Gun violence prevention starts with community work

Mass. approach offers important lessons for other states

BY THE AGE of 13, Jose had already been arrested for a violent crime.

Like so many teenagers, he longed for connection, community, and caring role models. He eventually found a community that would have his back. Unfortunately, it also came with a life associated with drugs and violence – challenges too often the result of the systemic inequities that create under-resourced communities.

Then, Jose was shot. And, he shot back. By 15, he was convicted as an adult. Now incarcerated, Jose became determined to pursue positive change. He surrounded himself with people who wanted to help him achieve that. He relentlessly pursued his education with the support of a tutor, and, eventually, he was released.

Today, returning back to one of the facilities he was incarcerated in, it’s his job to build relationships with young people who are going through the same struggles that he went through: from grappling with the larger issues of poverty and racism to the more direct challenge of finding that one caring adult deemed trustworthy. He is committed to being that role model to young people so they know it’s possible to build a new future.

Jose is a streetworker. A violence interrupter. A homegrown peacemaker.

If we want to end gun violence, professionals like Jose with lived experiences must be a part of our strategy.

We run two organizations: UTEC Inc., a violence intervention, reentry, and advocacy program out of Massachusetts’ Merrimack Valley, and Giffords Center for Violence Intervention, an organization that leverages our network and resources to support on the ground frontline workers and their organizations through advocacy and policy.

Community violence intervention strategies aren’t always what first comes to mind when it comes to reducing gun violence, but they should be. Streetworkers are on the frontlines of the gun violence epidemic. At UTEC, they are equipped with an orange hoodie, trusting relationships, their own lived experience, and “madd love,” a type of compassion that meets someone exactly where they are, judgment free.

Massachusetts has long been a leader in supporting community-based gun violence prevention programs. With one of the lowest gun violence rates in the nation, Massachusetts offers a number of lessons for other states looking to address skyrocketing homicide rates.

With bipartisan support, Massachusetts has not only invested in community violence intervention programs, but has continued to expand its investment, partly because the state recognizes gun violence as the public health crisis it is – one that also must be addressed with a focus on racial and economic justice. This year, the state invested an additional $10 million in a neighborhood-based gun violence prevention grant program on top of $50 million in American Rescue Act Program funding dedicated to addressing youth violence and reentry needs.

These services include streetworker outreach, gang peacemaking, mentorship, education and workforce development, and programs inside correctional facilities. And they work. A recent report showed that cities that received this funding saw a decrease in annual violent offenses by as many as 2.2 offenses per 1,000 members of the population.

We’ve witnessed how effective these programs are. Survivors grappling with the consequences of a nonfatal shooting struggle with injuries and obstacles as they face a future traumatized by gun violence. Those who have lost a loved one are left to pick up the pieces. Community programs work to help survivors move ahead.

More states need to follow Massachusetts’ example. While the human lives impacted should be enough for the investment, the financial incentive is equally clear: Massachusetts is saving taxpayers $5 down the road for every dollar invested in community-based violence reduction programs.

Even Congress understands this. The first gun safety legislation to be enacted in nearly 30 years included $250 million for community-based violence prevention initiatives. But that isn’t nearly enough.

Meet the Author
Meet the Author
We need to double down on our commitment to programs that have been proven to have significant impact. We know how to do this work. Now, we need others to have the courage to act with madd love.

Gregg Croteau, a former streetworker, is CEO of UTEC, Inc. Paul Carrillo is director of the Giffords Center for Violence Intervention.