Use the strengths of our youth to fight gun violence

There’s no magic wand that can be waved to end – or even reduce – the epidemic of deaths and mayhem coming from the reckless or criminal use of guns.  The Journal Sentinel called for a Summit to begin a dialogue in the Crossroads section (April 26), focusing mainly upon our political and community leaders.

As commendable as that may be, we feel that our most affected neighborhoods can’t wait for another summit to put into effect strategies that would end their continuing exposure to death and injury by gunfire.  It is within our neighborhoods that we find the best prospects for creating the effort to effectively reduce the tendencies of some to use guns irresponsibly and dangerously.  There are also dozens of community organizations working day-and-night to create peaceful and attractive neighborhoods.  There are churches preaching peace and setting up havens of safety.  And, there are thousands of young people living in these neighborhoods who long for safety and for opportunities to play, to go to school and to meet their friends without fear of being victims of bullets.

It’s time to acknowledge the strength that lies within the residents of the neighborhoods and employ those strengths in this most worthy effort.

The Coming Together Partnership to Prevent Gun Violence has made its major mission to support these neighborhood efforts with particular emphasis on building leadership potential among the youth of our communities.  This partnership involving gun violence prevention initiatives of the City of Milwaukee, the Medical College, Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin and Community Advocates is in its third year.

We have seen the tremendous talent and dedication of the young people of our city.  That was demonstrated at two well-attended Coming Together Summits attended by an equal number of youth and adults who work directly with young people.  There was Kavon Jones who works with a youth project of the ACLU and told the Summit last December of his efforts to work with younger children to urge them to resist the urge to pick up guns.  Marcello Robinson of the Holton Youth Center told the Summit that his life changed for the better once he began attending sessions at the Center.   “If I can do it anyone can change their ways,” he said.

The Coming Together Partnership has used its limited resources to support community programs aimed at working among youth to end gun violence.  In 2014, the Partnership provided modest grants to six community youth programs that included support for the Bridge Project, creation of a music video, a neighborhood outreach program and others.  For the summer of 2015, the Partnership is providing “Change-Maker” grants to six programs, all aimed at developing youth leadership for gun violence prevention efforts.

In his Crossroads column (April26) James Causey called for a collective effort.  The Coming Together Partnership also recognizes the need for building connections among all of those involved in gun prevention and youth development activities and is hoping to create more opportunities for networking to help strengthen this vital campaign.

Too often, we see only the negatives among the youth of our city and overlook the positives they possess.  They offer the hope for the future of the city and we believe the success of preventing gun violence requires they be full partners.

Milwaukee’s young people and their families need to be completely engaged in this community crusade!

(Coming Together Partnership for Prevention of Gun Violence includes Community Advocates – Milwaukee Brighter Futures Initiative; City of Milwaukee Health Department Office of Violence Prevention; Medical College of Wisconsin – Violence Prevention Initiative; and Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin – Project Ujima.)



Milwaukee Violence: Youth must be part of the solution

“Today is about young people,” Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn told more than 250 youth and adults at last November’s “Coming Together Summit,” a gathering to begin a community-wide endeavor to prevent gun violence.

“We’re here to listen to you,” Chief Flynn said. The “we” referred to leaders from the Milwaukee Police Department, public health agencies, hospital administrators, youth, teachers, community organization leaders, researchers, and others.

Mayor Tom Barrett, Congresswoman Gwen Moore and County Supervisor David Bowen also addressed the group, encouraging young people to express their ideas. The youth, mainly from the communities most affected by violence in Milwaukee, shared personal stories about their experiences with gun violence and wrote hundreds of suggestions on tiny sheets of paper that covered the walls of the summit venue.

The message to the partners was clear: Youth want to be part of the solution. They believe the effort must be ongoing, must be carried out within neighborhoods, and must bring young people and adults together. The Coming Together Partnership, the collaboration that convened the summit, has agreed to carry out this mission. This strategic collaboration was convened in 2013 by Community Advocates’ Milwaukee Brighter Futures Initiative, City of Milwaukee Health Department Office of Violence Prevention, the Medical College of Wisconsin’s Violence Prevention Initiative, Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin’s Project Ujima, and University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Center for Urban Initiatives and Research.

