Saleem: Hey y’all. It’s Saleem and this is More Than A Feeling, a show about emotions, how they work and what we might be able to do to deal with our emotions in the best way possible.
Last week we talked about grudges. Which left us thinking about bigger questions around conflict. How we perceive and experience it and how we handle it. And what to do about times where we felt like someone did us wrong – how to move past that without feeling like we’re ignoring something important about ourselves.
It’s easy for stuff like that to sound abstract or hypothetical. So today, we’re gonna be talking with someone who works with conflict in a very concrete way.
Coco: The way I handle you might change this whole situation. So guess what? I'm gonna humble myself and get on your level (laughing), you understand? Or try to figure things out. So we both could be okay. Cause at the end of the day, I just want everybody to be at peace.
Saleem: This is Shneaqua Purvis, from Brooklyn, New York. Everyone knows her as Coco. And specifically, she works to prevent gun violence. But the breakdown of how she does this, the steps she takes and how she thinks of this work, can apply to so many things in our daily lives. Like if there’s a conflict at work, or how we treat our kids when we lose our cool after a long day.
Saleem: So, on today’s show, we sit down and talk to Coco, and see how she’s become an expert in emotions, and how it’s now a part of who she is.
Coco: I'm a Pisces. I'm very emotional. (laughing) I cry off “The Lion King.” Like I, I cry. My favorite movie of all time is “Shrek” and I cry every time I watch it. So I'm not one of those people that, you know, “Oh, she's so hard. And…” No, I'm a softie, you know. A lot of times, though I can be hard. But I'm a softie at the end of the day, you know? So emotions is real big for me. I, I, I really had to teach myself not to go off of my emotions.
[THEME MUSIC SWELL]
Saleem: We’re gonna start with why Coco does this work in the first place, and what her work and expertise might teach others about living a life where what you feel doesn’t lead to acting in a way that hurts others. Then, later in the show, we're gonna follow her process, because Coco believes her approach can be used by anyone dealing with a serious conflict.
Being a violence interrupter means she’s out intervening, cooling emotions before things escalate. So, just a note, today’s episode has some depictions of violence in it. But it’s also got some beauty, including Coco’s entire approach to her job.
Coco: I try to pray before I go into a situation and not judge people. You know, go into it with an open mind, an open heart. Because, you know, you could look at me and would never in, in the world think that my favorite song is “Love Is a Battlefield.” Like, you know what I'm saying? Like, that's why I never judge anyone. Cause you never know, what story people have and where they come from, and what traumas that brung them to the place that they, that they've come to. And I had to learn, you know, all my traumas.
Saleem: And we’ll get into what she learned from her accounting of all those traumas, after the break.
Saleem: Welcome back. We’re spending some time today with Shneaqua Purvis, a.k.a Coco. She’s the founder and CEO of an organization called Both Sides of the Violence, which works with both victims of violence and people who have done violent things. She’s someone who works all the time to diffuse situations when emotions run hot, hopefully before they lead to bad outcomes. Our reporter Yasmeen Khan met up with Coco in her neighborhood in Brooklyn.
Saleem (in studio): And, Yasmeen, you’ve actually known Coco for a few years, right?
Yasmeen (in studio): I have. I’ve known Coco from my days as a news reporter here in New York City. I used to cover policing and public safety, so I’ve interviewed Coco before about her work on the ground to reduce violence. Um, and Saleem, we’ll talk in detail about how she does this work, because it’s important to know how it plays out, and how that relates to even non-violent, day-to-day conflicts for everyone.
But to understand her drive, and some of the lessons we’ll get from her, I think it’s important to first talk about how gun violence is part of her personal story.
Coco: So we're in Tompkins Houses where I grew up. Um, we moved here in 1980. This is our handball court. We do everything, but play handball. I'm not even gonna lie to you.I don't know anybody that plays handball in here. (laughs)
Yasmeen: Maybe that's why they put this nice mural here.
