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To stop Richmond gun violence, one must first look to the past, Virginia health officials says

Posted at 11:42 AM, Jul 08, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-08 11:48:41-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- As parts of the City of Richmond and Central Virginia experience an increase in gun-related violence in 2021, Jackie Lawrence, Director of Health Equity at Richmond and Henrico Health Districts, is searching for answers.

While the causes of and solutions to gun violence are varied and nuanced, Lawrence said she believed we must look back into history to understand and solve the current problem.

She recently sat down with Jake Burns to discuss the issues at hand. Below you will find a transcript of their conversation -- lightly edited for clarity.

Jake Burns
Seeing what's happened over the past holiday weekend [more than a dozen people shot], what's going through your mind when you see this level of violence?

Jackie Lawrence
We just need to continue to press in on what we're already doing, and even more so. And really, how can we invest in community members, grassroots organizations, small organizations who have continued to stay engaged with communities.

We need research absolutely [when it comes to large issues like gun violence], but we can find ourselves spending a lot of time in that space and even historically have invested in large nonprofits that may not know the community in the way that some community members, or small organizations do.

So immediately, what goes through my mind is, as an institution, we have access to resources, we have access to different folks and decision-making power that can leverage the ideas of community members because they know the solutions for their community.

Immediately, I just found myself driving around the city just trying to strategize. And so many times I had to tell myself, okay, Jackie, this is systemic, this is a long time coming. My mind just goes into like strategy mode, how can we support and invest in communities?

Jake Burns
You mentioned it's systemic. For people who see this and think, 'Oh, here goes Richmond again, or he goes to the region again,' what do you think they should consider when they see a story like this? Where it is so many happening all at once? What's really behind that, in your view?

Jackie Lawrence
There are a few different things.

One thing we have to remember is the areas where we're seeing high rates of violence are the very same communities that have been divested in for generations. And so that right, there is a piece that many people may not know, or may not understand the impact.

Sometimes, we may hear like, 'oh, that's history, that happened years ago.' and absolutely it is history, it did happen years ago. However, we need to consider that history does impact what we see today.

I'll speak about the Jackson Ward community and then I will also speak about the East End community.

And so going back, there's something called redlining, I tried my best to tell everyone to please Google research, the University of Richmond has a really great website that explains it.

Redlining is something where back in I believe the 30s, our federal government partnered with an agency called the Homeowners Loan Corporation.

They would go around and rate communities, by their terrain, what resources are in the area, and also who lives there. And so back during this time, the Jackson Ward community actually was considered the Black Wall Street of the South. A lot of folks are not aware of that. And so all of that is important in context.

So if we can imagine a time where there were Black businesses, thriving law firms, dentist offices, various different businesses, creatives, artists, we have the Hippodrome down there. Many artists came all over the country. So we have this thriving community. And so at the same time, we have an agency coming and saying, despite the economic, social, artist scene that's happening in this bubbling beautiful neighborhood, we're still going to rate this neighborhood with a grade of D, which means that this area is not worth investing in.

And so if I'm a big corporation coming to Richmond, and I'm looking for somewhere to invest resources or even buy a home, I'm definitely not going to go to Jackson Ward at this time.

And so what began to happen is we see a lot of divestment away from that community. And that also served as a basis for other infrastructure and slum clearance to happen in that community. And so we see a lot of resources being pulled out.

We see Interstate 95 being built directly through the neighborhood. Which displaced tons of families.

25 years ago: The last toll paid on Interstate 95 in Virginia
The Richmond-Petersburg turnpike under construction, as it passes through Jackson Ward.

And so this is a lot of context that's playing in the background, behind a lot of the violence that we're seeing.

I always ask people to consider yourself and your family, what if you were one of those families or you're connected to a family like that, and your great grandmother, great, great, great grandfather, maybe he had a business and was planning on passing it down to build that generational wealth. But now, that dream is taken. And so surrounding all of that there are additional other policies that have made it hard for that great grandmother, that great grandfather, to continue to gain wealth.

