Featured photo: Ingram Bell works as the program manager at Gate City Coalition, the Greensboro branch of Cure Violence. (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)

This past Tuesday marked the 10-year anniversary since Ingram Bell was shot in the head. At the time, she was with her boyfriend in a car when a man pulled up next to them and shot her point blank. Her boyfriend had been in a fight with the person who shot her a few weeks before and Bell was shot in retaliation. That’s where Bell’s journey to fight gun violence began.

“I thought, this is the time that we need to band together and fight against violence instead of being angry,” she said.

Bell currently works as the program manager for Gate City Coalition, the Greensboro branch of the national organization, Cure Violence which works to end gun violence through preventative measures.

And as gun violence continues to surge across the country, with numbers on track to surpass incidents in 2020, Gate City Coalition is seeing measurable changes brought upon by their unique prevention approach.

According to an analysis of data by CBS News, homicides in 24 major cities increased by 24 percent in the first quarter of 2021 compared to the same time period in 2020. In Winston-Salem, there have been 17 gun homicides so far this year. In 2020, the city had 24, according to data from the police department. In Greensboro, data provided by the police department shows that the city’s numbers are trending significantly downwards. During the period of January to July, the city saw 54 firearm homicides for 2020. This year, the number is less than half at just 22. One such explanation could be the city’s effort to take more guns off of the street, according to Ron Glenn, the police department’s public information officer. Earlier this year, Police Chief Brian James suggested increasing officer pay to recruit more police to curb violent crime. Activists pushed back on that notion and urged more funding for community initiatives like Cure Violence.

‘We go where most police officers can’t’

Cure Violence was first brought to Greensboro in 2019 when city council unanimously voted to allocate $500,000 to the program. The initiative is administered by One Step Further, a nonprofit owned and operated by Mayor Pro Tem Yvonne Johnson. In the past, city council member Michelle Kennedy has also praised the program, noting that “the outcomes are proving that it works.”

The initiative, which has grown to dozens of cities across the country and the world, looks at violence as an epidemic, much like a contagious disease. Rather than relying on policing to tackle the problem, Cure Violence takes a multiprong preventative approach by looking at the root causes of violence. One of the most well-known aspects of the program is the use of mediators or messengers who are deployed to victims’ families to talk them out of retaliating to eliminate the possibility of more violence.

Currently the Gate City Coalition operates in two target areas in the city: the Smith Homes neighborhood, tucked between Freeman Mill Road and Randleman Road in the southern part of Greensboro, and along the Martin Luther King Jr. Drive corridor from Bennett to Douglas Street. Since the program’s implementation almost two years ago, the area has seen virtually no homicides. Last year, when gun violence began to spike across the country, none of the murders through July had taken place in the areas where Cure Violence is active. This year, according to Bell, only two homicides have occurred in their territory. And that’s because of the exhaustive work that she and her team engage in.

Written on a whiteboard in their office is a weekly schedule of the employees’ duties for the week. On Mondays, the staff at Gate City Coalition set a weekly agenda and conduct meetings. On Tuesdays they hit the streets and pass out flyers about their program and on Wednesdays, they accompany their participants to court. On Thursdays, they go to the hospital to mediate conflicts and on Fridays they do whatever work is left for the week. And that’s if everything goes to plan.

This past Tuesday, Bell and Starmecca Parham, the lead outreach worker for the organization, tidied up their office which is tucked away in a neglected strip mall off of Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in Greensboro. Parham cleared off the large conference table in the back room and swept the floor, collecting a small plastic child’s toy with dirt and dustbunnies as she worked. In the background, Bell lit a bundle of sage and placed it gently in a bowl on her desk.

“I sage daily,” Bell explained. “It clears the room and brings in the peace before we talk about homicides.”

The goal of Cure Violence is in the name — to cure violence, a lofty target that’s easier said than done. Most people familiar with the program think of it as a crime-prevention method that seeks to mediate between parties of conflict. And while that constitutes a portion of the work, Bell says that’s really just a fraction of what they do.

On Tuesday afternoon, Bell and Parham met with a local organizer, Omari West, about planning an event to feed homeless individuals in their target area in September. Earlier in the afternoon, they accompanied a 21-year-old man to court for his bond hearing. He had been arrested earlier this year while attempting to mediate a conflict. On Wednesday, they’ll be speaking at the corner of South Street and Randleman Road to raise awareness about a shooting that took place over the weekend in which a young man was shot and killed in his car while he was at a stop sign. The goal is to show the community that they’re there to grieve with everyone and to show that violence shouldn’t beget more violence.