Coco: I guess so.
Yasmeen: It’s serving a different purpose now.
Coco: I guess so.
Yasmeen (in studio): Coco doesn’t live in Tompkins Houses anymore, but she does live close by and is here all the time. I mean, it’s hard to walk too far without someone stopping to say hi to her.
Yasmeen: I don't know how old you are. I don't know if I'm allowed to ask.
Coco: I’m 50.
Coco: I'm proud to say I'm 50. A lot of people ain't make it to 50.
Yasmeen: So 1980, what was it like to be a kid here at that time?
Coco: At first it was kind of amazing because we were on the 16th floor. And that was before my anxiety kicked in, you know, I was okay with heights. I, I used to love, especially around 4th of July, looking out the window. We didn't have to go nowhere. We would go on the roof and have a picnic looking at the fireworks. Like, it was great, you know, coming up. Um, but then, you know, you had the bad kids that always picked on the new kids. So I had to go through a lot of stuff and I was the oldest of five girls. We didn't have no brothers. So we was like, they thought, was easy pickings, you know. But, uh, heh, little do they know I can fight. So, I was really beating up a lot of boys.
Yasmeen (in studio): So she got into some fights. But around her there were more than just fist fights.
Coco: We used to call this Death Lane. This was called Death Lane, this lane right here.
Yasmeen: Because there were shootings out here.
Coco: Yes, all the time. It wasn't uncommon for us to get down on the ground when we hear shots.
Coco: It was regular. It was kinda normal. But what wasn't normal, was them not gettin’ up.
Saleem (in studio): So gun shots, and reacting to gun shots, was a part of just routine daily life for her.
Yasmeen (in studio): It was routine… until it wasn’t. Coco lost her sister, Maisha, twenty years ago. This is something I knew about Coco; she’s open about losing her sister because it’s a big reason why she does the anti-violence work that she does now. But Coco talked about the day her sister was killed in more detail with me. I learned that it happened in the afternoon, a few days after Christmas. Coco wasn’t living at Tompkins anymore, but was visiting Maisha in their mother’s first floor apartment, along with Coco’s husband and their infant daughter.
Coco: We in there talking, chilling. Next thing you know, we heard shots.
Yasmeen (in studio): Like she said, up to here, this was pretty routine.
Coco: So everybody, you know, got on the floor. But one of the shots sounded like a firecracker. I’ll never forget it. It sounded like a firecracker. I just felt it was kind of weird. But anyway, I pops up off the floor and I'm like, “Yo, everybody up?” So then I come around the bend to the room. My husband pops up with my daughter under him. So he, he laid on her. So she wasn't crying or anything. She – my daughter's a trooper, still to this day. So he pops up. I'm like, “You okay?” And I looked at his face, he had kind of like blood on it. But I ain't really pay it no mind. So then my sister’s still on the floor. I was like, “Bitch, get up. It's over with.”
Yasmeen (in studio): So, Coco reaches over to Maisha to try to get her up, and that’s when she feels Maisha bleeding.
Coco: When I tell the story, I just, you know, let everyone know that from the time I did that up until the day after her funeral, I was on autopilot.
Coco: So I don’t…
Yasmeen: That makes sense.
Coco: I don't remember too much after that.
YASMEEN (in studio): The bullet that killed Maisha was a stray bullet. She was 28 years old.
Saleem (in studio): Hearing her tell it, it’s so intense, just how vivid that twenty year old memory is. How did she even start to process something like that?
Yasmeen (in studio): This is actually what fuels Coco’s work. And she has lost other family members, and friends, to violence also. You’ll hear her say, “I don’t want other families to go through what my family went through.” But Coco did have to do a lot to reckon with her personal pain.
Coco: I had to learn, you know, all my traumas. I, I, I, I put, I suppressed them so far down that when I went to therapy, I didn't even realize that they existed. That I didn't even remember. But I suppressed it, forgot about it, but it was actually dictating how I, how I move. And I didn't even understand it. So I had to – yo, personal development is so important, so important. Because I'm a totally different person than I was in 2014.
