How One City Is Fighting Gun Violence By Engaging Young Americans
Columbine. Aurora. Sandy Hook. It often takes a shocking massacre to re-energize the national conversation on gun violence prevention, and as a result of that crisis mentality, the debate frequently focuses on gun control and background checks. Now, some are trying to turn the focus to local communities and to confronting the social and economic factors that perpetuate violence across generations.
The almost-exclusive focus on mass shootings steals attention from the tragic gun deaths that take place in urban communities every day. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 67 percent of all firearm homicides in 2006 and 2007 took place in America's 50 largest cities—while only a tiny fraction of violent murders are mass shootings. That disconnect spurred officials in Memphis, Tenn., to develop the ENOUGH Memphis Gun Down Plan, an evidence- and public health-based approach to reducing violence in that community.
With the ENOUGH plan, Memphis Mayor A.C. Wharton is aiming to reduce youth gun violence by ten percent city-wide—and by 20 percent in South Memphis and Frayser, where violence is particularly widespread. This program stands out for the extraordinary efforts organizers are making to engage young people.
"The youth engagement portion is a critical, but often overlooked, component," said Wharton, a member of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's Mayors Against Illegal Guns coalition.
In an interview with Campus Progress, the mayor described an incident at the initiative's kickoff press conference during which the media talked to young people—what he says was an unscripted segment—about what they hope to bring to the table.
"One young girl stepped up and just blew them away," Wharton recalled. "She said, 'Well I’m good at social media. That’s how I am going to attack it. That’s how a lot of this stuff gets started.' There are ways to deal with this problem that my generation is unaware of, but 'in the eyes of a child' these youth sense that we would never pick up."
The planning and implementation of this plan has fallen to the Mayor's Innovation Delivery team, and gun violence prevention project manager Peggie Russell. Russell reiterated the strategic effort to engage youth in each phase of the project.
“We engaged young people with focus groups and roundtables to share their experiences with gun violence," Russell said. "We made time for the mayor to have discussions with young gang members and their feedback was incorporated into the development of the plan.”
The conversation with young gang members yielded what officials say were useful suggestions: providing alternative financial opportunities for youth caught up in the drug trade, breaking the cycle of multi-generational gang affiliation, and developing community outreach to restore nonviolent norms.
In recent history, the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin stands out as an act of individual violence that took the nation by storm. Many young people rose up to demand change—a critical mass that ultimately played a key role in bringing charges against his shooter, George Zimmerman.
“Students are a powerful part of any movement,” said Adner Marcelin, one of the young students who founded Justice for Trayvon Martin. “The anger of young people and desire to seek justice comes from previous injustices. We need to make it known that we are there and are not going away. It is up to us to do whatever we need to do to protect children in our society. We will stand up and protect your liberty, but sometimes we need to sacrifice a little in order to ensure safety.”
Memphis city officials say they hope their own young people will commit to that level of engagement. Youth participation is vital, Russell said, because 84 percent of homicide victims in the city between 2008 and today were age 24 and younger.
One component of the Mayor's plan is to work with local mentoring organizations, such as the Memphis Grizzlies Foundation, to build programs to reach at-risk youth. Grizzlies Foundation Executive Director Jenny Koltnow said that the Mayor's Innovation Delivery Team approached them to begin developing the Mayor's Mentoring Initiative together in summer 2012. After the program launched in October, the foundation sought to recruit Memphis city employees as mentors.
"Many young people in our city don't have a strong support system at home, in their neighborhood, or at their school," Koltnow said. "Mentors can be a constant, consistent presence and show that they care. Kids are not inherently bad, but many in our city are a couple of choices away from either college or taking a wrong turn. Mentoring is a preventive measure to keep them from going down a bad path."
Along with mentoring programs, youth roundtables are part of the on-going efforts being made in Memphis. They were designed to keep youth engaged through a systematic infrastructure, Russell explained. City officials wanted youth to have a space to receive training on how to become advocates and to share their feedback with the city.
“This is a challenge across the country,” Russell said. “Getting the true voice of the youth is difficult. Some of the work that Mayor [Michael] Nutter has done out of Philadelphia has been very successful. I’m hoping that we can be a best practice for other cities and continue to learn from other cities as well.”
Philadelphia's youth commission is one of those youth engagement efforts taking place under Philadelphia Mayor Nutter. The commission, led by 23-year-old Executive Director Jamira Burley, is comprised of 21 young people between ages 12 and 23 who advise the mayor on issues, such as gun violence, that impact the city's young residents.
"A black boy is more likely to be murdered in Philly than a soldier is likely to die at war," Burley said. "There is a huge part of the [gun violence] situation that isn’t part of the conversation. In Philadelphia, violence looks very different from Sandy Hook so the solutions are going to be different. We are not looking at gun control from an urban point of view."
Wharton and his team in Memphis agree that people have turned a blind eye to urban violence.
"The reason that murder in our streets has not gotten the attention it cries out for is that we have unwittingly become desensitized," Wharton said. "We expect it! We expect murder, gun violence, gang fights, it is just there! We don’t bring kids in and shield them from it. Ask one person in America when the daily dose of mayhem and murder hits their TV screen, they do absolutely nothing. I am tired of having my director send me an email Sunday night to give me the body count as opposed to ballgame scores."
Memphis officials say they hope the plan will begin to affect the community in a positive way, but they will struggle against the crushing weight of generational poverty and, in some populations, decades of institutional neglect and discrimination. Only time will tell if their efforts to reach young people and engage them as full partners in violence prevention will move the needle.
“We are the ones most affected by gun violence,” Burley said. “Young people die every day in America due to gun violence. They are the ones that see the issue every day. They are the ones committing the crimes as well. If we aren’t part of the conversation, we will continue lose more young people."
Marc Peters is a reporter at Campus Progress.You can follow Marc on Twitter at @rippleofhope.