'Hungry to get to an answer': Dozens of Peorians turn out to meet director of Illinois' new gun violence prevention office
The basement of St. Paul Baptist Church was unusually packed for a Tuesday morning.
Peoria Police Chief Eric Echevarria was there, alongside Peoria County State's Attorney Jodi Hoos and Mayor Dr. Rita Ali.
There were members of the clergy, activists, neighbors, OSF HealthCare trauma surgeons who remove bullets from bodies, therapists who offer PTSD counseling.
Members of the Peoria Park District were there, as was the administrator of the Peoria City-County Health Department. Also in the crowd: survivors of gun violence and families of gun violence victims.
Like many cities around the country, Peoria is grappling with increased gun violence. This year, the city broke its year-to-date homicide record. Most of the victims are young Black men. Many of them are teenagers.
State Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth organized Tuesday's event with just a week's notice. She told WCBU she only sent out two emails. And yet, it seemed like the entire city showed up.
"I've never seen this cross section of folks in the same room, at the same time, quite frankly, with this same goal ... they are hungry to get to an answer," she said. "We are all tired. Of either, one, getting phone calls from people that we know that have been impacted by this, or, just as a community member. Turning on the news, reading the newspaper, listening to the reports about another, and another, and another homicide."
More than 50 people gathered to meet Chris Patterson, the director of the newly-formed Illinois Office of Firearm Violence Prevention (OFVP) — a creation of Gov. J.B. Pritzker in the wake of a record breaking year of homicides.
Though he's based in Chicago, Patterson is traveling the state to meet with communities most affected by gun violence. He visited Peoria first.
His presentation at St. Paul began with a PowerPoint. One slide described Pritzker's goal to find experts working in key areas of violence prevention: youth development, youth intervention, mental health supports, substance abuse treatment, re-entry and others.
A survivor of gun violence himself, Patterson shared personal insights into the crisis, telling the crowd he grew up in Cabrini Green, a one-time public housing complex in Chicago.
While he was exposed to gangs and shootings on a daily basis, his peers in Highland Park took karate lessons and joined Boys and Girls Clubs.
Expanding resources and options for children regardless of their socio-economic status is a key piece of youth violence intervention and prevention, he said.
"All our children are the same, right?" he said. "Our children are not born inherently violent or bad. But the environment and the circumstance ... shaped the way they do things. And so we want to be able to address, you know, youth who have gotten themselves in a little bit of trouble. How do we pull them out of that quagmire? And then the young people who haven't necessarily crossed over, keep making good decisions that they've been making."
Patterson's office plans to disburse $250 million over three years for violence prevention efforts. The first round of grant applications — known as "NOFOs," or Notice of Funding Opportunities, go live in January.
Currently, the state is in the process of creating 15 community-based Local Advisory Councils outside of Chicago. Once formed, these LACs will help Patterson's office determine how the money is distributed.
Gordon-Booth said she does not want to see 35 proposals coming out of Peoria. She charged Tuesday's crowd to think outside the box, and come up with proposals with other organizations doing similar but different work.
Without earnest collaboration, she said the community will not move forward.
"We can't do this alone." she said. "It can't just be the same, you know, handful of people that are always talking about violence. It literally is going to require the surgeons coming out of the surgery room. It is going to require some of these CEOs to come out of the room, and work with the folks, the guys that work on the ground.
"It is going to require some of the activists that may not have, like, had this loving relationship with the police, to understand that we need the police. We need clergy. We need, you know, the activists. We need the the guys who do street intervention. We need the folks who have been there, done that, been on that side of crime, and who have now made a life decision to be on this side ... to all work together."
Terry Burnside is the director of House of Hope, a South Peoria neighborhood nonprofit focused on trauma counseling and youth violence prevention and intervention.
Burnside also is a survivor of gun violence and the brother of a Peoria homicide victim. He said he's ready to heed Gordon-Booth's call.
"I've had a couple of requests, a couple of groups that are already in existence, they're doing other parts of the work," he said. "So they know that maybe, there's an area that they don't have, that I'm bringing to the table. And we're looking forward to that collaboration."
The Rev. Tyson Parks is pastor at Bethel United Methodist Church, and a member of Echevarria's community relations committee. He's also in Ali's S-net (Safety Network) program.
As he waited in line to introduce himself to Patterson, he told WCBU he felt hopeful for the future.
"I just wanted to commend him on the presentation," he said. "It provides hope. And they also reinforce the collaboration piece, which is essential, for this community to move forward. We're doing a lot of things already organically, but it just hammered that home."
In addition to funding community proposals, Patterson's office will provide technical assistance to Local Advisory Councils and grant recipients, and will connect local groups with researchers at Illinois universities who will be tracking statewide violence data in real time.
Gordon-Booth said there's not a minute to waste — if this funding is to make a difference in the summer of 2022, it needs to "hit the streets" before Memorial Day weekend.
"The wisdom is in the room," she said. "The answer to how we approach violence reduction in Peoria is in this room today."