Yasmeen: That’s around the time Coco started going to therapy. It was a program with other people who work as violence interrupters.
Coco: When I found out all my triggers and, and went through that program and, and wrote down, oh my God, they had a list of traumas, childhood traumas. And you had to check how many you – girl. And, and they, and it's a number system of how many checks. And they say, how many num and, and you have to say the number out loud of how many. And it's, those are all your traumas that you've been through when you was a kid. I could not believe the number. I couldn’t believe it. And I was being totally honest of everything that I went through, everything that I seen as a kid. And when I saw the numbers, it was, it was heartbreaking.
And then I kind of understood why I am who I am and why I move the way I move, and why I was so angry. Because I was moving off these traumas. These were all triggers. And I didn't even understand it, cause I suppressed it. Like, that ain't happen to me. I don't care about that. That's nothing. That's normal. None of them things was normal. But I didn't know that at the time. And once I came to that realization, my whole life changed. So I'm totally not the same person. At all.
Yasmeen (in studio): So when Coco talks about mediating conflict, and not judging people because you don't know where they’re coming from, she's drawing from her own story in those moments.
Saleem (in studio): The specificity of her counting every trauma she’s been through, that sounds so painful, but it also makes me think about grudges and harm and how they form part of the stories we tell ourselves. And I’m curious how you can go through that and not get lost in it. How is Coco applying these things she’s learned about herself to dealing with conflict and violence?
Yasmeen (in studio): Well, first of all, she’s present. As in, available. She doesn’t turn her phone off. Ever. She also makes herself seen. So you hang around Coco for five minutes and you’ll hear at least one of these two things: “We outside.”
Coco: “Violence interrupters, We outside,”
Yasmeen (in studio) cont’d: …and “this is my house.”
Saleem (in studio): And when she says that, she’s talking about her whole neighborhood, right?
Yasmeen (in studio): Yes. Community is essential to Coco. She says that people need to feel a sense of belonging to community, and accountability to one.
Coco [at a Back to School event]: “Yeah, so we have the bouncy houses - bouncy house. We got the popcorn and cotton candy. We have the food – they can eat whatever. The hotdogs and hamburgers and sodas and waters and juices and chips. And then we have the slide.”
Yasmeen (in studio): This was Coco at a back to school event she organized, giving away backpacks and school supplies. She sees community investment as pretty central to reducing violent crime. There’s also very direct conversations about violence in the community.
Coco: We’re talking to them about changing their mindset on how they handle violence. You could be angry and not be violent. You understand? You can even be angry, be violent, and not kill someone, you understand? So that is our job. We at every event. We on every corner, we on every block, we at every project, we at every house, making sure nothing happens.
Yasmeen (in studio): And she and others work with young people or families one on one. They’re outreach workers, basically. She’s helping them sort out all kinds of issues.
Coco: Help them with housing, help them with, um (sigh), burying their children. Um, helping them with domestic violence cases, helping them with gun cases, court involved, youth, helping parents deal with their youth. Um, you know, helping kids get back to school, um, when they go to college, um, staying out jail, helping them with their court cases, um, getting them lawyers, getting 'em out of the precinct, just getting them out the precinct. You know, um, helping them with tickets, helping them with fines, helping them eat. We give out food. You know, um. Anything that they need, get them jobs. I'm real huge on getting them jobs. So we help them, help themselves, you know? (sigh) How can I say it? Help them love themselves, recognize that they are included – that they are part of their community. Looking at their community as if they would look at their homes.
Coco: I think that if everyone sees their community as their home and we all have to get along to pay the rent, we'll have a better way of looking at community. So when you say I'm looking at the whole community yes, because they all in my house. This is my house. Something, somebody gets shot, they got shot at my house. You go in your house and you see a dead person in your house, what you gonna do? You gonna lose your damn mind? How the hell a dead person get in your house? Have that same energy for when one of our kids get shot in the street. I'm gonna need that same energy.
