Against a tide of negativity, Arnitta Holliman has always remained positive.
Holliman, the newly named director of the Office of Violence Prevention in the Milwaukee Health Department, has consoled victims and helped people find a more meaningful life off the streets. Through it all, she’s never lost her vision.
“Fundamentally, it’s all about love,” Holliman said.
Holliman acknowledges that it might not always be easy but teaching people to love themselves helps bring love to their communities.
Mayor Tom Barrett appointed Holliman to lead the Office of Violence Prevention in May after the departure of Reggie Moore in April. Before this role, Holliman, who has a background in clinical psychology, led outreach efforts for street-based sex workers at the Benedict Center.
Holliman said she does not plan on making sweeping changes in the Office of Violence Prevention, or OVP, but hoped to grow its size and capacity.
She would like to see more “healing hubs”– spaces where community members can gather and be heard — across the city.
The hubs reflect Holliman’s focus on healing trauma in the community.
Ed de St. Aubin, a psychology professor at Marquette University who taught Holliman in graduate school, said Holliman “understands the wider context that many people committing violence are traumatized themselves.”
Holliman, who grew up on North 12th Street and West Atkinson Avenue in the 53206 ZIP code, said some people don’t realize the effect that early life experiences have on them.
“I received messages of hope and that I could be whatever was best for me . . . No one should grow up without these messages,” Holliman said.
Creating environments for young people where they can learn to manage anger is key, Holliman said.
“Violence is a learned behavior,” Holliman said. “You can unlearn it or learn new ways of processing your emotions, new ways of handling situations that would otherwise lead to violence.”
But the work needs to extend past young people as well, she said.
“It’s important that we’re also giving those same messages to mothers and fathers and grandparents and aunts and uncles. Those people who are no longer a child, they’re no longer a young adult, but they didn’t get the support, the resources, the help, the healing that they needed,” Holliman said.
David Muhammad, deputy director of the Milwaukee County Department of Health and Human Services and a former Office of Violence Prevention team member, said one of Holliman’s greatest strengths is her ability to see what people need.
“She moves without judgment,” Muhammad said. “She does not move with condemnation. She sees human need before aberrant behavior.”
Dr. Kweku Ramel Smith, founder of BLAQUESMITH Psychological Consultative Services who has done contract work for the office, said he was excited to hear about Holliman’s new role.
“OVP doesn’t rebuild, they reload,” Smith said. “They replaced a dynamic leader with another dynamic leader.”
Holliman readily admits her new role is not for the faint of heart. She, too, has lost loved ones to violence.
“I don’t want someone to ever experience losing a loved one or having someone harmed as a result of something that could have been prevented,” Holliman said. “So I take this work extremely seriously.”
Which leads Holliman back to some of her main principles: making people feel seen, loved and heard.
“At the end of the day, everyone wants to be loved,” Holliman said. “Even if they don’t really know for sure what that’s supposed to look like.”