Already, the Partnership has put this mission into action through the sponsorship of six small grants to community organizations. Ranging from $400 to $750, the grants are funding programs that reach into the streets and onto the front porches of Milwaukee.

Funds used by these grants helped in the staging of Project Bridge, a rally against gun violence that attracted hundreds of people – mainly youth – for a march across the Groppi Bridge on a rainy, chilly April day.

Another grant funded a “Put the Guns Down” event by Westside Academy and Serve-2-Unite that found scores of young teens scouring the neighborhood around N. 35th St. and W. Lisbon Ave. to spread the word against gun violence and to attract more than 100 to attend a neighborhood rally in June.

Still other funding will assist in making the youthful suggestions come to life, including the production of an anti-violence music video, the hosting of a run and the presenting of an art show.

All of these projects will be presented at the 2nd Annual “Coming Together Summit” in November. Between now and then, the partners will use social media to keep the message alive in our communities that we must promote safety and peace and end gun violence.

The Coming Together Partnership believes firmly that changing attitudes toward gun use must come from within the community and must be driven by the very people who have the most at stake – our youth. Adults and policymakers have a role in this effort too by listening to and working with young people to end this continual violence by guns.

At last November’s summit, Chief Flynn reflected on why the emphasis on young people is vital: “For you, the youth of our community, are the ones for whom violence is not a theoretical problem. It’s a fact of daily life that will have a drastic impact on the rest of your life.”

These young people are creative, and these first steps may seem small. But they are at the table and they are telling us what they need and how to reach their peers. It’s time we listened and supported these small steps as the building blocks for a stronger, safer community that these youth will one day lead.

By: The Coming Together Partnership – Community Advocates’ Milwaukee Brighter Futures Initiative, City of Milwaukee Health Department Office of Violence Prevention, the Medical College of Wisconsin’s Violence Prevention Initiative, and Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin’s Project Ujima.

The Affordable Care Act is an Important Ally in Prevention


The passage of Affordable Care Act (ACA) is perhaps the most impactful event of recent memory on the field of prevention.

For the first time in Wisconsin, there is nearly universal access to preventive health benefits as part of BadgerCare and private health insurance plans. I say “nearly” because while individuals with incomes between 100% and 400% of the federal poverty level (FPL) in Wisconsin are now able to access premium and cost-sharing subsidies in the federal health insurance marketplace, decisions made by Wisconsin’s Legislature and current Governor have also made it difficult for some to access quality and affordable health coverage with preventive benefits. The population with incomes between 100% and 200% of the FPL will struggle to choose between paying a premium and cost-sharing for health insurance or paying for food, housing, child care, car payments, etc. Some in that population were previously eligible for BadgerCare but will now have to transition to private health insurance.

Individuals enrolled in BadgerCare, Medicare, and most private health insurance plans will now receive preventive care with no cost-sharing (i.e. deductibles, copays, or coinsurance). That preventive care will include mental health screenings; alcohol and drug use screening; tobacco screening and cessation services; obesity and diet screening and counseling; HIV and STI screening and prevention counseling; immunizations and flu shots; and several other benefits. Those benefits are expanded for women to include breast cancer screening, contraception (with exemptions for certain religious employers), domestic violence screening and counseling, prenatal supplements, well-woman visits, and more. Children are eligible for additional services with no cost-sharing, including autism screening, fluoride supplements, hearing and vision screening, lead exposure screening, developmental screenings, and other benefits.

These lists read like an auctioneer naming our biggest health concerns in the prevention field.