Saleem (in studio): So, we have an idea of how she thinks about community and how important that is. But what’s the day of being out there, stopping emotions from escalating, actually look like? How is she actually looking for ways to interrupt a violent or potentially violent situation?
Yasmeen (in studio): There are a couple ways. One is when she or other violence interrupters are canvassing, as she calls it. And they can tell when something’s about to go down, or when an ongoing conflict is heating back up again.
Coco: Like if we canvas and we see a situation, we buy time, what we call buy time. So we take them away from situation, talk to them about consequences, talk to them about conflict mediation, you know. Or telling them, “Just sit the fuck down, cause you don't want to be in jail.” Like, you know, just telling them real stuff like, “Come on. Is it worth it?”
Saleem (in studio): So, slowing them down, and getting them someplace safe.
Yasmeen (in studio): Yeah. And there are also reactions to shootings after they happen. Such as organizing what’s called a shooting response – to rally the community and bring people together. It’s an act of community support. Then there’s the effort to prevent retaliations.
Coco: So perfect example, I'm on social media and I see a video of a situation where a young man was killed and I'm like, what the hell? Come to find out, I know the shooter, I know the shooter's family. So I make a phone call.
Yasmeen (in studio): Remember, Coco is about keeping peace, and understanding the situation on both sides. That takes a lot of outreach work.
Coco cont’d: I talk to the parents. The parents tell me the situation. Then I do my homework and go into the victim’s situation. Find out who's related to the victim. How, you know, how that, how that family doing? Are they able to bury their loved one? You know, things of that nature,
Yasmeen: I wanna get at your expertise around that. Like, what are the strategies or the tools that you are using in those moments to move past the conflict? How do you navigate that? Or how do you help them navigate it?
Coco: Well, I think the biggest thing is to be calm at all times. Talk to people in monotone voices. Don't let your voice raise. Body language is, is, is, is important too. You have to understand that when someone dies and someone goes through a tragedy like that – on both sides, whether it's the perpetrator, whether it's the victim, everyone is hurt, right? Everyone is hurt. No matter what, they all feel hurt. So you have to understand that hurt and you have to respect that hurt.
So even if they get on your nerves and you want to choke the shit out of them, you know, like you, like, you cannot be this stupid. You know, I can never do that. People grieve different. People have way, different ways of letting that grief out or that anger out. So I have to – in, in, in respecting that hurt, I have to understand that. So in those types of situations, number one is understanding. Empathy. You have to have some type of empathy.
Saleem (in studio): So, Coco’s leaning into empathy, trying to understand where everyone is coming from. But she’s also got some very specific ways to help people who are in a moment where they feel like anger is all they’ve got. More on that, after the break.
Saleem (in studio): Welcome back. So we’ve been breaking down some of the steps Coco takes in tense situations: calming her own body and voice; making sure to find points of empathy with everyone involved. That second one, empathy for everyone, it’s easy to say, but sounds really hard to practice. Yasmeen, how exactly does she get people to empathize, especially in a situation that is really charged, where there may be a lot of grief and anger?
Yasmeen (in studio): It’s almost like Coco’s anti-violence strategy includes raising people’s emotional awareness in these combustive situations. So, to cultivate some empathy, she has to walk people through it.
Coco: Well, first of all, you have to train them in and it's sad, but you have to train them what other people's hurt look like. Right? You have to say that, give them certain situations of other people's hurt so they could see for themselves before they put themselves in it.
I don't care how hard you are or soulless or evil. You love something. It's something that you love. It could be a person. It could be a damn dog. It could be your favorite do rag, who cares. But there's something that you love, that you, you, you, you put energy into, right? I will focus on that.