Maybe they tried to buy a home, but they weren't allowed because of the color of their skin.

So these are all additional things that we have to consider. And we cannot take them and put them in a box and say, oh, that's not tied to this.

The same redlining practice happened all over the country, actually. I brought up the East End as well, because that's the area that we are seeing a lot of violence, and that there are other areas that we're seeing violence. But I just wanted to give those examples.

Jake Burns
Mental health is a pretty critical point as well.

Jackie Lawrence
If we can think about that, just the average person, we know that when we're low on funds, and we're wondering, what are we going to do? How are we gonna pay for this? How are my children going to go on and be successful, that causes stress. Any average person, whether you have this historical background that I just mentioned, or not. Any average person feels some stress to that.

Okay, so that's happening.

We also have this very traumatic experience of literally your neighborhood being ripped away, your community being torn away, everything that you built, and there's all of these policies that are boxing you in. And so your back is against the wall. And so that's causing stress in your body.

Another kind of aspect of this that I didn't mention, so pre-redlining, I often try to share with folks, when we try to understand why gun violence is happening, we often do not go back far enough.

And so in this instance, when we look at a lot of the data, we know that a lot of the shootings and homicides are happening to our Black youth and often Black males.

And so the reason I'm bringing that up is we do have to consider slavery.

Many people maybe don't want to talk about that. However, it does play a role.

Again, I'll take the same exercise that I just did relate it to how you might feel if your family experienced redlining, imagine how your family would feel if you were enslaved for generations.

A lot of people say, well, that happened in the past.

A lot of research, a lot of science, and a lot of personal lived experience tells us that when something happens over generations, it can repeat.

Jackie Lawrence.png
Jackie Lawrence

There's a lot of different mental health challenges that can get passed down, certain practices and ways of thinking that can get passed down through families, and it ends up manifesting itself.

So take a group of people that have experienced something so tragic, being removed from their homeland, being enslaved for years, then when they finally get here, finally get something that's ripped away. So just imagine how that feels mentally.

A lot of times we focus on the economic aspect. But then also think about how would you actually feel, you will feel stressed.

A piece that I wanted to make that connection there is when people are in that situation, our body does produce stress hormones that continue to secrete in our bodies. And we all are familiar with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

So by no means, am I trying to diagnose every single person that lives in this neighborhood, definitely not trying to come across in that way. But as a general statement, if we understand that our soldiers, my father is actually a soldier, so I absolutely understand that.

So if we understand that our soldiers have experienced Post Traumatic Stress Disorder at war, why would we not think that our community members are also experiencing something like that, absolutely that or something similar to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

So we know that our soldiers are somewhere being removed from their families for years at a time, they're hearing gunshots, often, right? They don't have all the resources that they want or need.

Our families are experiencing the same thing.

That is one of the main points that I try to drive home when we try to unpack our gun violence situation. We need to start looking at it holistically, and understand that people are going through things, like people are literally going through things and people are experiencing different harms that happen to the community.

Jake Burns
A lot of people that I hear from, especially the families, they say, this has got to stop. I've heard that message for years now. It sounds like what you're saying is a lot of what needs to happen, then if we want to solve anything close to this issue, is really focusing on what specific communities need.

So if someone is interested in maybe doing that work, or figuring that out, what might you suggest they do?

Jackie Lawrence
One is to understand the history of that community, understand the context. You can do that by reading literature, there's videos out there.

But the best way to find that out is to actually speak with people that live there, or speak with community organizations that have a deep connection.

From there, maybe you can start volunteering to the point where you can get to know the people that actually live there, and supplement that lived experience with what you're reading online, with videos that you're watching.

Another area that I feel strongly that folks can support this work is investment.

When I just explained that many of these communities have been divested in, we need to reinvest. And we need to reinvest in a way, just as we reinvest in any other kind of organization, reinvest in folks who know exactly what they're doing.

This may look like very small organizations, individuals in the community that are doing the work without pay, and have been doing it for years. Folks who do have that capacity can give those monetary investments as well as time.

