Lane Benjamin has started a volunteer-led program to counsel victims of trauma and to reduce violence in the urban townships of South Africa, where youth violence is an epidemic.
The New Idea
Lane’s program, Community Action Towards a Safer Environment, or CASE, trains township residents to deal with various aspects of violence and the trauma it causes, especially among young people. Complementing this volunteer corps are professional counselors. Together, they work in township schools, through a structured program that places counselors in residence. This is the first program that puts keeps a counselor on hand at all times, rather than making one available for particular incidents or occasional visits. Lane’s program then extends beyond counseling to introduce training and development programs for young people, which also have the goal of dealing with violence, but in a proactive way. Her low-cost system, run in partnership with schools and aided by professionals, has the potential to cover a large number of South African townships.
One legacy of Apartheid’s thorough racial segregation are townships, dense settlements on the outskirts of cities that suffer from poor schools, lack of jobs, illiteracy, and rampant crime. In this social context, families break down, a problem most profoundly felt by young people. When the family becomes dysfunctional and discordant, children tend to leave. They may either permanently abandon their home, or in some cases begin to spend more and more time on the street, which gradually draws them into crime.Amidst the urban poverty, sense of disenfranchisement, and existence of a rebellious youth culture, colored townships in particular have experienced an escalation of community violence, often tied to drugs like crystal methanol. There is a 70 percent average drop-out rate for high schoolers. In Hanover Park, where CASE is currently based, only 20 percent of adults have completed high school. Isolated in the Apartheid era, those previously classified as “colored” find themselves without a cohesive identity or intact social networks because of their diverse backgrounds. A general lack of cultural pride means that colored youth in particular are susceptible to the alternative family identity offered by criminal gangs.After years of structured discrimination, the psycho-social trauma has taken its toll on these communities. Violence is the most widespread result; the victims of this displaced aggression are often society’s most vulnerable. Few if any social programs have had success in this hugely challenging urban environment. Most often treating symptoms instead of causes, ‘band-aid’ solutions do not halt the cycle of violence or heal the deeper wounds of the community.
Lane's overall strategy for addressing violence in the townships is carried out through her organization, CASE, which combines a highly committed group of volunteers with a carefully crafted program of services for all affected by the cycle of violence. CASE’s work is focused on dealing with the root causes of the violence as well the effects on both the perpetrators and victims. There is a particular focus on young people, who are obviously critical to preventing the repeat of the cycle. Lane has divided CASE into two main programs: the Training and Personal Development and Community Projects Development. Each engages all members of the community: police, teachers, students, parents, etc. The Training and Personal Development program focuses on equipping community members of all ages with the skills to recognize and respond to crime and violence appropriately. The first step is addressing their own trauma, before they can focus on that of others. For adults CASE offers counseling training (both general and specialized training for counselors of rape victims, children, etc.), personal development courses, and mentoring. Individuals in this program also help recruit and train new volunteers. For youth, the “Youth in Action” module also covers recruitment and mentoring, with the addition of life skills training and workshops based on youth needs. Adults and youth who have come through the Training and Development Program then become the leaders of the Community Development Program—where the true work begins to end the cycle of violence. The main tool of the Community Development Program is support groups: trauma support rooms in schools, parent support groups, and therapeutic support groups in the community. Trauma support rooms are staffed by “barefoot professionals”, people from within the community who undergo extensive training by Lane and professional volunteers in partnership with the Safer Schools Project of the Western Cape Education Department. These counselors have to first go through counseling for their own healing conducted by Lane and her cadre of volunteer professionals. Lane recruits these trainers, who have previous experience and background in community support or health care, from within the community. This grounds and keeps the skills and human capital needed for the program within the local population.Schools are Lane’s key entry point. She first seeks authorization from the Department of Education and respective school governing bodies, and then secures buy-in from the learners and the teachers to come into the schools and set up her trauma support rooms. Lane engages both professional (social workers, child and youth practitioners, psychologists and criminologists) as well as non-professional volunteers to staff these trauma rooms, which become safe havens for children suffering from violence-related distress.CASE insists that counselors be brought into schools in a structured way, which distinguishes it from other programs addressing violence. Counselors are ‘in residence’ at schools up to 30 hours per week, which means students have regular and consistent access to support, crisis management, and ongoing treatment. A number of counselors have been in place for five years or more. To further systematize the intervention, part of the trauma work is incorporated into the life skills courses required in all South African schools. The number of students who have benefited from her trauma support rooms is on the rise, with over 600 learners assisted in 2003, over 800 learners in 2004 and over 1,000 in 2005. To ensure a high retention rate of counselors and consistency in the program, the volunteers work under a one-year contract and are paid a small stipend, which they supplement with side projects or informal work. Parent support groups and community-wide therapeutic support groups, run in conjunction with local partners, are also important aspects of the Community development Program. In partnership with the National Institute for Crime Prevention and Reintegration of Offenders, CASE counselors also facilitate support groups for youth who are in the criminal justice system. CASE also runs a ‘Care for Carer’ program, where CASE reaches out to both police and community workers who are not part of CASE’s cohort of counselors. This outreach is important in order to reduce the trauma that these professionals experience vicariously and help them cope. Keeping these professions strong and preventing burn-out is essential to stopping trends of violence community-wide.CASE also runs Youth in Action initiatives which are run by youth who have completed the Training and Personal Development Program. Youth in Action activities often have a recreational component and target youth aged 15 to 25. Youth commit to a process of personal development through attendance at workshops and weekend camps. The participants are then given opportunities to put their skills to work by serving as tutors and become responsible for mentoring 10 younger children from the after-school club also run by CASE. There are also after-school programs in visual and performing arts, sports and nature/outdoor activities. All volunteer counselors, youth leaders, and program graduates conduct outreach for the program in places of worship, schools, events sponsored by other citizen sector organizations. In these settings they promote CASE’s projects and provide educational information on both stemming and mitigating the violence and its aftermath.Lane has consulted with leaders and government officials in other South African communities to implement all or parts of CASE’s model—the benefit being that certain modules like the drug awareness program can be implemented without the entire web of strategies. Local partnerships are essential for successful spread, as the recruitment of the right counselors and youth leaders is the foundation of CASE’s success. Lane has designed an effective resource mobilization plan through which she is able to acquire both human capital and material resources from within the community. This complements her staffing strategy and the overall goal that community members take ownership over the project and become active in their own healing, recovery, and the creation of a less violent society.
Lane grew up during the Apartheid era in Cape Town’s colored township of Mitchell’s Plain, which stood in dramatic contrast to the “Whites only” suburb where she attended a private school. Born to service-minded parents, this contrast between home and school life proved to be a powerful experience for her. Lane took on several leadership roles within the school through academia, sport, community service, and school politics, standing as a voice against the Apartheid regime and its policies.Throughout high school and university, she initiated numerous community service programs. Lane’s first project was to set up a Sunday school class in the black township of Khayelitsha. In addition to teaching Sunday school, she tutored and ran study groups in Khayelitsha. During her college years, she wanted to teach art to the children of the township. She secured donations of art supplies and taught a weekly arts class to about 120 children in the townships for almost 2 years. Lane then pursued a Masters Degree in Psychology, with the goal of helping individuals otherwise unable to afford the services of a psychologist. Her work as a psychologist at the Trauma Centre in Cape Town and her involvement in dealing with victims of Apartheid through the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission led to a realization of how much violence non-white people have had to endure, not only from the Apartheid regime, but also from their own communities. CASE developed out of this realization, as a means to address violence and create a more peaceful South Africa.