Saleem (in studio): She’s basically guiding someone to a starting point. Some positive feeling in the middle of all that’s going on.
Coco: Like, I I've talked to the hardest of the hardest young people. And then I ask them all the time, what do you love? What, what will hurt you right now if I destroy it? What what's that thing? And they always say, my mom, my kid. Maybe one or two, say baby mother, but you know, they'll gimme something. It'll even be a little brother or sister, like somebody. Once they gimme that, I play it like a violin. I do. Because at the end of the day, that's the only way that we can get to these kids by personalizing things. If you don't personalize it, it’s too much generalization, you know what I'm saying? Oh, that's them. That's, that's not me. It's disassociation. But once you bring them in, one on one, and talk about who you love, conversation change.
Saleem (in studio): It makes sense that, as much as we’d want it, there’s no generic magical phrase to say here.
Yasmeen (in studio): Yeah. And Coco emphasized to me that having empathy, doesn’t mean you need to reconcile or forgive. You know, she’s not talking about or pushing forgiveness. Her goal is peace.
Saleem(in studio): Yeah, it’s a way out of that cycle of harm that hurts everyone.
Yasmeen (in studio): However, Saleem, there's a kicker to Coco's story. She has been in touch with the man responsible for her sister’s death, just in the last couple of years. Coco actually opened the door for this, without maybe realizing it at the time, when she crossed paths with him at Tompkins Houses about four years ago.
Coco: When I saw him at an event that the projects always have for Father's Day, an annual barbecue, and I saw him. And I kept playing in my mind, what would I say to him if I saw him? And the first thing that came out my mouth when I saw him was “Happy Father's Day!” And he was so shocked. He was like, “Nikki?” I said, “Yeah it’s me.” He said, “Oh, thank you.” And he made a beeline out of there. I’m pretty sure he was shocked. But, um, I was shocked too.
Yasmeen (in studio): And then, soon after that, he reached out asking for a conversation. And they did finally sit down and talk, 18 years after her sister’s death.
Coco: So it took me like a good two and a half, almost three years to do it, to agree. I went into it with an open mind, cause I didn't know what I was gonna hear. Um, I prepared myself to hear something I didn't wanna hear. But it wasn't nothing that I didn't want hear. It was a very great conversation. And he enlightened me on a lot of stuff, which I felt accountable as a community member. As a community member, as a Black woman, as a mother, I took some accountability. I even apologized to him in a conversation.
Yasmeen: For what?
Coco: I apologized for letting him down as a community member, as an older person, as an older sister, as a mom. You know, I used to take kids off the bench and take ‘em to the city. But I took the good kids. I didn't take the bad kids. You know what I'm saying? So, you know, he had everyone telling him he was bad. He was going to jail. He wasn't gonna be shit. He was a dumb motherfucker. Like these are things that he heard every day. Oh, you're gonna go outside and shoot somebody. And, you're a shooter. You know, his nickname was ‘Loco’ you know? So, you know, these things was in his head. So he only did what he was trained to do, by us as a community.
So I felt like I let him down. I asked him. I said, “If I, if you was one of the kids that I picked up and took, you know, off the bench, you know, and gave you a hug, what, would I, you know, would I had done for you?” He said, “You probably would've would saved my life.” So I felt accountability from that. I, I don't want, I can't describe it any way else. So at the end of the conversation, I apologized to him. I'm like, “You know, I apologize as a community member. I apologize as a Black woman. I apologize as a big sister, as a mom, like. I should have took you. You should have been one of the kids I focused on instead of staying away from.”
Yasmeen: How old was he when he shot your sister?
Coco: Uh, 16, like 16, 17.
Yasmeen: Did he ask for forgiveness?
Coco: Yeah, of course. Soon as he started talking pretty much. We sat and talked for like three and a half hours.
Yasmeen: Were you surprised by yourself at either your, your ability to offer forgiveness or to even…?
