RICHMOND, Va. -- At Richmond's Martin Luther King Middle School, students and their mentors are participating in a program through the “Drums No Guns Foundation.” The program was started by Dr. Ram Bhagat after he lost his own brother to gun violence.
Bhagat is a retired Richmond educator but now volunteers in schools and leads panel and community discussions across the country.
"Part of our vision is to create an East Coast initiative where we're really addressing some of the major issues that Black boys are dealing with from elementary school, even preschool and all the way up to middle school and high school," Bhagat said.
Bhagat's programs don't only focus on cultural arts, but also conflict resolution, healing circles, cultural sensitivity and racial reconciliation, all skills he says young people desperately need with a wave of violence that is paralyzing many lower-income communities.
Two other community activists, including Charles Willis, the executive director of United Communities Against Crime, spoke before Richmond City Council on Monday night, asking for lawmakers to address the growing crime rate, especially among young people.
"Crime is a pandemic in Richmond,” Willis says. “ Our children are losing their lives.”
Willis addressed the death of a 13-year-old student who was killed on Friday night when police say he was accidentally shot while playing with friends. Later that night, less than a mile away, three other Richmond Public School students were injured in another shooting.
According to statistics from the Gun Violence Archive, in 2023 alone, there have been five incidents involving 12 to 17-year-olds in Richmond. 2022 resulted in 17 gun deaths and 21 injuries for the same age group.
Bhagat said while crime has always plagued several communities, violence has escalated since the pandemic and community centers are closed at critical hours and programs are sparse.
"We need to have more people from the community who have the skills and the courage and the passion to hold space for young people and hold space for families that have been impacted by gun violence," Bhagat said.
He said that students need mentors, guidance and more community-based programs that make a difference. He believes it will take a coalition of groups working together to have the biggest impact.
"We need to get them involved in programs like drumming and drama. It's important to provide that platform for young people to express, from their perspective, what's happening and what they see as some of their needs to solve the problem," Bhagat said.