Lori Toscano ’96 works with communities across the nation to treat violence as a health issue

Ask Americans to name a public health issue, and most point to the usual suspects: disease outbreaks, environmental pollution or addiction.

They’re overlooking a potential killer, says Lori Toscano ‘96.

Violence, she explains, is a public health epidemic too few recognize as such.

The Baltimore-based executive director of U.S. programs for Cure Violence, Toscano explains that violence typically is seen as a problem for law enforcement, not health workers.

“People tend to associate violence with bad people,” Toscano says. “Cure Violence focuses on violence as a behavior that can be unlearned—and it’s working.”

violence is an epidemic

The 17-year-old nongovernmental organization was founded by Gary Slutkin, M.D., professor of epidemiology and international health at the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health.

Slutkin recognized that violence bore striking similarities to the epidemics he’d helped reverse as an infectious disease control specialist in Africa and Asia. He went on to develop the public health model of reducing violence that drives all Cure Violence programs.

Imagine violence as a plague or being like the flu, for example, and it’s easier to see how it can be addressed through public health interventions: detection and interruption, treating people with the highest risk, and changing social norms to prevent recurrence.

The outcomes can be astounding, Toscano says, with documented reductions in violence of up to 70 percent in some communities.

“This model uses health approaches to reduce violence,” Toscano adds. “Like many other health issues, violence is a learned behavior.

“We know that exposure to violence perpetuates violence.”

From an office in Baltimore’s Station North neighborhood, Toscano oversees the implementation of violence-prevention programs involving over 400 people at over 50 sites in 25 U.S. cities, including Baltimore, New York, Chicago, New Orleans and San Antonio.

Cure Violence programs are supported by a variety of sources, including charitable foundations and municipalities, she says.

Toscano’s job takes her all over the country to conduct site assessments and explain the Cure Violence model to community stakeholders. She also provides training and technical assistance to existing sites, analyzes data to increase effectiveness and efficiency, and works with violence-prevention program managers, outreach worker supervisors, outreach workers and violence interrupters.

changing behavior

The staff is critical to a program’s success, says Toscano. Many workers come from communities disproportionately affected by violence and have experienced violence firsthand. Some are ex-offenders.

“They know their neighborhoods better than anyone,” she adds. “They know the residents, the history, the issues. With training and oversight, they can make a real difference in preventing and reducing violence.

“For example, if violence interrupters hear about bad blood between two groups, they can intercede, mediate the conflict and persuade the rivals to stand down.”

The next move is to identify and treat those at highest risk for involvement in violence. “They work with these individuals, providing new skills and information aimed at reducing their risk for future violence.”

Program workers connect people with appropriate services, including education, job training, housing and mental health. They also direct efforts to change group and community norms, thus helping residents understand that violence doesn’t have to be an inevitable part of their lives.

Toscano handles enormous responsibility and a frequent-flier lifestyle with aplomb. “I’ve been in Baltimore for a couple of weeks, and it feels strange,” she admits with a laugh.

Yet it’s hard to imagine anyone better qualified for the job. Toscano graduated from TU with a B.S. in interdisciplinary studies with a concentration in law enforcement, then earned her M.S. in criminal justice from the University of Baltimore.

Before joining Cure Violence, she spent nearly seven years with the Baltimore City Health Department, first as a community liaison and later as director of Safe Streets, Baltimore’s Cure Violence program.

During her tenure the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health evaluated Safe Streets and found significant reductions in homicides and nonfatal shootings in three out of four of Baltimore’s highest-risk neighborhoods.

Her honors include the Baltimore City Mayoral Certificate of Recognition in 2013 and the Baltimore City Health Department Commissioner’s Commendation in 2012.

From inmate to interrupter

Toscano is incredibly good at what she does, says Ricardo “Cobe” Williams.

He would know.

Williams, a national director with Cure Violence, learned about violence firsthand on Chicago’s tough South Side. In those days his future seemed anything but promising: He was a former gang member and served three prison terms.

But when Williams decided to turn his life around, his local Cure Violence program stepped up with a job as a violence interrupter.

Against all odds, he found his calling as a peacemaker.

Ten years on, Williams travels to train interrupters and outreach workers at Cure Violence program sites throughout the United States and abroad.

“I’ve known Lori Toscano for about seven or eight years, ever since she was directing Safe Streets in Baltimore,” he recalls.

“Lori and I worked hand-in-hand to make sure the Baltimore program was ‘on model.’ And just last month we went to Louisville, Kentucky, and Omaha, Nebraska, to talk with people there who want to start a Cure Violence program. She did an assessment and explained the Cure Violence model, and I talked about what violence interrupters do.”

Williams says Toscano brings passion and commitment to a very demanding role. “On top of everything else, it takes good communication skills,” he insists. “Lori can explain things, break it down for people. That’s important, because they don’t always get why we see violence as a disease.”

For Lori Toscano, any given day brings at least 10 inquiries from city officials or concerned citizens who want to implement the Cure Violence model.

“We’re a small office, and sometimes it’s difficult to manage so much interest from all over,” says Toscano.

“The upside is that we know Cure Violence works, that it’s the preeminent strategy for reducing violence and changing behavior.

“That gives us the impetus to keep doing what we do.”

Jan Lucas is associate director of publications in University Marketing and Communication.

Lori Toscano ’96

“Like many other health issues, violence is a learned behavior.”