Black Faith Groups Have Been Fighting Neighborhood Gun Violence for Decades. They’re Finally Getting Support

By Sono Motoyama | The Chronicle of Philanthropy

Indianapolis hit record-high murder rates in recent years, breaking the all-time record in 2021 with 251 homicides, making it one of the most violent cities per capita in the United States. The spike reflects a national increase in gun violence during the pandemic that experts attribute to a range of factors including disruption in people’s work and personal lives, an increase in gun sales, and mental health issues.
But the city is now in the midst of a promising experiment, led by faith leaders, with politicians, police, and residents all committed to reducing gun violence.

The city government’s program to combat gun violence is a years-long effort that has required unflagging community organizing and building the political clout of neighborhood residents.Spearheaded by the nonprofit Faith in Indiana, the program is showing encouraging preliminary findings; the city has seen a 15 percent year-on-year homicide reduction. Faith in Indiana — whose $1.5 million annual budget is funded in part by the Ford and Robert Wood Johnson foundations, the Heartland Fund, and other philanthropic organizations — is part of the multi-faith, multiracial national network Faith in Action.

When Indianapolis received $419 million in federal relief money in 2021, Faith in Indiana helped ensure that about $115 million would be devoted to the gun-violence reduction and mental health services it has been advocating for.

“Over the years, we built lots and lots of relationships with everyday people and started to build some serious power,” says Rosie Bryant, a former community organizer at Faith in Indiana who now works nationwide to advance similar efforts.

The city’s success in acquiring funding illustrates grassrootsgroups’ lurching progress in the battle against gun violence. For decades, political leaders have ignored the fact that gun homicides are concentrated in Black and Hispanic city neighborhoods. Generally, it has been mass shootings — often in predominantly white communities like Newtown, Conn., and Parkland, Fla. — that have captured headlines, dictated most of the policy agenda, and benefited from much of both government and philanthropic funding.

Now, however, local branches of religious organizations like Faith in Action and Live Free USA, led by Black people and other underrepresented groups, are seeing some change. As a result of community organizing and savvy advocacy, grassroots nonprofits in Birmingham, Ala., Oakland, Calif., and other cities are gaining recognition and financing for the community-based programs to reduce shootings they have supported and carried out for decades.

Faith groups are not the only ones to advocate for these programs, often referred to as community-violence intervention. Typically, these programs hire outreach workers, who may have been gang members or felons, to offer intensive coaching and tailored services to give alternatives to the very small percentage of a city’s population most likely to perpetrate or be victims of gun violence.

But support for these efforts from faith leaders has been crucial, given the moral authority they have traditionally held in Black neighborhoods, notably during the civil-rights movement. Black ministers also played a pivotal role in what has been called “the Boston Miracle” in the mid-90s, when African American clergy, police, and government officials joined forces to reduce gun violence among young people.

Federal Boost

The work of grassroots groups got a big lift in July when President Biden signed the Safer Communities Act, which earmarks $250 million for local organizations working to deter gun violence.

In addition to the federal measure, the Biden administration called upon foundations active in gun safety — including the Ballmer Group, Joyce Foundation, and Schusterman Family Philanthropies — to help expand anti-violence efforts in 16 cities. The 18-month program ended in December, as planned, and may have a snowballing impact into the future as foundations continue to make grants to deter gun violence. Philanthropies also continue their funding to fight gun violence using other measures.

Other federal grants not previously earmarked for violence intervention can now be used to finance local anti-violence efforts. Local violence-intervention groups say they are having difficulty obtaining this funding. However, on paper, at least, billions of federal, state, and local money and funding from multiple foundations are now available to help local groups curb violence.

Indy Goes All In

Making local residents a part of democracy — by assuming their inherent political power — was the first order of business for Faith in Indiana’s first organizer, Juard Barnes. He had taken the time to coordinate public forums, train grassroots leaders, and build relationships with government officials over the years. As a result, the organization had the ability to mobilize tens of thousands of voters on various issues.

