Woodson Weighs in on Gun Violence, Supporting Solutions Within the Community

Robert Woodson, a civil rights activist, MacArthur “genius” grant recipient and founder of national nonprofit the Woodson Center, says that the problems a community faces — violence, need for housing, financial illiteracy — have to be solved by members of the same community. 

“The solutions are in the same zip code as the problem, but we’re not investing there,” he said. 

The Woodson Center provides funding to community leaders who have already spent time making themselves available to the community, but don’t have the resources to do their work on a larger scale. 

Woodson’s idea of investing in grassroots organizations is now starting to be seen as a solution to one particular problem in Connecticut: gun violence. 

“The solutions are in the same zip code as the problem, but we’re not investing there,” said Woodson.

In a press conference earlier this month, State Senators Douglas McCrory, D-Hartford, Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, Marilyn Moore, D-Bridgeport and Patricia Billie Miller, D-Stamford, called for the money that the state collects through legalizing and taxing marijuana to be directed toward community-based programs that work with youth and teens to prevent gun violence.

These programs, which include Project Longevity, Compass Youth Collaborative, the Connecticut Violence Intervention Program and Hartford Communities That Care, provide support to families and victims in the hospital after a shooting, do mediation work on the sheets, and provide safe spaces where young people can go after school and get a meal, study or just hang out. 

The conference came in response to the murders of three-year-old Randell Tarez Jones and sixteen-year-old Ja’Mari Preston earlier this month. 

“Nothing can change as long as the community’s being terrorized,” Woodson said. “It has to stop it and it won’t be stopped by talking about ending systemic racism.”

Woodson said that high murder rates are one of the most pressing problems in the communities he works with, and that part of the problem is that people aren’t willing to place money behind initiatives that will make a real difference.

“Nothing can change as long as the community’s being terrorized,” he said. “It has to stop it and it won’t be stopped by talking about ending systemic racism.”

When Woodson wants to find potential leaders, he said, he goes into grocery stores, barber shops and hairdressers, and asks them who people turn to when they need help. 

“Kids are more influenced by witnesses than they are advocates or therapists or professional advisers,” he said. “That person has the moral authority and the trust of the people, and young people listen to them.”

“I look for people who initiated a trusting relationship with people and started to help people when there was no money,” he said. “People who have selflessly given up themselves to help their neighbor.”

Woodson said individuals who have moved away from past experiences with violence are in a unique position to become positive role models. 

“Kids are more influenced by witnesses than they are advocates or therapists or professional advisers,” he said. “That person has the moral authority and the trust of the people, and young people listen to them.”

Faith leaders, too, can be important players in these efforts — but only if they practice what they preach.

“People want to see a gospel. They want to see a sermon,” he said. “They don’t want to hear any more sermons.” 

Once he’s found a leader, the next step is to figure out what resources they need. 

“Intervention is more than just stopping kids from fighting and whatnot, killing, because you can’t take something from someone without replacing it with something,” he explained. “You’ve got to enable people to then move from preventing violence to rebuilding their own lives and the lives of the community.” 

“A lot of these people, they’re like social entrepreneurs,” he explained. “Entrepreneurs in the marketplace tend to be very creative people, but they’re also poor bookkeepers.” 

He said that the funding and administrative help the center offers lets them hire other people in the community and expand their work to reach more people. Sometimes, he said, the community leader is able to quit a job and work in community outreach or violence prevention full time. 

Woodson said he worked with Andrew Woods, the executive director of Hartford Communities That Care, a nonprofit that partners with hospitals and local law enforcement to provide victims of shootings and their families with medical care, housing services and help navigating the criminal justice system.  

“Most of what these groups suffer from –it’s just complete isolation. I mean, neither people on the right or left take seriously supporting indigenous leaders in these communities.” 

Woodson said that organizations like Woods’ succeed because they give young adults safe spaces to go and constructive projects to take part in. 

“Intervention is more than just stopping kids from fighting and whatnot, killing, because you can’t take something from someone without replacing it with something,” he explained. “You’ve got to enable people to then move from preventing violence to rebuilding their own lives and the lives of the community.” 

Woodson said that in one program he supported, 18 former gang members became football coaches for younger children. In another program in Milwaukee, they hired young men to work in the public schools to resolve disputes in the hallways so that the teachers could focus on education rather than discipline. 

“You take those leaders and make them mentors. And then there become surrogate big brothers and fathers to the kids there. And that’s how you really rebuild community from the inside out,” he said.  

According to statistics from the Department of Public Health, there were 911 violent deaths from firearms in Connecticut between 2015 and 2019. Sixty-five percent were suicides, and thirty-five percent homicides. Of the homicides, 87 percent were men. Fifty-eight percent of homicide victims were Black and 23 percent were Hispanic. 

“You take those leaders and make them mentors. And then there become surrogate big brothers and fathers to the kids there. And that’s how you really rebuild community from the inside out,” he said.  

The rate of homicides increased during the pandemic. Andrew Woods, of Hartford Communities that Care, said during a forum on Friday that there were 222 people shot last year in Hartford, an increase of 56 percent compared with 2019. 

But according to Susan Logan, the supervising epidemiologist with the Injury and Violence Surveillance Unit in the department’s Office of Injury Prevention, the state receives almost no federal funding for homicide prevention programs.  

And according to Woodson, government-funded programs run by professional service providers have their own problems. One big one is that the employees are generally required to have certain qualifications, like a bachelor’s degree — which Woodson said has nothing to do with whether or not someone is an effective community leader. 

Woodson said the government can play a constructive role by offering funding for these projects. But he said that generally there’s little interest. 

“Most of what these groups suffer from –it’s just complete isolation. I mean, neither people on the right or left take seriously supporting indigenous leaders in these communities.” 

“There’s no outrage when the three-year-old is killed,” he said, referencing the shooting in Hartford. “You don’t even know the name of the child.” 

Woodson said that the way that these communities are talked about, both in politics and in the press, also needs to change. 

“There’s no outrage when the three-year-old is killed,” he said, referencing the shooting in Hartford. “You don’t even know the name of the child.” 

Instead, he said, the conversation focuses too much on systemic racism, rather than the power of individuals to make an impact. 

“We need to de-racialize race,” he said. “As long as people are fanning the flames of racial divisions … as long as communities and the press are permitted to use the Black community as a political weapon … [we’re] going to continue to see declines in these communities.”

“The worst thing you can do to young blacks is tell them if they’re killing and shooting [at] the children it’s not their fault — that somehow white people are responsible for that. That message has to stop,” he added. 

Woodson told a story of two girls who, despite living in their car and in homeless shelters, graduated valedictorian and salutatorian of their class and went on to college. He said these were the types of stories he would like to see told. 

“They ought to be made heroes. We ought to be asking how they did it. They should be on the front pages of papers,” he said. “Deep in the DNA … in this country is a desire to really support virtue in action.”

Latest from Emilia Otte