The ACA also includes a number of consumer/patient protections that will allow more people to have insurance coverage who could not before. Children can now stay on their parents’ plans until age 26. Insurers can no longer 1) deny coverage to people who have preexisting conditions, 2) rescind insurance coverage, or 3) impose lifetime or annual limits. Some of the at-risk populations of greatest concern in the prevention field include those with chronic conditions, mental illness, or substance use disorders who were all potentially subject to insurers’ discriminatory practices. Today, their conditions do not limit their access to quality and affordable health coverage.

The ACA authorizes $15 billion over its first five years for “expanded and sustained national investment in prevention and public health programs to improve health and help restrain the rate of growth” in health care costs. Wisconsin has received more than $18.3 million in funding through Community Transformation Grants, and investments in prevention programs, public health workforce initiatives, and public health infrastructure projects. Unfortunately, this effort has never been fully funded by Congress.

Whether the impact of the ACA is successful on our prevention efforts depends heavily on individuals getting and staying enrolled in health coverage. The Community Advocates Public Policy Institute has been heavily involved in researching and advocating for solutions to help individuals make their payments so they can stay insured. We were excited by CVS’s recent announcement that each of their retail stores will soon become a location for individuals to pay health insurance premiums.

A primary objective for all of us working in the prevention field should be ensuring that all individuals are enrolled in quality and affordable health coverage. A number of resources are available to help individuals enroll, including and

‘Put the Guns Down’ event brings more than 100 together

Well over 100 young people filled the site of the Our Next Generation Neighborhood Center at N. 34th Street and W. Lisbon Ave., on Wednesday, June 4, to echo a common message: “Put the Guns Down.”

This combined effort of Westside Academy II and Serve-2-Unite was designed by the teenagers themselves, according to Jennifer Koss, a 7th and 8th grade teacher at the Academy.  They distributed more than 2,000 flyers going door-to-door throughout the neighborhood, stood along Lisbon Avenue to hold up signs advertising the event and distributed information and peace bracelets to participants.

Enthusiasm among the teens was clearly evident as folks from the neighborhood (mainly under eighteen years of age) entered the structure.

Television crews from two Milwaukee stations (Channels 6 and 12) set up cameras and interviewed the young people, along with a few adults.  At least one radio station was present to conduct interviews.

The degree to which gun violence affects the neighborhoods was demonstrated when one of the presenters asked those in the audience to stand if they witnessed various forms of violence, saw guns, had friends with guns and similar questions.  For most of the questions a majority stood, in some cases a good 90 percent stood, an indication of how great the gun violence has been in the neighborhood.

A discussion on possible solutions followed, with the youth gathering in small groups to share ideas and solutions. “They`re going to get the chance to present them to the adults and say ‘this is what we think should happen,’” Koss said.

The program received funds from the Coming Together Partnership to Prevent Gun Violence to cover costs of giveaways and other materials.

View the media reports:

Channel 6:

Channel 12:!WIa6B

88.9 Radio Milwaukee:

Moving Milwaukee Forward through Mental Health Awareness


Earlier this month, Dontre Hamilton laid down to nap in Red Arrow Park just moments before he was shot to death by MPD.  What may have appeared to be a restless and violent aggressor to police, was actually a man running scared from the paranoia and the voices caused by the schizophrenia which, according to family members, had tortured him for some time. 

Many questions arise from this scenario.  First, why was an individual with schizophrenia still dealing with such severe symptoms after being diagnosed?  Why was an individual with mental illness unable to seek shelter? And lastly, why did those who encountered Dontre view him as a criminal – calling the cops, rather than lending out a helping hand?

Surely, there are many underlying implications for why Dontre was criminalized rather than helped, but most evident in this case is the stigma that our society casts upon the mentally ill and our incapability of appropriately identifying and treating mental illness. 

Our society’s inability to appropriately deal with mental health is also very visible in the investigation of the Milwaukee County Mental Health Complex. In 2012, there were a reported six preventable deaths that took place at the complex. 

Given our tendency to stigmatize the mentally ill, those affected are often marginalized and go untreated, ending up homeless, in jails and prisons and–worse yet–dying from preventable medical conditions.  According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, approximately 26% of the homeless residing in shelters live with mental illness, while 20% of prisoners and 21% of local jail prisoners have a history of a mental health condition. 

