Boston-area youth experts explored why guns are still a prevalent part of life for juveniles in urban areas in the final discussion of Emerson’s four-part series, Made in America: Our Gun Violence Culture, on April 25.
The discussion series was launched in the wake of the Newtown, Connecticut, school shooting as a way to promote dialogue on gun violence.
“This is a public health issue,” Emerson President Lee Pelton said in opening remarks before the discussion, held at the Jackie Liebergott Black Box Theater. “It costs this nation about $158 million a year. So it is very, very significant.”
Pelton said 20,000 youths will be injured by gun violence this year, compared to 13,000 who will be diagnosed with cancer.
“Our murder rate is three to five times higher than most industrialized countries,” said panel moderator Kim McLarin, assistant professor for the Writing, Literature and Publishing Department, and frequent commentator on WGBH’s Basic Black. “These young people are not operating in a vacuum [and] we cannot lay this completely at their feet.”
“Gun crime and violence is a very neighborhood-based kind of phenomenon,” said panelist Ed Dolan, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Youth Services. “Sixty-five percent of our kids come from 11 neighborhoods.”
Dana Betts, a panelist who works as director of programming for Roca Inc., said her Chelsea-based nonprofit group works directly with juvenile criminals to reduce violence.
“If you want to have an impact on violence, you want to make sure you’re working with a group that is actively involved in violence,” Betts said. “Because of the cycle of going in and out of jail, it’s not like they learn different behaviors or just wake up one day and say, ‘Now I’m not going to carry a gun anymore.’”
Panelist Michael Curry, president of the NAACP Boston Chapter, acknowledged, in response to a question, that there is a lack of African-American male mentors in the Boston Public Schools.
“One of the things we find disturbing is you’ve almost got to be perfect to be… a mentor,” Curry said. “I’ve stayed out of prison because I’ve had men come talk to me about what their experiences were like in prison.”
Josh Dohan, panelist and director of the Youth Advocacy Division of the state’s public defenders, said more attention is paid to the criminals than victims of crime, and that creates a negative cycle.
The United States has five percent of the world’s population [and] 25 percent of the world’s prisoners,” Dohan said, “[even] with all the evidence…that prison causes recidivism. Our response is to demonize part of the population and then disenfranchise them.”
Neil Maniar, panelist and director of Health Equity Programs at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, said violence is just one problem for poor neighborhoods with a plethora of other issues.
“In these areas that have high rates of violence, we also see accompanying disparities in cardiovascular disease, cancer, lack of safe and affordable housing, education and economic development,” said Maniar. “Violence happens in the context of that. It becomes part of the backdrop and it’s not really an outlier. It’s not something where people say, ‘Hey! What happened?!’”