Introducing The Transforming Narratives of Gun Violence Initiative

Last week, we here at the Engagement Lab, in partnership with the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute and the Center for Gun Violence Prevention at Massachusetts General Hospital, launched the 2021 Transforming Narratives of Gun Violence Initiative.

The launch began with a poem by Breezy Bodden from Teen Empowerment Studios. Teen Empowerment recently released Senseless Smoke, an original film about a community coping with the aftermath of gun violence.

Teen Empowerment’s #SenselessSmoke campaign aims to “Promote Peace Through the Power of the People” using the arts as a tool for social change.

Emerging technologies are offering new means of narrative change and self-expression. Dr. Eric Gordon spoke about the potential of these technologies and the dire need to put them in the hands of communities that have important stories to tell.

“We will imagine new narrative structures, new distribution strategies, new organizational interventions, and new data visualizations to substantially alter how we talk and think about the impact of guns in our city and surrounding communities.”

Interim President of Emerson College Dr. William Gilligan spoke on the institutional responsibility Emerson College has to its neighbors, amplifying those stories and resources of communities disproportionately targeted by institutional oppression. The Engagement Lab, Dr. Gilligan said, is a major way Emerson College supports innovative civic engagement strategies and social responsibility.

The Gun Violence Initiative is not just changing how we see the institutional role Boston universities have to play in civic life, but also the many healthcare institutions that benefit so much from the city in which they are located.

As co-director for Massachusetts General Hospital’s Center for Gun Violence Prevention, Dr. Peter Masiakos sees how the stories we tell about gun violence prevent us from properly addressing its root causes.

“What does get reported skewed towards senseless acts of terror, with the blame placed squarely on the shoulders of a mentally ill monster. The gun violence in the United States is not primarily a mental health problem, it is however, a public health epidemic.”

Clinicians see not only the direct harm guns cause, but the rippling effects of chronic pain, anxiety, and trauma that reverberate through the communities closest to this epidemic. Where those communities are excluded from interventions into gun violence prevention and response, interventions fail. Where those communities lead, amazing things happen.

MGH President Dr. David Brown, agrees. “The names Columbine sandy hook parkland and pulse nightclub are synonymous with gun violence,” he said following Dr. Masiakos’ remarks “but what can we learn from the more than 95% of gunshot deaths that are not part of a mass shooting or some other high profile event.”

Boston City Councilor Andrea Campbell represents district 4, where the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute has been a center of families impacted by murder, trauma, grief, and loss to heal, teach, and learn together.

“… in government, we often need to get out of the way,” Councilor Cambel said, “and allow those who know what they’re doing to lead the way… for us in positions of power and elected office… to support the work, to collaborate and to scale up the incredible ideas that come out of such initiatives.”

Associate Program Coordinator for Teen Empowerment Willington Vuelto, plays creative and administrative roles in generating those ideas. As a musician and actor, he shared how he is helping reshape narratives of gun violence through mediums and communication design. Similarly, last year’s partnered studio led by Ougie Pak produced a video about Clarissa Turner losing her son to gun violence.

Chaplain Clementina M. Chéry co-founded the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute in 1994 after her son, for whom the institute is named, also died from gun violence. He was killed while on his way to a group meeting for teens against gang violence. Chaplain Chéry remembered the condolences she received were full resignation and condescension about what happens in “these communities.”

“This was my ammunition to change the narrative,” she said, “from people seeing us as a community where bad things happen, to a community of assets, a community where families live to raise their children.”

28 years later, the place where her son Louis is still considered dangerous, a “hot spot.” Transforming Boston’s response to gun violence has been slow, but she and her community have made progress. Victims' networks, compassionate governmental support, and equitable rapid response tools are chipping away at this intractable problem and making real differences in people’s lives.

The Gun Violence Initiative opens a new chapter in this work, directly challenging internalized and externalized narratives of gun violence that get in the way of efficiently and preemptively distributing resources that can prevent violence and support victims when violence happens.

Other speakers at th launch event included Co-director of Mass General’sCenter for Gun Violence Prevention Dr. Chana Sacks, Boston musician Caleb McCoy, and Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, who called in to the launch event from the house floor in between votes.

“What this gun violence leaves in its wake,” Representative Pressley said, “so much of this is really rooted in systemic racism and decades of what I would characterize as policy violence… Underinvestment, disinvestment in the same communities that have been disproportionately impacted by this public health crisis.”

Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley has been fighting to scale gun licensing laws across the nation and set aside money in the build back better act community-based violence prevention efforts, and trauma recovery centers.

“But the work does not begin in Congress,” she said. “It begins in community, with partnerships, like the one that we’re launching today.”

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