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Forum says 'all hands on deck' needed to solve Peoria gun violence

WCBU 211113 Black Genocide Forum 2.jpg
Mike Rundle
The discussion was led by Agbara Bryson of New Millennium Institute.
Updated: November 24, 2021 at 7:30 PM CST
This story has been updated to add a featured link.

Community leaders say collaboration is essential to tackle the ongoing issue of gun violence in the Peoria area.

New Millennium Institute hosted a forum at Greater City of Refuge Church Saturday morning to discuss “genocide in the Black community.” Agbara Bryson of New Millennium hosted the event, and directed conversations on everything from mental healthcare to spiritual guidance as solutions for the city.

Across topics, the overarching message panelists sought to emphasize was the continued need for unity.

“Peoria has an abundance of programs and ideas, but it’s just trying to put them all together and having people play in the sandbox together for one goal,” said Director of School Safety for Peoria Public Schools Demario Boone. “Being in these silos, we’re not having the biggest effect we can have.”

A Peoria native, Boone discussed the continued effects of 20th century redlining in Peoria, a practice that he says currently manifests through increased levels of trauma and mental illness among children.

“In my sixteen years doing the job, I think this is probably the worst year I’ve seen with mental health,” said Boone.

Panelists conferred that destigmatizing mental health needs among children is crucial to slowing the trend of gun violence. Queena Howard, Outpatient Behavioral Health Manager at UnityPoint Health, pushed for community members to be mindful of their language when discussing solutions.

“That word ‘crazy’ has been utilized in a lot of communities before to demonize individuals who may have mental health issues,” said Howard. “We want to make sure that people understand people are not so-called ‘crazy’—people are struggling.”
Bernice Gordon-Young, a licensed psychotherapist with OSF HealthCare, added to Howard’s point saying that when children are operating with unaddressed trauma, when it comes to fight or flight, they are constantly in the “fight” mindset.

“Crime is particularly related to proximity,” said Gordon-Young. “There are family dynamics that are being affected, there’s poverty...so [we are] looking at the social determinants that are highly linked and correlated to violence.”

WCBU 211113 Black Genocide Forum 1.jpg
Mike Rundle
A panel consisting of community leaders in healthcare, faith, and more discusses solutions to Peoria's gun violence issue November 13 at Greater City of Refuge Church.

When it comes to that violence, Peoria Police Chief Eric Echevarria emphasized that the problem is hyperlocal, especially regarding the weapons themselves.

“Here, the guns are local,” said Echevarria. “We’ve had burglaries to these gun shops and over 300 guns have been stolen in and around Peoria, and we’ve recovered maybe half of them. Most people think they come from Chicago...they’re not coming from Chicago, they’re local.”

Echevarria also advocated for a joint effort to combat the issue of gun violence, and highlighted churches as a viable leader.

Pastor Chuck Brown of Victory Christian Church is one of many local faith leaders who have started a push for tangible change. For Brown, it’s come in the form of Harvest Supermarket.

“Our goal is to solve this food desert crisis that we’ve been experiencing on the south end and...to bring healthy food to the neighborhood, but also to work as a tool to reinvest in the community as well,” said Brown.

Brown says that the recent uptick in violence has presented a “challenge of epic proportion,” but he feels optimistic about the future.

“I think people are starting to see the importance of teamwork,” said Brown. “Challenges were never meant to destroy us, but challenges allow us to become better people. Most of the great ones have been the ones who were able to solve problems.”

Boone says the attitude at Peoria Public Schools is similar, despite recent setbacks like the highly-publicized fight at Peoria High School.

“Anytime we have any [negative] press...the team gets more hungry to fix the issue,” said Boone. “I love sitting in meetings with [Superintendent Dr. Sharon Kherat] because any bad press or publicity that comes on, she’s already steamrolling how to fix certain things. We don’t sit in the mud.”

While he hopes the positive attitude will continue to spread, Boone reiterates that partnerships will be critical moving forward.

“Peoria Public Schools can’t do the full lifting by itself—the community has to help,” said Boone. “I’m talking about the village as a whole. Peoria Public Schools only has so much reach, and if we collaboratively work with the village, then we’ll fix the issue.”

Gordon-Young is clear-sighted on the issue of local gun violence, and is ready to bring solutions to those who need them most.

“We’re in a crisis. We’re in a state of emergency, and it’s important that we act with urgency and with intentionality, but also really work to reach the people which we’re really talking about,” said Gordon-Young. “That means we need all hands on deck.”

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