According to NAMI, 60% of adults and 50% of youth with mental illness received no treatment for their medical condition – with even higher rates within African-American and Latino populations.  These gaps in treatment are detrimental to those affected.  Because such behaviors are interpreted as socially unacceptable or criminal, individuals with mental illness are more likely to be denied basic rights such as housing or employment – while the lack of understanding of mental illness makes it less likely for an individual to be pointed in the direction of treatment and on the path to recovery. 

There needs to be greater understanding and ability to identify individuals who are suffering from mental illness. Whether it is the training of police officers, educators or employers, such disorders need to be identified earlier on.  Those suffering from mental illness need to not only receive emergency care when their health is most severe, but we need to create institutions and programs that can provide prolonged and on going treatment that can secure stability and sustained mental health. 

We need to foster a culture that does not push these individuals to the margin, but rather seeks for them the care they so desperately need. In efforts toward doing so, it is imperative that we create greater awareness around mental illness.  Our misconceptions do the most harm to these vulnerable populations.  If we can be more alert and aware of the issue at hand we will be that much closer to ensure a life of dignity and well-being for those dealing with mental illness.

Teen Pregnancy Prevention Successes are Just the Beginning


Milwaukee has done a tremendous job in turning around our high rates of teenage pregnancy. In 2008, the only major city in the nation with a higher rate of teen pregnancy than Milwaukee was Philadelphia. Prior to that, Milwaukee had been ranked within the top five cities for over a decade.

Due to a sustained and concerted effort involving many individuals and community partners, the teen birth rate has dropped by 50% since 2008. Although this is an amazing feat and we have much to celebrate, the work is still far from over.

There are still too many teenagers having babies, especially considering that the outcomes for both the teens and their children are often poor.  Teen mothers are much more likely to drop out of school compared to teenagers without children. According to the America’s Promise Alliance and The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, 30 percent of teen mothers cite pregnancy or parenting as the primary reason for dropping out of high school. The numbers of African American and Latino girls who drop out for this reason are even higher. Overall, only 40 percent of teenage mothers finish high school and only 2 percent finish college by age 30.

The economic ramifications of this statistic are self-evident. Without even a high school degree, it is extremely difficult to succeed in a global economy.  According to The Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, 67 percent of teen mothers living on their own live below the poverty line and only one quarter receive any kind of child support. Additionally, about 63 percent receive some kind of public assistance. These statistics have a direct negative impact on the nation’s economy.

Economic consequences aside, teenage girls are not mentally prepared for motherhood. Recent findings related to adolescent brain development demonstrate that the teen brain is far from fully developed–in particular, those features that reign in emotional and impulsive responses. The frontal lobes of the brain are not fully connected at this age. As a result, teens are more likely to display dangerous and addictive behaviors during this stage of development. This lack of ability to restrain impulses and, at times, to even think logically, can have huge ramifications for parenting.

The outcomes for the babies born to teen moms are also concerning. Children born to teen parents are often born into poverty and remain there throughout their lives. These children tend to be less ready for school and score significantly lower on math and reading measures of school readiness. According to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, children born to teen moms finished high school at a rate 15 percent lower than children born to older mothers.

Young pregnancies carry health risks for the children as well. Health issues for babies born to teen mothers include higher rates of prematurity and lower birth weights. These in turn can lead to greater chances of blindness, mental retardation, deafness, cerebral palsy, chronic respiratory issues and many other problems including sudden infant death.

Additionally, children of teen moms are twice as likely to abuse their own children. Their sons are more likely to go to prison and their daughters are much more likely to become pregnant themselves as teenagers. These are outcomes we don’t wish for our children.

So though we can congratulate ourselves on a job well done, our work isn’t finished until we end teen pregnancy completely. We cannot rest until it becomes standard to refrain from childbearing until an age at which a woman is fully prepared to raise those children.