Mary Williams’ phone rang on October 10, 2017. She didn’t know picking it up would change her life forever.
“I got the phone call when my son was gunned down, execution style, left to die,” she said. “I’ve been dealing with that from that day to today.”
Williams, the assistant director of Stop the Pain, an organization that seeks to provide peace and healing to those impacted by gun violence, isn’t alone in her experience. Concerned community members and representatives from more than a dozen gun violence prevention organizations around Cleveland shared similar stories at the Third Space Action Lab in Hough on Saturday.
They gathered together for the first meeting of a new initiative called Project Ripple, a coalition aimed at unifying and connecting Cleveland’s grassroots efforts to address gun violence. With a new mayor soon taking office and a spate of gun violence over the past two years, there’s both opportunity and urgency behind their cause.
The coalition is calling on Mayor-elect Justin Bibb and current Mayor Frank Jackson to formally declare gun violence a public health crisis.
“This is us calling on people to understand the true value of life, and to honor that and to protect it,” said El Jay’Em, the organizer for Project Ripple and founder of Speakezie Go Hard, an organization that uses art therapy to comfort gun violence victims. “You can protect it by pushing policy and legislation.”
They’re also asking Bibb to create a mayor’s commission that would draft an action plan addressing gun violence in 30 days or less. Lastly, the coalition wants to create a network of violence prevention hubs in neighborhoods with the highest rates of gun violence. Each hub would be led by an elected leader.
As of September 2021, homicides in Cleveland involving guns increased by 13.4 percent in 2021 compared with the same time period in 2020, according to a News 5 Cleveland analysis of Cleveland Division of Police data. Compared with data from the same time period in 2019, gun-related homicides in 2021 marked an increase of 64 percent.
Along with that spike in gun violence has come a substantial rise in trauma, as those affected by gun violence lead lives constantly anticipating life-threatening situations.
“Every day, you wake up and think, ‘Oh snap, something might happen,’” Jay’Em said. “Our babies see it, and they think, ‘Oh, that’s normal for cousin JoJo to get shot. That’s normal for me to lose someone.’ And it’s not. None of that is normal.”
Acknowledging these pervasive impacts is a cornerstone of the public health approach of gun violence. It means recognizing that gun violence can spread like an infectious disease, and the best way to curb it is with preventative action, according to the American Public Health Association’s gun violence fact sheet.
According to the fact sheet, the general prevention process has four main steps:
Conducting surveillance to track gun-related deaths and injuries, gain insight into the causes of gun violence and assess the impact of interventions.
Identifying risk factors associated with gun violence (e.g., poverty and depression) and resilience or protective factors that guard against gun violence (e.g., youth access to trusted adults).
Developing, implementing, and evaluating interventions to reduce risk factors and build resilience.
Institutionalizing successful prevention strategies.
Although gun violence has not been officially declared a public health crisis in Cleveland, some local organizations have adopted the public health approach nonetheless.
The Cleveland Peacemakers Alliance, for instance, who is part of Project Ripple, seeks to interrupt cycles of violence by responding to violent crime incidents at hospitals, intending to reduce retaliatory violence. It has a street outreach team aimed at community outreach and prevention. University Hospitals’ Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital, too, hosts a program aimed at helping young victims of gun violence achieve both physical and mental healing.
New Era Cleveland, another organization in Project Ripple, approaches gun violence prevention by educating people about how to safely and responsibly handle guns. Its members openly carry firearms and patrol neighborhoods to deter crime, and hold healing sessions on Sundays for those impacted by gun violence.
“Black men can carry weapons and still be looked at as a positive role model,” said Antoine Tolbert, the founder of New Era Cleveland, who recently ran for Ward 4’s city council seat as a write-in candidate. “I’m gonna show you what this gun is meant for: It’s meant for protection, not just for myself, but for my community.”
All the same, researching and measuring the success of these efforts remains a challenge, said Daniel Flannery, director of the Begun Center for Violence Prevention Research and Education at Case Western Reserve University.
The challenge, he said, is that federal organizations like the Centers for Disease Control and the National Institutes of Health haven’t funded research into gun violence for nearly two decades, stemming in large part from the National Rifle Association’s lobbying efforts to restrict federal funding for research that could promote gun control.
That changed last year, but researchers are still behind on the issue, Flannery said.
“Having a broad community-based coalition to address this issue is a good thing,” he said. “You’re going to need to do it in a bunch of different ways.
“It’s not just law enforcement. It’s not just mental health. It’s not just the background check system. It’s not just access and availability, or the lethality, of those weapons. It’s all of those things. We need to start somewhere because we’ve had a long time of not doing work in this space that could have been done.”
As for the organizations in Project Ripple, many of them haven’t really had the luxury to not work on solving gun violence. Every speaker at the conference on Saturday had lost a loved one to gun violence.
“We recognize, yes, the individual members are awesome,” said Michelle Bell, the founder of M-Pac Cleveland, a Project Ripple member that aims to connect and support families impacted by gun violence. “But guess what, when we all come together, we can do much more. We know, in unity and in numbers, we can really do some damage to this problem that’s plaguing our city.”
Aside from those already mentioned, Project Ripple includes the following organizations: We Act Radio Network, PositivEnergy LLC, Peace In the Hood, Families in Pursuit of Healing, Moms Demand Action, Survivors and Victims of Tragedy Inc., Freethinkersince87, Brady United Against Gun Violence Cleveland Chapter, BrickHouse Women’s Wellness & Empowerment, and Golden Ciphers Youth Development & Cultural Arts Center.
Michael Indriolo is reporting fellow at The Land.
This project is part of Connecting the Dots between Race and Health, a project of Ideastream Public Media funded by The Dr. Donald J. Goodman and Ruth Weber Goodman Philanthropic Fund of The Cleveland Foundation.
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