‘My country is in trouble’: Central Pa volunteer. those fighting targeted violence share their stories

Three residents of central Pennsylvania who have volunteered to serve in federal programs aimed at tackling violence targeted at vulnerable populations and others, said the experiences were instructive in “ABC constructive dialogue”.

Joseph Bubman, Founding Executive Director, Urban Rural Action (photo URA).
Joseph Bubman, Founding Executive Director, Urban Rural Action (photo URA).

Twenty-eight people from across the Adams, Dauphin, Franklin and York counties began serving on a US Department of Homeland Security program known as Uniting to Prevent Targeted Violence in South-Central Pennsylvania, founder and executive director Joseph Bubman said last month. Each district will have $10,000 in program funds to support their efforts, drawn from a two-year project budget of $770,000.

The program “works to help prevent incidents of domestic violent extremism, as well as to support efforts to counter online radicalization and violent mobilization,” according to the URA website.

URA defines targeted violence as “physical violence directed at an individual because of their perceived group affiliation or identity and intended to intimidate the entire group and draw attention to the beliefs of the perpetrator,” according to Kira Hamman, who co-directs local programming with Bubman.

Locals who have chosen to get involved do so for an interesting mix of unique and overlapping reasons.

My country is in trouble, and it’s up to us, the people, to solve that problem,” Betsy Hower, of York Springs, told Capital-Star. He identified politically as a right of center and reported never being afraid of it may find itself in the crosshairs of targeted violence.

Hower, 76, retired, describes himself as a “conservative” in the tradition of Abraham Lincoln “who maintained that government should only do for the people what they could not do for themselves or collectively as a group.” He is the former chairman of the Adams County Republican Party.

Tom Cassara, 22, a philosophy major at Gettysburg College, says his academic research centers on political extremism and polarization, which he sees as “the number one problem facing our country as we head into the 2024 presidential election and beyond.”

Urban Rural Action selects 28 volunteers to prevent ‘targeted violence’

Cassara is concerned about the rise in hate rhetoric and acts, not only in the US, but around the world. “I hope that through this project I can help prevent targeted violence before it happens by extinguishing the flames of hatred through honest and open dialogue and education.”

Cassara said he was not afraid that he would be caught up in targeted violence.

“I am a straight, cisgender, Italian-American male, and because I am not a member of an underrepresented group, I do not fit the profile of victims that targeted abusers typically seek.” he says.

His research generally focuses on authoritarian and populist movements with an emphasis on fascist and religious fundamentalist movements. “A big part of this work is admitting our biases,” he says.

Cassara says she realizes labels can be dangerous “but in this context they are a launching pad to learn more about their biases and ways to have an honest dialogue.” He identifies as center left.

Remember those candid discussions you heard at the barbershop growing up?

It’s still the case, according to Lance Walker, who owns a barbershop in Chambersburg, with a mixed clientele. “I love people, and I love my community,” he says, and “at any given time, an eclectic group of people get together in one place for a haircut.”

“Barbershops have always been an institution, a place of gathering, a place of dialogue and the dissemination of information,” said Walker.

‘Rich and deliberate dialogue’

He said he especially enjoyed the “rich and deliberate dialogue” that took place in this environment. He feels he has a “huge responsibility to my community to facilitate” good communication.

For Walker, the possibility of violence is real.

“My experience growing up in America as an African American,” he says, “made it seem like targeted violence could happen” to him. “I remember being kicked out of my elementary school to go to another city because of desegregation. I remember white people passing me shouting the “N” word.

Walker, 56, says that “at this point in my life I’m tired of the box that people and society try to put you in.”

With regard to the political center, he said he is “a complex human being as multifaceted as the rest of us. I believe that many times these boxes do not fully represent who we are. Therefore, I am not comfortable letting the label represent me.”

Urban Rural Action focuses on preventing targeted violence against vulnerable populations (photo URA).
Urban Rural Action focuses on preventing targeted violence against vulnerable populations (photo URA).

The diverse clientele that Walker mentions also resembles the volunteer and community groups they will engage with in the future. Hower says he finds “the experience of working with others who have different points of view a challenging and rewarding learning experience.”

Casara, who says he loves open debate and dialogue, told Capital-Star he “really enjoys working with members of my volunteer group who are not on the same political page as me.” He felt it was “a treat to engage with people with very different perspectives.”

For Walker, “It feels natural because of my daily interactions with people as a barber. I literally have conversations every day for at least 30 minutes with people I completely disagree with.

“For several years now we have met other people who have different points of view and found that we can discuss or share things calmly,” says Hower.

As part of the initial training sessions for all 28 volunteers, there are “icebreakers and listening skills exercises,” Cassara said.

He said he found the exercises helpful for expanding his listening and speaking skills.

ABC of constructive dialogue

Walker said he studied “The ABCs of constructive dialogue… to help us engage in conversation and better understand the people we are talking to.”

Hower wants to “learn from different perspectives how to solve a problem… and maybe we can come up with some solutions together.” Too many academics are isolated in their studies and do not engage actively with society,” said Cassara. He wanted to “advance my conversational and empathy skills”.

Walker wants to “learn how to apply communication strategies to effect positive change in my community. It’s still early in the program, but I have high hopes.” He also hopes “to network with others to make our country a better place. I am here to remove barriers and build bridges.”

Hower says he feels successful “if we find some ideas to pursue, so that individually we can make a positive difference.” Preventing “even one person who may have committed an act of targeted violence from doing so” is a sign of Cassara’s success.

“It is the connective tissue of the community that prevents these acts of violence,” he said, adding “When that connective tissue is eroded due to economic hardship, spiritual struggle, ethnic conflict or other stressors, the result is this kind of violence. But the network can be repaired before violence occurs,” he concluded.

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