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Groups gather to coordinate efforts against gun violence

MIDTOWN – Community activists, nonprofits, politicians, clergy, support groups and like-minded souls assembled on Nov 16 to discuss the problem of gun violence and ways to combat it.

The assembly took place at Employment Connection, 2838 Market St., also a nonprofit. It helps marginalized people get the resources they need to take care of themselves. 

Stephanie Weinhaus, Director of Development at EC and board member of the Metropolitan Community Church of Greater St. Louis (MCCGSL) explained, “If we can all kind of get together and talk about some of the things that we are doing, we really could do a lot more.

“We always say we fight crime with jobs. Right now we need to understand that gun violence is not just the violence, there are a lot of root causes to that violence.”

According to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, 100 Americans are killed with guns every day. More than 1.2 million Americans have been shot in the past 10 years, and millions more have witnessed gun violence first hand. Gun violence is the second leading cause of death among children overall, and the first leading cause of death among black children. Black children are 10 times more likely to be killed in a gun homicide than white children.

The Rev. Lauren Bennett, pastor of MCCGSL in Carondelet, further detailed the need to organize a call to action.

“I moved to St. Louis in August, and the second week I was here, the clergy group in our neighborhood came together because two young children in our area were killed. We held a vigil and after that, our church really just wanted to do something more. … So we decided to pull together some sort of event with people who are already working in the community knowing that we are concerned citizens but not experts in the field of how to end gun violence. We wanted to bring together other people who were experts.”

 “I just celebrated my one-year anniversary as CEO here at Employment Connection, and we had a great, great year,” said Sal Martinez. “We are focused on building as many new partnerships in the community as we can. We have been in business for 42 years, but we have kind of been a well-kept secret. Part of my job is to change that. Our mission here is to assist individuals with limited opportunities to self- sufficiency. Quite simply, we are here to put people to work, to provide them with the supportive services they need to take care of themselves and their family members. We have way more jobs than people to fill them with.”

Newly elected state Rep. Rasheen Aldridge, D-78th Dist., complimented Martinez. “The things that he has done in the past and continue to do today, I think, is a way to actually  curb some of the gun violence. Allowing young people the opportunity to work and understand what it means to work hard and still get a nice amount of money in your pocket. Also, what EC is doing now by offering job readiness programs to make sure young men and women have what they need to go into a job.”

 State Rep. LaKeySha Frazier-Bosley, D-79th Dist., said that the recent spate of child deaths from gun violence had spurred conversation about what people could do.

“So we talked about wrap-around services,” she said, that form connections among people and groups. “You have Better Family Life, and different nonprofit organizations like Midtown in the Grove that actually take children at an early age and put them in the community and give them some source of brotherhood and sisterhood. We are not only trying to combat it from a financial standpoint, we are trying to combat it from a personal standpoint.” 

“I plan on filing an ammunition bill coming up because I hear in this super majority Republican house that Second Amendment rights are being infringed on,” Bosely said. “I say we are just asking for comprehensive gun laws in individual areas. … I think if you tax a bullet people would think twice about shooting it because that’s money they don’t necessarily have to continue to spend. Right now the state of Missouri has no ammunition law.”

Former state Rep. Bruce Franks, D-78th District, expressed caution.  “I agree with a lot of what our two reps are saying, but when it comes to Cure Violence, a program that I work with, I want to be absolutely truthful with you. It can work – but one thing we need to pay attention to is when we bring these programs into our cities from other cities and we say, ‘Hey it worked in a city that looked like my city,’ but if we don’t have the right people in place then it’s not going to work in St. Louis like it did in Boston or Philadelphia, because our communities are very unique.” 

Rick Skinner, Vice President of the United Way of Greater St. Louis Volunteer Center, talked about volunteering, how to get connected and what one person can do to make a difference.

“You don’t have to be funded by United Way to get assisted by our volunteer center,” he told the crowd. “My team works with about 600 agencies right here in St. Louis, and we fund about 40 of them. We focus on health and human services and other agencies we see around this room, like Save Our Sons and Father Support. But we also work with arts and culture, parks and recreation and police departments. … Even kids as young as 5 have volunteer opportunities.”

Missouri Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, D-5th Dist., although not on the program, gave her support.

“Gun violence comes in so many different ways. You have suicide, you have homicide; and with the suicide, how do you help reduce the gun violence? At that point you begin to deal with the psychological and emotional trials and tribulations that people are going through with their mental health. We have been fighting extremely hard at the state level with what is called the Red Flag Law. I sponsored the legislation a year ago to be able to take guns out of the hands of those individuals who we know are dealing with mental illness crisis. We don’t want to take away Second Amendment rights, but we want to save your life and the life of someone else. My mother was dealing with mental illness at the age of 25 and she killed herself. Imagine if there had been a red flag law where someone could have identified her being harmful to herself; she would still be here.” 

The nonprofit members shared what they did and why they were there.

One noted the wealth of aid available through those at the meeting.

“Everybody here today, we are part of the solution. If you look to your left and look to your right, everybody is a resource. I come from Save Our Sons, my name is Michael P. McMillan and I represent the Urban League of Metropolitan St Louis. What I have been doing to curtail violence is providing those jobs and actually being able to go to some of these institutions like Algore Correctional Center and Farmington Prison and be able to integrate those gentlemen who are just as involved to society before they touch down, so they don’t have to be a dog chasing its tail.”

Linda Robinson of Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Eastern Missouri said, “We are here today to let people know about our youth’s need for mentoring and the impact that it has, especially when it’s one on one, giving guidance, support, love, hope and opportunity. That’s our theme.”

Reginald Slaughter, community outreach coordinator/facilitator with Fathers and Families Support Center, explained, “My concerns are really deep about my community. I am a convicted felon and through Father Support took the opportunity to turn my life around. I have worked in the community for 19 years, giving back to the community that I was once a problem in. Now I am a part of the solution.”

Gail Wechsler with Moms Demand Action explained why she was there.

“We are all about gun violence prevention, we are not anti-Second Amendment, but we feel with rights come responsibilities. We are bi-partisan,  and we focus on keeping guns out of the hands of those who should not have them and keeping them out of sensitive places. We also work with survivors of gun violence and do advocacy and education on gun control, violence and prevention.”

Danelle Douthit with the Criminal Justice Ministry said her group helped people being released from prison.

“We have two housing programs for guys and then we have first services for anyone, which includes a welcome-home backpack filled with clothing and hygiene items, state I.D.s,  and bus tickets for those coming out of prison to address their immediate needs.”

Aldridge offered this advice: “People who live in distressed areas, not knowing where their next meal is coming from, feel like the system is working against them, and it’s a survival mind frame that they are living in. We need to figure out how to meet them where they are.”

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