As Barnes’s successor at the organization, Rosie Bryant knew that gun violence was an issue of primary importance to the city’s Black residents, so she helped the group take full advantage of its collective voice.

“Why should the mayor listen to us?” Bryant asks with palpable enthusiasm. “Well, we have the votes that he needs! That’s why.” News reports highlighting the high toll of gun violence in the city make clear that the issue had also become a significant public-relations problem for the city.

McBride, based in Oakland, was at the time head of Faith in Action’s Live Free campaign, focused on addressing gun violence and the mass incarceration of Black and brown people. Oakland’s anti-violence program, which was associated with a 31.5 percent homicide reduction in the city over six years, had become a nationwide model. At the invitation of Faith in Indiana, he visited Indianapolis three times to speak to large forums — some with hundreds in attendance — as well as small groups about his experiences working locally. Faith in Indiana organized trips to Oakland and Los Angeles for the mayor’s staff and other community leaders to see effective anti-violence efforts in action.

After four years of public organizing and behind-the-scenes conversations, Mayor Joe Hogsett agreed to put in place some of Faith in Action’s proposals. In 2018, he created a department to oversee the program and hired a project director, and the city brought on several outreach workers called “peacemakers.”

Even with that victory, activists said they still had to work hard to make sure their proposals made a difference. For one thing, the city’s investment of less than $3 million a year in the program was insufficient for a city of 870,000 that had a homicide rate of 24.3 per 100,000 residents. In contrast, Oakland’s program was spending $8 million annually in a city of half the size (423,000 residents) with a comparable murder rate of 23.3.

Bryant realized that hiring an outside expert to oversee progress had been essential to Oakland’s success. Her group worked to persuade Mayor Hogsett to bring in David Muhammad, head of the National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform, which oversees multiple anti-violence programs around the country, including in Oakland.

Racial-justice demonstrations following the murder of George Floyd by police in 2020 encouraged continuing advancement of the program. That year, when agreeing to expand the program to reduce gun violence, Hogsett acknowledged his collaborative relationship with Faith in Indiana in a tweet: “I have met with Faith in Indiana for many years, and they have been invaluable partners in pushing our administration to make meaningful change for the betterment of police-community relationships and in furtherance of peace on our streets.”

Keeping the Pressure On

Muhammad carefully tracks his programs’ data and is cooperating on research on the Indianapolis program with Indiana University Bloomington. Although it is difficult to definitively link the program to a decline in violence, Muhammad says Indianapolis has seen a 15 percent reduction in homicides from 2021 to 2022 and a drop in fatal shootings of more than 12 percent.

He credits the commitment of Bryant as well as the mayor and his staff for this initial success. He meets monthly with the Indianapolis mayor, deputy mayor, the mayor’s chief of staff, the police chief, and the director of the public health and safety office, which manages the strategy.

“In the last 15 years, there’s not even been a 10 percent reduction, year over year, in murders, so we’re very excited by the progress,” Muhammad says.

The greatest contribution of activists and religious organizations has been “creating the public support, maintaining public support, and maintaining pressure on elected officials and policymakers,” he says.

Indeed, Faith in Indiana did not stop its advocacy after the city adopted the program. It has continued to meet with the mayor to see how best to expand the program. In March 2021, the funds from the American Rescue Plan, the federal pandemic relief plan, answered that question.

Bryant has become regional organizing manager of Live Free USA, overseeing chapters across a broad swath of the country. But she still lives in Indianapolis, where she continues to tout the anti-violence work that has the police department, prosecutor’s office, several community centers, and the mayor working together to make the strategy a success.

Bryant tells the story of how, at a certain point in her education, she decided to become a social worker. She wanted to change the world, she says.

“But what if the world could change itself?” she now asks. “What if people fought for their own liberation and their own freedom?”

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