Smile Politely

It’s time to actually do something about gun violence in C-U

In Champaign alone, there have been at least 115 shootings in 2021. This is after a record year for shootings in Champaign: 189 in 2020, up from 100 in 2019. Five of these shootings have resulted in death, including a police officer, a 17 year old, and a 20 year old who took his own life. And it’s only June.

It’s time for a community wide effort to address this. Unfortunately, there are no easy answers. We are in a state of emergency, but quick fixes won’t change the trajectory we are on. It’s time for city leaders to do more than make proclamations, have conversations, and close parking lots. It’s time to fund solutions and invest in the groups that know what needs to be done, and that does not mean investing in more law enforcement

It’s easy to rest in our privilege and dismiss this as “not our problem,” or something that happens in “those neighborhoods”. However, this is an epidemic — a public health crisis — that affects the entire community. Those involved, no matter what side of the gun they are on, have families and friends, people who love and care about them. They are students or were students. Some are parents. They have stories that preceded the impulse to pick up the gun, or that preceded the moment they became a victim of gun violence. The trauma from each of these instances reverberates. 

As a community, we must accept our culpability for this crisis, and galvanize into action. A neighborhood in Urbana has done this, pulling in support from the city, the park district, and other organizations to shift the narrative of violence. We’ve written about the work of Giovanna Dibenedetto and Silver Hearts, and they’ve just celebrated five years since she joined with neighbors to build connections and reduce crime. Lemond Peppers, Community Engagement Coordinator for the City of Urbana, says the group has been working with residents to “galvanize them in being responsible for their neighborhood. To really push back against the ‘no-snitch’ mechanism that often keeps our citizens silenced.” Of Dibenedetto, he says she’s continued to “sound the alarm” and cause agencies in Urbana to lean in and help. 

Another example of this is HV Neighborhood Transformation. The leaders at HVNT call these neighborhoods “high hope” neighborhoods, and they are trying to address gun violence in this manner. From their website: 

We pride ourselves in working directly in “High Hope” neighborhoods, connecting individuals to programs and services, providing mediation, mentoring, and support for individuals impacted by violence, and creating positive relationships and fostering peacebuilding activities at the neighborhood level.

Even in a state like ours with relatively robust gun laws, it is too easy to obtain a gun. It’s a uniquely American problem. Working towards more common sense gun legislation must continue. Moms Demand Action is an organization with a Champaign-Urbana chapter involved in this type of work, and it’s important to continue pressuring lawmakers to strengthen gun laws. However, we can’t put the genie back in the bottle — the guns are already out there. Research on the effectiveness of gun buyback programs is inconclusive, and in the type of gun violence we are experiencing in our community, it’s important to address the root causes. When we see the same street names and neighborhoods mentioned after each shooting, we must recognize the history of segregation in C-U, generational poverty and trauma, and the lack of opportunity facing many people in these historically Black neighborhoods, the systemic discrimination and neglect

Karen Simms, program director at the Trauma and Resilience Initiative, is familiar with the trauma these families are experiencing, often there are layers of it, and she shared her thoughts on what research-based solutions will make a difference.

As a community, we have waited for one program, one answer to be the solution. What’s best is a comprehensive approach that looks at everything from prevention, which we don’t do in this community, to early intervention. All of the resources in our community have gone to something that I would call targeted interventions, like Fresh Start…A focused deterrence model is only designed to maybe reach ten percent of the folks that are most at risk. We haven’t used evidenced based practices. We just keep chasing symptoms and not being strategic about the plan.

Simms points to the need for a community based violence prevention program using researched and proven solutions. Street outreach —such as the violence interruption work done by Cure Violence — is a vital component. In Champaign-Urbana, this type of work has been done through TRUCE, but there just isn’t the funding to make it comprehensive. She advocates for group intervention programs that pull in those involved in gun violence to work on life skills and conflict resolution through a trauma-informed, mental health lens. Hospital intervention involves surrounding gunshot victims and their families with support and resources, to prevent the cycle from perpetuating. Simms’ organization does this, but their small team cannot keep up with the demand. There needs to be broader availability of trauma informed services and practitioners who are also culturally responsive to the needs of those they serve, and an evaluation of the effectiveness of interventions that these young victims and perpetrators have experienced. Simms says many of the young people involved in the most recent shootings have been involved in various interventions in and out of school and still end up in this situation.

Josh Payne, a mentor for at-risk youth who does outreach and gun violence intervention through TRUCE, would like to see emergency displacement funding for families involved in a dangerous situation:

As an outreach and gun-violence intervention specialist, this gives me so much leverage in the communities to ensure families that I can help keep them safe and move them to safety when this stuff gets out of control. It is one of the best ways to introduce wraparound services to a family once that trust is built.

As an at risk youth mentor, it is my desire to see a 24 hour prevention center or recreation center. A one stop shop so to speak, where all wraparound services and community responders and trauma counselors can come and be in a place with the youth where they can feel safe that’s open and staffed 24 hours a day.

Our situation is not unique. You can look at any number of cities across the U.S. and find the same crisis: Reading, PA; San Jose, Portland, Albany. Over and over, the stories are similar. We know what works, but the funding isn’t there. Our city and county governments have a moral obligation to apportion a significant amount of their budgets to this issue. 

As community members, we should be following the work of organizations that are doing the work of gun violence prevention, answering their calls for volunteers and donations. We should be contacting local elected officials, especially as they receive millions of dollars in additional funding from the federal government through America’s Rescue Plan, and demanding they invest in proven strategies for violence interruption. We cannot continue to wring our hands and shake our heads. It’s time for bold action.

The Editorial Board is Jessica Hammie, Julie McClure, and Patrick Singer.

Top photo by Erin Ewoldt.

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