That gun violence is an epidemic which severely and disproportionately affects young people is well-documented. But the statistics are alarming nonetheless.
According to the Center for American Progress, Americans ages 15 to 29 are injured by firearms at a rate 70 percent higher than the national average. And last year, guns became the third leading cause of death for children and teens in the U.S. — in some states even surpassing the number of those killed by car accidents, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
For African Americans, the statistics are even more distressing: A 2017 study in the journal Pediatrics found that being black increases a child’s likelihood of dying from gun violence tenfold.
[Above: Michael Cogbill, a member of the #Fight4AFuture 2017-2018 National Leadership Council, with 2018 summit attendees Karissa Anderson, Anna Moss, and De Andrea Nichols on Capitol Hill]
Despite the disproportionate effect on young people, especially those of color, they have traditionally been overlooked in the broader gun control debate. The rise of the youth-led #NeverAgain campaign that followed the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., last February called significant attention to this issue. In particular, the survivors spoke out against the media’s snubbing of their black classmates and the public’s general dismissal of the plight of young people of color who regularly face the threat of gun violence.
The #NeverAgain campaign’s inclusive March for Our Lives, which took place this past March in Washington, D.C., was attended by nearly 800,000 people. It featured African American students as young as 11 years old from cities across the U.S., who spoke about the pain that gun violence has caused in their communities.
“What I’ve learned from young people, even before Parkland, is that a lot of students no longer feel safe at school. But many young people of color also don’t feel safe walking to school, walking home, or even inside of their homes,” says Amber Goodwin, founding director of the Community Justice Reform Coalition (CJRC).
Once a campaigner with former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and other prominent gun control activists, Goodwin decided to form CJRC to make the gun control movement more inclusive of African Americans. One way to achieve this is by providing information, training, and leadership opportunities for black youth to become leaders in the fight to create safer neighborhoods.
“I strongly believe that young people [shouldn’t just] be invited to speak [on this issue], but need to be the ones who are organizing the meetings as they are a crucial part of the agenda,” says Goodwin. “But we see that even to this day, and initially after the Parkland shooting, there are not a lot of resources and leadership opportunities for students of color from marginalized communities.”
CJRC’s flagship program is the Community Justice Speakers Bureau. The initiative annually accepts 20 emerging activists to participate in leadership training; half of participants are 30 years old or younger. Members are from cities across the U.S., and while the majority are African American, they represent multiple ethnicities. Additionally, they are college students, former convicts, founders of nonprofit organizations, and others who have been personally affected by gun violence.
“This is a pipeline program where we’re helping create a network across the country of young people, specifically young people of color, who are connected to each other in this work,” Goodwin explains. “Creating avenues and pipelines for leadership is really important so people know that no matter what their age or where they come from, they can be an advocate.”
Bureau members receive online and in-person training on public speaking and outreach and learn about successful violence reduction models. Such a framework requires leadership from within communities and collaboration between law enforcement, educators, faith leaders, public service providers such as hospitals, and more.
“The emphasis of these [violence reduction models] is to make sure that people who are closest to the pain of everyday gun violence, … especially young people and people of color, are the ones actually heading up the solutions,” says Goodwin.
At Boston University School of Public Health (BUSPH), students and researchers are working to change the narrative around gun violence by promoting these types of community-based, collaborative solutions. Michael Siegel, MD, a community health sciences professor at the school, says gun violence in communities of color is typically portrayed by the media and treated by lawmakers as a criminal justice problem that can only be remedied by tactics like increased policing. A more accurate way of looking at this problem, he says, is to view it as a public health issue.
“With a public health approach, you’re not just looking at the people committing the violence as a criminal problem, you’re looking at it through a broader societal lens,” says Siegel, whose research focuses on the relationship between race, housing segregation, and gun laws.
A public health understanding of gun violence in marginalized communities requires considering the historical context of the issue, which includes factors like housing segregation and the criminalization of African Americans, he says. This context helps researchers identify root causes of the gun violence epidemic and pinpoint risk factors.
For example, one of Siegel’s recent research projects revealed that African Americans who live in states where communities tend to remain deeply segregated are up to 24 times more likely to be injured by a firearm than a white person living in the same state. “That’s a huge level of disparity in any kind of health outcome and may even be the largest racial disparity of any public health outcome in the U.S.,” he says.
Through BUSPH’s Activist Lab, Siegel works with students to research and promote evidence-based solutions to reduce firearm-related crimes in communities of color. He also helps teach an advocacy training course and examines gun crime with students at the national and local level.