And the third area that I would say, for individuals that can help is leveraging resources that you may have. Sometimes a social network is a big leap for a family, if someone is looking for employment, or if someone has their own idea.

These communities are full of entrepreneurs. And so maybe you know, you're someone who has that business knowledge, or maybe you can connect them with someone, that connection can take someone further than we can imagine.

So those are kind of three main areas that I think an average person could support.

Jake Burns
As someone that focuses on health and works for VDH, what is this moment mean for people who are seeing this [violence] and experiencing it as a community?

Jackie Lawrence
I speak a lot about collective trauma and community healing.

Right now people are feeling stress, people are feeling tired, people are sad, some people are feeling numb. For some people, this is becoming normalized.

Just kind of hopeless, will this ever end, I don't know if it will be, or if it will ever end.

But one thing that I will say, although those are a lot of like negative emotions, there are a ton of people who are extremely resilient and see the light. So I really want that to be reflected.

Throughout all of history, people of color have always been resilient, have always pushed forward and resisted. And a lot of times that part of story doesn't get told. It's often here's all the bad stuff that happened to our people, but also hear all the beautiful resilience story.

So when you ask how are folks feeling right now, there's an array of emotions that I shared, and one of them is resilient.

This increase in violence has really spurred people to say, you know what, I want to get up and I want to join that group. I want to start this project. I want to start this initiative. There's so many people start to do that.

Not even just specifically around mental wellness, but nutrition. Many folks are thinking about their diet and understanding that that affects their mental health. Movement, we see a lot more folks of color, engaging in healthier lifestyle just all around.

So it's interesting that there has been this upsurge in that way of thinking at the same time of increasing violence. But it's important to tell both sides.

Jake Burns
More often than not, the victims of this violence and the people carrying it out many times are also very young.

Jackie Lawrence
In the US, for ages 15 to 24, gun violence is the fourth leading cause of death. For our non-Hispanic whites, that is the second leading cause. However, for our Black community, or non-Hispanic blacks, this is the number one leading cause.

Even hearing that right trigger something.

Specific to Richmond, we know that over the last four years, specifically, 97% of the hospitalizations related to gun violence were Black people and 87% were male.

About 24%, were under the age of 20 and 67%, were under the age of 30.

And so this is a question that I have often asked. Why do we think it's getting younger? Why do we think it's our youth, and there's an array of answers that I've gotten from community members.

And again, I think a lot of it, you know, goes back to failures of our system. If you ask youth who have experienced gun violence, or who have engaged in it themselves, they say, 'Hey, I don't have anything to do.'

They may not say it themselves, but you know, they're experiencing the stress that I spoke about earlier. They have access, easy access to weapons. It's normalized in parts of the community.

When we think about what our families are dealing with, some people find community in certain folks who may engage in violent behavior, for the reasons that I mentioned earlier.

Those are just the different reasons that I've heard some community members have shared that parents are younger nowadays.

When we think about our youth, just going back to what can we do, again, that that investment so that we can have something so we can have jobs, support.

The biggest thing that I'd like to, I guess, highlight is that nobody is waking up, wanting to be engaged in [violence], right? Nobody is doing that, despite what some people may think when they see the headlines, and nobody wants that, you know, people are upset.

But many people will say I'm carrying the gun, because I'm scared, because someone else has it and I'm scared, so I need to protect myself.

And if we all ask ourselves, if any one of us were living in the communities that we're talking about, and we had the background and, you know, experiences, you know, many of us have to ask ourselves, what would we do in that situation? It's a question that we need to ask ourselves.

There are many people who are actively engaging and building groups that are really focused on mental wellness. Because we want to increase in violence, there's a lot of groups are saying, hey, let's come together and let's talk about it together.

Because we know that people of color by nature and by culture are very collective folks. And so that healing sometimes needs to happen in the group, not for everybody, not all the time, but just I'm just mentioning that people are starting to build momentum behind that.