“It’s not an easy job because when dealing with the family members; it’s really touchy,” Bell said. “We have to be able to be trusted by our community because we have to have uncomfortable conversations. We go where most police officers can’t because they don’t trust the police.”

Bell says Cure Violence is so effective, in part, because she and others in the program are well-connected to the community they serve. She points to the fact that her mother, whose portrait hangs on a wall in the office, was a foster mother to dozens of children in the city.

“I’m a sibling to 100 people,” Bell said. “That’s why I’m effective: because I’m able to reach people that a lot can’t. That’s how my team is; we reach people that most can’t.”

Of the seven staff members who currently work for Gate City Coalition, Bell says many are connected to local gangs or are inactive members of gangs. They know who to look for when a problem occurs, even who to be aware of before violence occurs.

“We go straight to those that we know have access to being a problem or have been a problem,” Bell said. “We look for known gun carriers or known gang members or known felons. And then we build that person from the inside out.

“Having those relationships and having inroads in the community helps us keep an ear to the street because we can’t be everywhere at all times,” she continued. “So having those in the community that are willing to talk to us and trust us because we are them and they are us, helps open up a line of communication.”

‘We work on the entire individual’

Ingram Bell stands in front of the large maps that hang on the walls at the Gate City Coalition office. They display the target areas in which the program works. (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)

In addition to acting to prevent violence through mediation, Bell and her team work to get at the root causes of violence like poverty, homelessness, unemployment and other systemic issues.

The work is exhausting and never-ending but that’s what makes it different from a top-down punitive approach like policing, Bell says.

“We work to make people a more viable citizen in the city so they don’t commit crimes,” Bell said. “So they can focus on their lives like their jobs and their families. If they have something to focus on they’ll do that…. We work on the entire individual rather than working on just bits and pieces and just violence. If we do that, then violence takes a back seat.”

Currently the program targets individuals ages 16-24 with 32 participants. They work to help find stable jobs and housing for their participants, in addition to prevention work. But a lack of funding and being restricted to just two target areas means that they can’t necessarily have the impact they want to have, Bell says.

“We’re hoping for more funding for next year,” she said. “And we’re hoping to extend the target areas and get another target area in the city.”

In addition to the $500,000 they got for 2020, the program got another $500,000 last year to operate in 2021. Bell says it’s not enough. She looks to cities like Durham, where Cure Violence has been successful and has had the support of both the city council and county commissioners. Earlier this year, Durham city council agreed to spend close to $1,000,000 to hire more staff for Bull City United, the city’s branch of Cure Violence, according to the News and Observer. And that’s the kind of support they need in Greensboro, Bell says. Rather than pour more money law enforcement, Bell says she could use that money for restorative programs like GED classes to help lift people out of situations that would lead them to be violent.

“Police are here to stop crime; they come after it’s over, that’s their job,” Bell says. “Their job is to arrest criminals. Our side is more restorative, trying to build the human up…. I understand we need the police for certain things, but overpolicing in our Brown and Black communities, that’s not it.”

Greensboro activist Casey Thomas also noted in an interview from April that she believes more funding should go to programs like Cure Violence, rather than to police departments.

“I would encourage the city to really look at the Cure Violence program,” said Thomas. “You do need to target your response. It can’t just be that we change these [police] policies broadly over the next 15 or 20 years, but the genius with that program is that it targets it directly.”

 Bell says she would use an increase in funds to create more community centers and to host more events like their annual Trunk or Treats and Thanksgiving turkey giveaways and Christmas toy drives. She wants to see people given opportunities so they don’t feel like their only option is to turn to violence.

“No one understands that this is a holistic approach,” she says. “You can’t just focus on violence. Even though we are a violence prevention program, you can’t prevent violence if the person isn’t whole or is broken.”

But to do that, they need more buy-in from the city and county leaders for more funding.

“I feel like we can save us,” Bell says. “The community can save each other because we’ll listen to each other before we listen to the police officers.”

Members of Cure Violence will be rallying at the corner of South Street and Randleman Rd. on Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. to bring light to a recent shooting. To learn more about Gate City Coalition follow them on Facebook. To learn more about Cure Violence, visit cvg.org.

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