To prevent gun violence, these peacemakers start with the basics
On a recent day in September, Shameka Pierce stopped by Lincoln Fields, a low-income housing complex in Miami to deliver diapers. She was met by a girl who was taking care of her younger siblings while their mom works.
"I brought you some Pampers for your sisters," Pierce said. "Let your mom know that we'll supply more to her probably in the next week."
Pierce is here with Peacemakers, a South Florida gun violence prevention group. Delivering diapers may not look like an obvious way to stop gun violence. But for Peacemakers, meeting basic needs like diapers, food or medical care is a key part of their strategy.
The group's focus is community violence intervention, shorthand for reducing gun use in communities where people regularly get hurt or killed by bullets. When there is a shooting, they will often come to the scene and provide support. But a big piece of how they help is to help people with daily needs, improving well-being – and building trust.
"If you plant the seeds now, before something happens, when something happens it's that much easier to engage and get involved because you're a familiar face," says Peacemakers' manager, Lamont Nanton. "If you just show up on the scene, after a shooting, and they're not familiar with you, you're just like the police."
Nanton says they show up to complexes like this in Liberty City, a historical Black neighborhood, every week, trying to figure out what people here need.
Last year, their work received $2 million in support from the U.S. Department of Justice. And this year, the Peacemakers got an additional $290,000 from the Health Foundation of South Florida, a group that hadn't funded gun violence prevention in the past.
"When you think about our mission around improving health and well being, and then with gun violence truly being a public health issue, you realize if you care about addressing health disparities, you have got to address gun violence," says Loreen Chant, the Health Foundation of South Florida's chief executive officer and president.
Reducing gun violence is something Lamont Nanton wants to do not only from a public health perspective, but from personal experience. He carried guns in his youth in Opa-Locka, a city in Miami-Dade County, about six miles north from Lincoln Fields apartments.
He credits mentors with teaching him he was bigger than a life of crime – and now he wants to pay it forward.
"This is my way of reconciling that life that I once lived and reach some other young folks that are heading down that same path and let them know that there is another way to live, there's another way to think," he says.
Peacemakers members want to make this a safer place to live for residents like Karen Roberson and her children.
"[My son] was walking home one day and got shot, just because we live in this area," Roberson recalled. "Thank God he lived. People out here gang banging, gang violence. They just target anybody."
Roberson feels stuck at Lincoln Fields, where she also grapples with a chronic mold problem. Miami, like cities across the U.S., lacks quality affordable housing.
The Peacemakers may not be able to solve all of the problems they come across, but they come wanting to listen. They also connect residents with supplies. During the pandemic they handed out necessities like masks. They also tell residents about accessible medical care that they may not know about, like the Miami Street Medicine team.
Sometimes an argument is underway while Peacemakers are around, and they'll try to separate people and diffuse tension. They mentor children and teenagers and host activities for them.
"The canvassing effort is almost like putting a caring hand over that neighborhood and that community for that day, letting them know what resources may be available," says Lyle Muhammad, executive director of the Circle of Brotherhood, which is the nonprofit that oversees the Peacemakers.
Muhammad said the recent grant from the Health Foundation of South Florida has helped him grow the Peacemakers team to six full time employees and one part-time employee.
"Peacemakers are able to make a livable wage, feed their families and do this work full time – it's tremendous," says Muhammad. He says it's "unprecedented" for a health foundation to back this kind of work. "That's a tremendous boost to be able to keep the boots on the ground."
The foundation had never funded gun violence intervention in its 30-year history. Then it heard from Roger McIntosh, an associate professor of cognitive behavioral neuroscience and health psychology at the University of Miami. He studies the effects of stress on brain health and said people who live in poverty tend to internalize the stress from their problems.
"You learn how to suppress as opposed to express emotions and this obviously can lead to the build up and the frustrations," he says.
Frustrations that people often can't resolve because they can't access or afford mental health care. Instead, they grab a gun, "ready to draw and shoot because of that buildup," McIntosh says. "They don't necessarily know how to dispose of all that toxic stress."
Peacemakers aims to help with that toxic stress – something Olivia Eason, another Peacemaker, knows about first hand.
"Growing up at urban areas was hard," Eason says. "It's hard mentally, physically, emotionally. All we trying to do is build relationships and get our community the help and the resources that it needs."
It's not easy work and often done one person at a time. She approaches a man standing outside of his apartment.
"You been OK? Everything been quiet?" she asked him. Then she wanted to know if he'd ever heard of the Circle of Brotherhood – a community organization that has weekly group therapy meetings and connects people with mentors. "They have a phenomenal men's group meeting on Tuesday nights at 6:30," she said, pointing up the street at the community center where they take place. "One session will change your life."
The Health Foundation of South Florida, wants Peacemakers to reach 1,200 people a month. They want to know whether residents have been connected to services to address problems like food insecurity, transportation challenges, mental health needs, substance abuse problems.
In the long term, the foundation will assess whether there's been a drop in violence. Chant, the foundation's president, says the group decided to fund Peacemakers because they saw they were already a trusted group in areas of Miami they wanted to reach.
"We will not bring ourselves into a community with solutions that we believe in, but we will listen to the community and support solutions they believe in," says Chant.
This story was produced as part of a partnership between NPR, WLRN in Miami and KFF Health News.
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