Coco: Yeah, I was surprised. But then all it did was co-sign the growth, my growth, my maturity, who I was becoming. The person I was becoming, the person I was, you know, um, destined to be.
Yasmeen (in studio): And that wasn’t just a one-time conversation. Coco is helping him. She is encouraging him in his goal of starting a boxing program for youth. And I asked Coco – okay, you connected, you offered forgiveness. But what is driving this desire to take it further than that? And I think it goes back to the idea that harm can keep cycling.
Coco: I just, I just want your legacy to be better.
Yasmeen: You're saying to this to him.
Coco: His. Yeah. I would ra– I would want his kids to say, yeah, my dad did a bad thing, but look at all the good that came out of it. You know, I don't want him to be looked at my, as my sister's killer. I want him to be looked at as a young man who did a bad thing and came out starting a boxing program that I'm trying to help him with.
Yasmeen: Why did you decide to help him?
Coco: Because I felt like it was needed. Why not? Like, okay. I don't say nothing to him. I'm mad at him. I don't do nothing with him. It's not bringing my sister back.
Saleem (in studio): That's an incredible perspective to have on such a painful situation.
Yasmeen (in studio): Yeah, and it’s not just generosity. To hear Coco talk about it, it’s more like emotional clarity. You know, it took her many years, but she got to a point where she could offer forgiveness without feeling like she had to give up something important about herself. And, again, she’s not expecting reconciliation from the young people she works with in their conflicts. But just knowing what has been possible for herself, has deepened her work.
Coco: How could I talk to them about holding grudges, or forgiveness, if I can’t do it? You know, what if a kid comes to me and go, “Yo. That person just hurt my sister, she’s alive, and I just want to kill them for hurting my sister.” Like, what would my reaction be? Or if someone comes to me and goes, “Yo. I killed three people and I just wanna be able to talk to them and ask for forgiveness. I need your help with that.” What would my reaction be, if I can’t do that for myself?
Saleem (in studio): That emotional awareness that Coco is trying to build in other people who are in potentially violent situations. And just the emotional awareness she brings to those situations herself, that sounds like the foundation of her process. Like, without that, the other work can't happen.
Yasmeen (in studio): Yes, Coco acknowledged as much. A fight, a grudge – it all falls on a spectrum of hurt. And people have to determine for themselves how to both acknowledge what they’re feeling and how to address it.
Coco: There's no metric measure to people's pain and people's hurt. You know, what might hurt you, might not hurt me. I just feel like this could apply to anything. Unfortunately, the devil is busy, so he comes in many shapes, forms. So it could be at work, something bothering you. It could be in your marriage. It could be with your kids. It could be anything that you feel like hurt you or betrayed you or, or made you feel like, you know, you don't never wanna forgive them.
But um, I'm more for peace. Because I made peace with my life and my situation, I just want everybody else to have peace. So peace is like a domino effect. Like once you find it, you just want it for everybody. So I push peace more than anything because if you're at peace with yourself and your life and, and, and how you live, you will want peace all the way around the board.
Saleem: Shneaqua Purvis, better known as Coco, is the CEO of Both Sides of the Violence in Brooklyn, New York.
Next week, on More Than A Feeling: Tears. They’re just salt and water, right? Or maybe there’s a lot more mystery behind how and why we cry.
Ben: I would go and do my homework and I would, you know, read my books and write my papers – and I would make myself cry.
We hear the story of one person’s determination to reclaim their tears – and why they made themselves cry everyday for six months. All that and more, next time on More Than A Feeling.
More Than A Feeling is produced by Yasmeen Khan, Palace Shaw, Reva Goldberg, Kim Buikema, and Stacia Brown. Our executive producer is Jen Poyant. Fact checking for this episode by Jeanette Beebe. Scoring and mixing by Matt Boynton of Ultraviolet Audio. Connor Donahue is our manager of technical operations. More Than A Feeling is a production of Ten Percent Happier.
*** END ***