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Sometimes, we need more conveners: A community partner profile

Written by Kim Furlow, communications manager for the Institute for Public Health

Think of her as the ultimate “convener” — bringing large numbers of people together to problem-solve issues that try to tear communities apart. Issues like violence.

A former community organizer specializing in “collective impact”, Serena Muhammad, director of strategic initiatives for MHB (formerly the Mental Health Board) is also a key leader of the St. Louis Area Violence Prevention Commission (VPC). Originated by the Institute for Public Health and the United Way of Greater St. Louis, VPC and Muhammad help convene more than 100 entities monthly; entities representing education, healthcare, law enforcement, local government, advocacy, neighborhood groups, and social services—all working to reduce violent crime in our region.

Following early needs assessments with these organizations, Muhammad says, violence continued to pop up as a “considerable health issue.” In other words, when violence is pervasive in their day-to-day environment, there is a huge impact on the overall mental health of community members.

“The head is not separate from the body,” says Muhammad. “A person’s mental health is not separate from their overall health or environment. It’s all intertwined.”

As a key player at VPC, Muhammad doesn’t just swoop in like a superhero and solve problems alone. She enables people to work together. “I help create and maintain partnerships and help organizations find common ground on how to prevent violence.”

For example: an organization wants to hit the streets and talk to young people about violence prevention. VPC and Muhammad look at best practices and models for effective street outreach and how to measure its effectiveness. Workshops and funding are sometimes provided to help advance this work.

Serena Muhammad presents at an Institute for Public Health Community Workshop

“It’s difficult to organize ‘in the moment’ with no strategy or infrastructure,” says Muhammad. VPC hosts more than 100 organizations at a time who talk about solving problems. “We need to have more collective tables for problem solving,” she adds.

“The Institute for Public Health for example, has provided funding, staff and capacity-building efforts to help the St. Louis Area Violence Prevention Commission provide a convening space for organizations to discuss ways to contribute to violence prevention.”

Update: Due to the recent spate of gun violence locally and nationally, there is a heightened sense of urgency to solve the problem. Muhammad says organizations like health centers, schools and hospitals are now being more proactive (before the violence happens) as well as reactive (a gunshot victim is brought to the emergency room.) “People are saying ‘we need to prioritize this and do something right now’”, she says. “We’re sharing more information about families and individuals impacted by violence and more people are working together as a society through coalitions like VPC. Where there is consistency and a place to convene, you can focus on response.”

Sometimes it feels like we need more conveners to put the right people together to find solutions to help stop the violence. People like Serena Muhammad are making that happen.

Learn more about the St. Louis Area Violence Prevention Commission. The public is invited to join a committee or, simply attend a quarterly meeting. For more information, please contact VPC’s coordinator Jessica Meyers.