How one college in Boston is helping fight gun violence

Emerson is teaming with Massachusetts General Hospital and a community organization to try to change the narrative.
By: | December 3, 2021
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The stories of gun violence in the United States never seem to subside. Four students slain inside a Michigan school. More than 40 shot in Chicago on Thanksgiving weekend. Nearly 19,000 gun-related deaths in America this year.

In Boston, the brutality might not be as rampant as in other major U.S. cities, but the pain is just as strong.

“I’m an emergency physician and I’ve personally witnessed too many of these tragic stories,” said Dr. David Brown, President of Massachusetts General Hospital. “I’ve pressed my fingers against bullet holes desperate to stop bleeding. I’ve had to deliver the worst possible news to distraught families. I’ve sat with emotional clinicians as we tried to process yet another needless death. There are lessons in these stories that can shine a light on this public health crisis that can help us figure out how to prevent deaths and injuries.”

To that end, the hospital’s Center for Gun Violence Prevention, along with the city’s Louis D. Brown Peace Institute, will get the chance to help share those tales and offer potential solutions through a unique, three-year partnership with Emerson College. The 141-year-old downtown institution is offering its expertise in an array of study fields to help bring these stories to life while attempting to change the dynamic. “We’re committed to disrupting this pattern,” said Eric Gordon, Professor and Director of the Engagement Lab at Emerson College. “Yes, we need new policies. Yes, we need new practices. But first, we need to reimagine the stories we tell about the impact of guns on our lives.

“Through more than a dozen semester-long studies, Emerson students and faculty will work alongside community-based organizations and individuals directly impacted by gun violence to create narrative interventions through performing arts, documentary film, new media, poetry, and more. We will imagine new distribution strategies, new organizational interventions and new data visualizations to substantially alter how we talk and think about the impact of guns in our city, and surrounding community.”

Leaders from the three factions—along with City Councilor Andrea Campbell and Congresswoman Ayanna Presley—came together virtually Thursday to share their own stories and views on violence that has gripped the city while addressing the new endeavor, entitled Transforming Narratives of Gun Violence.

“What I love about this initiative is it breaks down the silos to bring us all together and centers those individuals in the work,” Campbell said. “In government, we often need to get out of the way and allow those who know what they’re doing to lead the way. The majority of residents that do this work are survivors. They’re resilient, they are strong, they are compassionate, they’re empathetic, and they are leaders.”

Dr. Peter Masiakos, director of pediatric trauma services at Mass General Hospital for Children and co-chair of the Center for Gun Violence Prevention, was blunt in his analysis of the crisis facing the nation and the need for this collaboration. “Four more children were killed, and several others were injured in another school shooting in America this week,” he said. “No child should have to live with this persistent fear of being shot and killed, and no parent should ever experience this loss. We must do more … and hopefully impact more than just saying that we will.”

The Center’s other co-chair, internist and Harvard Medical School instructor Dr. Chana Sacks, agreed. Like 44% of Americans, she shared her own personal story of gun violence tragedy. Her cousin’s son, at 7 years old, was shot and killed inside a first-grade classroom at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut in December 2012.

“In the face of that, we’re sitting here together,” she said. “What this collaborative is about is about so much hope, to see what this course curriculum is going to look like and figure out how we make these ideas a reality over the coming years. This group of people sees these massive problems and instead of cowering, they’re inspired and they become creative. And they approach this with no fear and this belief that we can do better. The most amazing journeys are the ones where you know the mission is right.”

That mission is beginning on the ground and in higher education in Boston.

“The work does not begin in Congress. It begins in community with partnerships like the one that we’re launching today, informed by those closest to the pain,” Pressley said. “I believe that people closest to the pain should be the closest to the power driving and informing the policymaking.”