible messengers and anti-violence interventions are: (1) primarily imagined within a framework of neoliberal possibility, (2) valued for their contributions through emphases on individual and/or group behavioral change, and (3) conceived in programs outside of any discourse on the structural roots of crime, collective agency, or the historical struggle for social change and empowerment (Muhammad 2010).

Credible Messengers and History

There are three main precursors to the current credible messenger movement: the Chicago Area Project (CAP) led by sociologists Clifford Shaw and Henry McKay during the 1930s, the Street Club Project of New York City supported by Mayor Robert Wagner, and the inmate criminological work of Eddie Ellis and his Think Tank Group in the 1980s at Greenhaven Penitentiary.

The Chicago Area Project

The first CMs were present in the famous Chicago Area Project (CAP) during the 1930s and were referred to as curbside counselors (Schlossman & Sedlak 1983). (3) These project workers were

ideally young adults ... with whom delinquent youth could identify easily--either those who had somehow internalized and acted upon conventional values despite their upbringing in the Bush, or those who had once been active criminals but who, after punishment or simply maturation, had changed radically and become law-abiding citizens. (Schlossman & Sedlak 1983, 429)

In commentary based on the copious archival field notes and reports from the CAP, Schlossman and Sedlak (1983, 429) concluded the following about these innovative new recruits:

[They] served as both model and translator of conventional social values with which youth ... had had little previous contact or awareness (or so the counselors assumed). To the chagrin of professional social workers ... the street workers did indeed appear to accept the boys' deviant attitudes, values, and behavior as "normal" within the cultural matrix... Convinced that formal contact with the police or the juvenile justice system only reinforced children's allegiance to a deviant code of conduct ... In sum, curbstone counseling was not a "technique" of intervention, but a philosophy, a style, an individual moral presence. It was less social work per se than aggressive, omnipresent caring and monitoring of "youth at risk" in their natural, criminogenic habitats." This view of the counselor fit well with Shaw's sociologically informed perspective of community members exercising their agency to the ends of social control through self-organization (see also Janowitz 1975), a process he had experienced in small-town America (Snodgrass 1976). (4) He believed that such control and social cohesion might be achieved without recourse to a form of social order maintained from above and enabled by a combination of coercive agents of the state and the ameliorative impact of the trained social worker, even though the roles of these social actors and their respective agencies were recognized as important. It is also worth noting the reference to the unintentional, negative consequences of repressive systems and practices of justice, a phenomenon that would later be called the amplification of deviance (Wilkins 1964). This innovative use of the curbside counselor reflected the more progressive side of the Chicago School's sociological imagination, (5) especially as Shaw voiced his frustrations with a project funded by a local ruling class reluctant to undo or oppose many of the urban reforms that threatened their class interests:

Why should anyone object if they are delinquent? It might be an excellent thing if the delinquents did make organized raids on the Gold Coast. There may be only one way to settle things, that is, by organized power. That seems to be the way it works now (Snodgrass 1976, 16).

New York's Street Club Project

Following CAP, a similar effort was made in the 1950s in New York City as part of the detached street worker movement to curb the rise of street gangs through social rehabilitation. (6) Officially known as the Street Club Project (note the term gang is omitted) under the management and leadership of the New York City Youth Board, the agency published in 1960 a detailed summation of its work in "Reaching the Fighting Gang." The publication is an unusual social scientific undertaking by a city bureaucracy that presents a detailed account of an intervention that might act as a model for others, including copious field notes, transcribed interviews with youth, and reports on the recruitment and training of project workers. The stated goals of the intervention reflected the social worker emphasis of the day--to bring so-called delinquent or maladjusted youth who were self-organizing into a more productive relationship with mainstream institutions and norms through social inclusion as a form of harm reduction. This would be done through: (1) engaging street gang members in their own communities, (2) building a relationship of mutual trust especially with gang leaders, and (3) using these relationships to help mitigate and/or forestall intergang conflicts, introduce alternative pathways to delinquency, mediate relations between the groups and the community, and generally arrive at a more empathetic understanding of gang-involved youth and their habitus than was typical of media and establishment stereotypes (Bourdieu 1990). (7)

The Youth Board's framework was conceptually important: gangs were perceived along a continuum of peer groups or street corner societies according to their antisocial propensity (Whyte 1943). In this schema, the least delinquent of the youth (described as a loose association of friends) were those congregating in a particular space (often a street corner candy store) without much organizational structure. A second group was like the first only with a common interest, e.g., a group association with a local basketball or baseball team. The third type was the conflict group or fighting gang, the main focus of the intervention, which emerged from one of the former "primary peer group formations" (New York City Youth Board 1960, 15). Finally, the fourth group was a "thoroughly delinquent and pathological grouping" (ibid., 16), usually made up of 4 to 6 members, often appearing as a clique within a larger group that was considered "impossible to work with." (8) Thus, it was the fighting gang that was of primary concern to the Youth Board and promised the greatest chance of both individual and collective transformation. As the eminent social psychologist Sheldon Glueck (New York City Youth Board 1960, xvi) opined in the book's introduction,

it was assumed that the adolescent member of...

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