After the Parkland shooting, the Activist Lab hosted a symposium where guest speakers discussed what students could do to ameliorate the problem of gun violence. BUSPH students also helped organize a walkout and rally on the medical school campus as part of a national #NeverAgain protest.
Siegel says the best thing young people can do to improve the situation is to press legislators to provide the resources and policies necessary to enforce data-driven violence-reduction models. One such example is Operation Ceasefire, a homicide prevention program that originated in Boston in the 1990s.
Designed by experts at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, Operation Ceasefire relies on the joint efforts of law enforcement, civic leaders and organizations, and the community at large to crackdown on violent offenders while also identifying individuals who are at risk of engaging in gun violence. These people are then provided education and career-related opportunities — such as job training tailored to local industry — that serve as constructive alternatives to crime. In addition, after-school programs and youth-centered activities like intramural sports help keep adolescents off the streets and diminish the school-to-prison pipeline.
The combination of these tactics was so successful in Boston — resulting in a 63 percent reduction in youth homicides in the first two years following its implementation — that Operation Ceasefire became known as “the Boston Miracle.” Its success led to similar initiatives in cities and neighborhoods across the country.
In 2012, for example, the city of Oakland, Calif., pledged $8 million annually to support human interventions — including case managers, life coaches, and employment services — for at-risk youth. Between 2012 and 2017 alone, the program helped reduce homicides by more than 40 percent.
Through the #Fight4AFuture program — sponsored by the Center for American Progress as part of its youth network, Generation Progress — young people are not only trained to encourage their legislators to support projects like Operation Ceasefire, but are also learning how to become lawmakers themselves. Maggie Thompson, executive director of the center, says the organization decided to create #Fight4AFuture five years ago when research revealed the extent of the age and race disparity among the victims of firearm-related deaths and injuries.
“One of the things that came out of our [research] was not only the disparate impact that gun violence has on youth, and especially black and brown youth, but also that this population [wasn’t] represented in the broader gun violence prevention movement,” she says. “We wanted to create a network and a space where impacted young people could be empowered to get the training they need to become leaders in their own right.”
The program’s yearly summit brings together teenagers and young adults — specifically those under the age of 29 — from across the country who have experienced gun violence to learn how to heal from personal trauma by becoming empowered to create change. This experience includes learning about the power of sharing one’s personal story and what steps are necessary to effect change at local, state, and national levels.
“These are young people who really feel like the system has failed them, especially those who have been victimized not just in their own neighborhood but by the police,” explains Thompson, adding that many African American youth feel threatened rather than protected by law enforcement. “They don’t trust institutions, so it can be hard for them to have a conversation about citizen lobbying or running for office [without dealing] with some of those issues of trust.”
#Fight4AFuture’s summit provides lodging and expenses for attendees to ensure that those “who really need this type of content and training” are able to attend, says Thompson. Nearly one-third of annual participants are alums of the program who have helped spread the word about #Fight4AFuture in their respective locales, creating pockets of members in cities such as Baltimore, Chicago, and St. Louis.
While most summit attendees are from underserved communities of color, #Fight4AFuture includes participants from all backgrounds and ethnicities who are passionate about reducing gun violence, says Thompson.
Some members have already gone on to become prominent leaders for change. Thompson points to Bruce Franks, a regular attendee of the summit and its 2018 keynote speaker, as an example of the program’s ability to empower young people.
Franks, who is African American, witnessed his brother’s murder as a child. He has since launched a nonprofit organization to provide advocacy training for young men of color in his hometown of St. Louis, Mo. In addition, he is an official liaison between police and the Black Lives Matter movement and, in 2016, successfully ran for the Missouri House of Representatives. He is currently a representative for the 78th district and serves as the chairman of the Subcommittee on Police/Community Relations. Franks actively advocates for increased funding for after-school programs and other services that deter young people from turning to crime.
Another #Fight4AFuture alum, 26-year-old Jacobi Crowley, who is also African American, worked for several years as a school counselor, striving to diminish the school-to-prison pipeline. Like Franks, he recently entered politics, having won the state senate primary in Oklahoma with a platform focused on criminal justice reform and gun violence prevention.
“There’s this idea that … young people in urban communities are doing [this harm] to themselves,” Thompson says. “The best way to counter that is for these incredible young people to be the ones telling their stories and humanizing this issue.”●
Mariah Bohanon is the associate editor of INSIGHT Into Diversity. For more information, visit communityjusticerc.org or genprogress.org/issues/gunviolence. This article was published in our December 2018 issue.