Joseph Marshall

Ashoka Fellow
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United States
Fellow since 2004
This description of Joseph Marshall's work was prepared when Joseph Marshall was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2004 .

Introduction

In a small urban laboratory in San Francisco's Mission district, Joseph Marshall discovered a cure for the communicable disease that is the number one cause of death for Americans between the ages of 10 and 24: violence. Dr. Marshall has turned his cure, the "Street Soldiers methodology," into a movement to end violence throughout the United States.

The New Idea

The Street Soldiers methodology is based on the premise that violence is a disease, complete with risk factors, treatment, and prevention. Dr. Joseph Marshall offers a technique for local communities and national leaders to solve previously intractable problems of violence. When Dr. Marshall began his work 17 years ago, youth violence was primarily considered a challenge to law enforcement, which approached the issue mainly through patrolling and punishment. Today, thanks to the leadership of Dr. Marshall and others, youth violence is increasingly seen as a public health issue, and solutions focus on treatment rather than fruitless punitive responses.

Over the last 10 years, Dr. Marshall has trained hundreds of community organizers and public school educators, and has written about his work in national journals, books, and reports, including the 2001 Surgeon General’s Report on Youth Violence. By defining violence as a disease, he provides a non-judgmental framework that makes it easier for perpetrators to seek treatment. He identifies the risk factors for violence that individuals can control, empowering those who would otherwise feel helpless to focus on what actions they can take to change their lives. By offering a clear alternative way of life, known as “the cure,” it offers an effective, self-sustaining mechanism for preventing and avoiding violence.

The Problem

The number one cause of death for 10 to 24 year-old Americans is homicide. It kills more young people than car crashes, disease, or suicide. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the rates of youth homicide rose so dramatically that newspapers proclaimed “an epidemic of violence” on the streets of America. Public officials began to publicly refer to African-American men as an endangered species. Media coverage of youth violence focused disproportionately on instances of violence among urban, economically disadvantaged people of color. In time, many violence prevention programs began to assert being a person of color, being raised by a single mother, and living in an inner city as predictive risk factors for violence.

Many people in the field of violence prevention still believe in these risk factors; Dr. Marshall vigorously refutes them. He points to mass murders committed by white middle-class students in places such as Springfield, Oregon and Columbine, Colorado as proof that race and class do not determine a person’s capacity for violence. Furthermore, models of violence prevention based on this false connection between race, class and the capacity for violence has resulted in little improvement: the U.S. prison population has doubled since 1987, but in the same time period, rates of youth homicide have decreased by less than 30 percent.

The Strategy

The violence prevention field has remained relatively ineffective because they identify the wrong risk factors. Dr. Marshall identifies ten new risk factors and develops a system to directly address them that has proven much more successful than traditional efforts to stop violence. He advances his system through two main strategies. The first is to spread the Street Soldiers methodology throughout local communities by training hundreds of interveners in community organizations and public schools. The second is to make the Street Soldiers methodology the norm in the violence prevention field, raising public awareness and persuading policymakers and institutions to adopt its model.

Dr. Marshall began working with young people in the Potrero Hill district of San Francisco through an organization he founded called the Omega Boys Club. All of the young people he worked with lived in violent communities; many of them have been gang members and frequently dealt with violence in their homes. Through his work with the Omega Boys Club, Dr. Marshall developed his Street Soldiers methodology. Since perfecting the methodology, he has not lost a single child to street or family violence.

He has brought more than 600 participants through the Street Soldiers treatment process. The process works in four steps: arrest the infection by directly fighting mental frameworks that promote violence; prevent recontamination by eliminating risk factors; treat the damage caused by the emotional residue of anger, fear or pain; and strengthen the immune system by adopting new rules for living.

Having tested this treatment for over a decade, Dr. Marshall now dedicates himself to raising public awareness and encouraging violence prevention institutions to adopt his method. He took his message to the airways in 1991 with The Street Soldiers Radio Talk Show, which has now been syndicated in 11 states. In 1997, he began the annual Omega Training Institute to teach other community leaders his strategies for violence prevention. To date, nearly 300 people have been trained through the institute. In the fall of 2003, Dr. Marshall gathered his 40 best lieutenants to form a National Consortium, which spreads the Street Soldiers approach through nationwide grassroots organizing. Today, hundreds of local programs across the country practice the Street Soldiers methodology.

On a national level, Dr. Marshall has worked closely with the U.S. Surgeon General to advance the understanding of violence as a public health issue, and specifically as a curable disease. He published a book detailing his experiences and methods that has sold tens of thousands of copies. He has testified before Congress several times, and has accepted invitations to Israel, Japan and Ireland to share his techniques with educators and officials in those countries.

The Person

The oldest of nine children, Joe Marshall strives to live by the words that his grandmother Louise Pierce said to him all his life: “The more you know, the more you owe.” He was born in 1947—the same year that Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier—and he came of age during the civil rights era. In college, he led student efforts to create a campus cultural center. Like many of his generation, he drew inspiration from the words and work of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Dr. Marshall began his 25-year career as a public school math teacher when he was 22. He was known by the nickname “Mean Mr. Marshall” for assigning mountains of homework. He repeatedly called parents when their students missed school, and maintained a very strict grading policy, yet students clamored to get into his class. His commitment to them was unmistakable.

His love for young people compelled him to leave the classroom and confront the challenges that youth face outside school. In particular, as many of his former students ended up in prison, he turned to the problem of violence. In 1987, he founded the Omega Boys Club Street Soldiers—the first chapter of what has now become a vibrant national movement.