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Educator to convener to partner: The evolution of the Gun Violence Initiative

Written by Victoria Grace Assokom-Siakam, BA in International and Area Studies, Washington University in St. Louis.

At the time of publishing, Victoria Grace was an intern at the Center for Community Health Partnership and Research

The Gun Violence Initiative at the Institute for Public Health turns five in April 2020. This blogpost relates to the key themes of the initiative: What we know, what we need to know, and what to do about this critical issue.

Lives Touched by Gun Violence

In 2014, a 16-year-old named Chelsea Harris was shot and murdered during a drive-by shooting. Her grandmother mourned the loss and so did Risa Zwerling, wife of Chancellor Emeritus, Mark S. Wrighton. Zwerling had mentored Chelsea for eight years.

Many individuals in the St. Louis region share a similar story of loss. Perhaps their brother was killed by another young man who had experienced trauma; or, a niece was playing with a gun and accidentally shot herself; or, their 60-year-old father committed suicide.

On April 21, 2015, then-Chancellor Wrighton and wife Risa launched the Gun Violence Initiative to raise awareness of gun violence and explore ways that Washington University could address gaps in available data and research. During the last five years, Washington University’s role has evolved from an educator, to convener, to a partner that supports the St. Louis community in implementing violence prevention interventions.

Poli Rijos, front left, with interns Ibura Dehaan, Victoria Grace Assokom-Siakam, and Mason Simmons, front right

Community-Centered Engagement

In February 2016, Washington University partnered with United Way of Greater St. Louis to launch the St. Louis Area Violence Prevention Commission to facilitate coordination between various education, healthcare, law enforcement, local governments, and other initiatives that were already addressing gun violence. Through one of its many student engagement events, Public Health Challenge, I personally got involved in the Gun Violence Initiative in its second year, then assisted with the community-building work alongside the Center for Community Health Partnership and Research at the Institute for Public Health, where the Gun Violence Initiative is now based.

Central to community engagement is engaging with youth in that community. According to Marcel Scaife, since 2015, the Youth Violence Prevention Partnership has invited St. Louis youth to “Come as you are, be as you are and [they] can help you get to where you need to go.” In 2020, after years of collaboration, the Youth Violence Prevention Partnership officially became part of the Violence Prevention Commission.

Implementing Violence Prevention Programs

In August 2018, the Institute for Public Health  launched Life Outside of Violence, a hospital-based violence intervention program in which case managers promote alternatives to violence with youth (ages 8 to 24) who are injured by gunshot, stabbing or assault. The intervention aims to help decrease incidences of retaliation, criminal involvement, re-injury, and death. That same year,  Counseling on Access to Lethal Means (CALM) was implemented; a program that trains providers to use counseling strategies to help patients who are at risk for suicide and their families reduce their access to lethal means, particularly (but not exclusively) firearms.

Hon. Stacey Newman of Progress Women, left,  and Becky Morgan of Moms Demand Action, right, with intern Victoria Grace Assokom-Siakam, center.

Look Back then Move Forward

In the immediate future, the Gun Violence Initiative will continue to collaborate with community stakeholders to implement programs based on data. In order to reduce gun violence, we need to sustain gun violence prevention work that, according to Institute Faculty Scholar Jason Purnell, PhD, essentially “tries to chip away at 400 years’ worth of inequities.”

This month marks the fifth anniversary of Washington University’s commitment to reducing gun violence in our communities by establishing the Gun Violence Initiative.

Thank you to all the organizations that make up the St. Louis Area Violence Prevention Commission, the Gun Violence Initiative’s partners, and the countless individuals who strive to make St. Louis a better place to live.

We invite those not yet involved to “come as you are,” to learn how violence affects the St. Louis region, and to help us get to a St. Louis without gun violence.

Get Involved with the Gun Violence Initiative

Contact Initiative Coordinator, Kateri Chapman-Kramer

Read more about the Gun Violence Initiative.
Find gun violence prevention Resources.