Understanding the Root Causes of Violence

June 7, 2019

Programming Spotlight: Building Healthy Relationships

By Hallie Cohen
Hallie is a Violence Prevention Educator on our Building Healthy Relationships Team. The BHR team is one of the programs that the Race Against Hate benefits.

My co-facilitators on the Building Healthy Relationships team talk to several hundred middle and high school students in a given year about topics related to, well, building healthy relationships. Sometimes our discussions are direct topics: what are the warning signs a dating partner is abusive? How can you support a friend in an abusive relationship? However, our goal is not just to give individuals checklists of do’s and don’ts for protecting themselves from relationship violence; we also aim to form relationships with students and have conversations that contribute to an entire culture shift that is more open, trusting and trustworthy, and that values all people.

Root Cause Tree diagram of Common Cold

“Culture shift” is easy to see as a buzzword goal that is lofty and intangible. How does one shift culture? It requires us to understand small individual behaviors as part of a larger pattern. One way to visualize and understand this is through a root cause tree. A root cause tree is a graphic organizer that connects the foundation and the impact of an issue. When we use this tool to teach high school students about the impact culture has on violence, we start with a simple example “issue:” the common cold.

The branches and leaves of the tree represent what we call the symptoms or impact; this is what we see and experience when we think of the issue. For a cold, possible symptoms would be fever or missing school or work. After brainstorming the symptoms, we shift to the root causes of the issue: “What causes us to have a cold?” The simple answer is a virus but we encourage them to think deeper: “What conditions allow the virus to spread and infect more people?” Students come up with behaviors such as stress or unhealthy diet, which weaken the immune system.

Typically, a cold is treated with medicine and rest. But this is a reactive solution that only attends to one symptom. We ask students to imagine what we would have to do in order to eliminate the issue fully. The answers range from prioritizing mental health, to regularly exercising etc. All of these solutions address the actual root causes of the problem.

When you look at any single root cause of a problem, it’s hard to understand how deep of an impact it has. When you’re in a rush and skip washing your hands one time, you don’t think “this is going to be the moment I am infected with a virus.” It’s the combination of all these small behaviors that creates the culture that allows for, and even compounds the issue. The symptoms of that issue cannot be addressed or eliminated separately from their roots, or the issue will continue to come back.

Root Cause diagram

When we want to look at a bigger, more serious and challenging issue like violence in our world, a root cause tree can be a useful tool in understanding the actual cause and effect of the issue. We can look at the symptoms to understand the depth of suffering caused by the issue, and we can look at the roots to understand the foundational culture that allows the violence to happen. In my field of work, you will often hear someone say “violence is about power and control.” Those of us who work with victims of violence understand that violence is not random; it is not just some “snapping.” Violence is a tool that some people have learned to use in order to gain control over others; it is a tool to maintain the status quo. In order to understand why people use this tool; we must understand the racist and sexist status quo it upholds.

As we approach the 20th annual Race Against Hate, which honors the life and family of Ricky Byrdsong, whom was murdered by a white supremacist on July 2, 1999, I would like to challenge readers and race participants to think through their own root cause tree for an issue like racist violence. What are the symptoms of this problem: who is impacted and how? What are the root causes: what patterns of behavior and beliefs built the white supremacist culture that motivates this violence? You could consider historical context, institutions like education, government, and religion, representation in the media, and cultural norms, ideas, and language. All of these things inform and impact each other when it comes to building a culture that privileges some and disadvantages and harms others. Finally, after you look at all of these root causes, what are at least two ways your beliefs and behaviors contribute to this culture, and how can you change them?

SAFETY ALERT: If you are in danger, please use a safer computer, call 911, a local hotline, the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 or the U.S. National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233.Escape