By Amy Ellenbogen, Director of Crown Heights Community Mediation Center
Our hearts go out to the town of Newtown, CT and to the families of those who were killed and injured in the horrific incident last Friday. We are grieving with them and grieving for all the victims of gun violence everywhere for whom this most recent tragedy resonates with a particularly deep sadness, frustration and, in some cases, anger.The staff and volunteers of Save Our Streets (S.O.S.) grapple daily with how to put an end to the epidemic of gun violence. We consider gun violence a disease which has infected our society and is continuing to spread. We work for the day that gun violence is eradicated and a problem of the past.
S.O.S. staff work to prevent the spread of this disease by interrupting potential incidents of violence. We also try to change the beliefs that make gun violence possible in our neighborhood. Too many people in Crown Heights believe that it is acceptable to use guns at the slightest sign of conflict or disrespect. On too many corners, getting shot is seen as a rite of passage that confers status on the streets. And too many kids grow up not expecting to live past 20.
Newtown, Connecticut and Crown Heights, Brooklyn are worlds apart in some respects but at the end of the day, the pain that mothers, fathers, siblings and friends experience in the aftermath of violence is the same. One mother whose son was killed by gun violence in Crown Heights said that the parents of Newtown, “have no idea what grief is yet, have no idea of the darkness.”
Unfortunately, in our neighborhood, when there is a shooting, the signs of outrage are brief and often muted. Newspapers tend not to devote A1 stories to the chronic drip of violence in Crown Heights. There is always another crisis to attend to, another more urgent problem to solve. And so the violence continues. Is it any surprise that some in Crown Heights wonder aloud whether the life of a person in this neighborhood is truly valued by those outside of the community?
Here in Crown Heights, our work to stop gun violence is not only hampered by the reality that guns are easy to obtain, but also by fractured and overtaxed systems — schools, health care, and housing, to name a few. As a student once asked us at a barren, prison-like Suspension Center, “What am I supposed to think when I’m sent to a school that has no books?” We have learned the hard way that a person who does not consider his or her life precious or important can easily become dangerous.
As we try to make meaning of the massacre in Newtown, we hope that you will join us in some of the work we plan to do in 2013:
1) Hold the victims here in our neighborhood in our hearts and prayers. This time of year is particularly hard for those who have lost loved ones.
2) Work closely with perpetrators of gun violence and potential perpetrators of gun violence to help them think and behave differently. Help them make safer choices for themselves and our neighborhood.
3) Create meaningful opportunities for neighbors to come together for positive experiences and to strengthen the fabric of the neighborhood, such as Arts to End Violence, the S.O.S. Talent Show, and the many block parties we organize.
4) Try to understand some of the root causes of the gun violence and what can be done about it. Think about the many institutions that touch or fail touch our young people and what we can do to help them succeed.
5) Learn and practice peaceful conflict resolution so that we can model for our children, friends and family healthy ways of responding to conflict.
6) Express outrage by attending a shooting response if there are any more shootings in Crown Heights.
7) Attend community meetings. Join your block association. Talk to your neighbors. Strengthen your own commitment to be a part of the movement to end gun violence.
Amy Ellenbogen oversees the day to day operations of the Crown Heights Community Mediation Center, a neighborhood problem solving center. She is currently focused on providing conflict resolution and youth court programming to schools and youth organizations in Brooklyn. She has worked in New York City, San Francisco and Los Angeles as an educator, social worker, community activist and program founder. She founded ROOTED (Respecting Ourselves and Others Through Education), a Columbia University program designed to facilitate student dialogue around issues of identity as they relate to power and privilege. Ms. Ellenbogen has a BA degree in Ethnic studies and a Master’s degree in Social Work from Columbia University.