‘We lose so many kids’

In this month’s Beyond Bullets Interview, Alisa Watkins-Monroe talks about the trauma she sees way before people pick up a gun – and what she and her colleagues are doing to stop it from getting there.
Alisa Watkins-Monroe, a Black woman with long black hair, stands next to a brick wall and waves to someone off-camera.

The first was her 16-year-old cousin. Then her stepson. The others aren’t relatives, they’re the kids Alisa Watkins-Monroe has bonded with over the years as a School Resource Officer at Loy Norrix High School, a maternal child health worker, a substance abuse prevention organization,  a housing advocate, and now in her role as Community Outreach Worker at Group Violence Intervention (GVI).

“I get so tore up and passionate behind this because we lose so many kids,” Watkins-Monroe says in this month’s Beyond Bullets Interview.

Watkins-Monroe and colleagues identify and provide alternatives for young people at risk of involvement with gun violence, as well as help guide those who have already gone down that road and want off. This year has already set a record for homicides by gun in Kalamazoo, with an increasingly younger age of victims and shooters. From this vantage point, she sees the crisis in stark terms.

“What we can do to make it better is to get better with figuring out what the kids need before they become teenagers, so these kids don’t just go into high school like this,” Watkins-Monroe says. “We can talk all day, but if we’re not listening to what they need or listening to what they don’t have, we’re just going in circles. And, and we’re gonna keep going in circles and we’re gonna keep paying for funerals.”

From your perspective, what factors have contributed to the prevalence of gun violence in Kalamazoo?

“We have streets here on the Northside– Church Street, Frank Street, North Street, Douglas, all of these streets run together. But in the same sense, they’re all divided because we have different blocks that are associated with each other. So they go into the schools and they have these blocks and because that’s all they know and that’s all they’ve heard, they believe that this is what they should do. ‘We are not supposed to be friends. We are not supposed to hang out. I’m supposed to have more money than him. I should have a bigger gun than him and I should be cooler than him.’”

“Being in poverty is a huge factor in being on either side of the gun. I always say, how do we give our community the promise when we can’t even promise them a good place to live? We can’t even promise them that they’re gonna eat today. We can’t promise them that they’re gonna have two parents in their household. You know, we can’t promise that their dad is gonna live to see them welcome them down the aisle. We can’t promise them with maternal child health that their mother (is) gonna make it through labor because she didn’t have her proper care going into labor and she dies on the table. But we have the promise. We promised them what? That if they decide to go to college, they might make it. Or if they go to college with the promise, they’re still in the streets because they’re still trying to survive. What’s the promise?”

“That’s poverty. That’s poverty. That’s trauma. Trauma. That’s hurt. Hurt. And then they go to school and then they come back to the same situation.”

What’s your role in Group Violence Intervention?

I’m resources … We had a young man that was getting in a lot of trouble. So B (Yafinceio Harris) called me to kind of mediate between him and his sister. So we put him in a room, we mediated. And before the meeting was over, we had him hugging and holding hands. Come to find out when their mom died unexpectedly, they both were hurting from this … I asked him to hold hands. I asked him to look at each other and tell each other what was wrong. They said the same exact thing, ‘mom died and we never talked about it.’”

What do you believe is the solution(s) to eliminating gun violence in Kalamazoo?

Teaching emotional regulation

“Learning how to deal with our own emotions because nobody teaches us how to deal with that. When you go through trauma, all you know is trauma. So like they say, ‘hurt people, hurt people,’ hurt people don’t have to hurt people because we can intervene and figure out why they’re hurting before they hurt.”

Getting GVI into schools

“If we (GVI) go into the school system to meet these kids where they’re at, we can talk to them, ask them, ‘what can we do to help you?’… Let’s get together, figure out what these kids individually need and what we can do to help them.”

“If we recognize that they have drugs in the school, we do things to prevent the drugs. Security guards are trained to administer Narcan, security guards should be trained to administer gun violence information. Let’s get together and figure out when the kids come into school, we know who’s feeling threatened. Young man got killed on the south side right after school, before school got out. Didn’t even make it to his last day of school. When they found his backpack. He had a gun in his backpack. Guess what? That gun was in school all day. Did anybody know that?

Uniting as community organizations

“We need to bring all of our organizations together.” “We’re too busy fighting, trying to figure out who’s doing more than who and who has more than, who’s getting the most grants… This community is more than a million dollars with all of our grants together, let’s give our kids some. This million dollar community can clean up Fox Ridge. This million dollar community can clean up Interfaith.”

Investing in kids before there’s harm done

“Let’s normalize life insurance as opposed to normalizing funeral costs. Let’s normalize where a family can come when they’re getting DHS assistance. Take $25 after the DHS allotment and put it toward life insurance because no matter how it goes, how good of a family it is, 10% of that family is at risk of being caught in some kind of violence, whether it’s child neglect, whether it’s gun violence, whether it’s drug addiction. DHS has every entity in that place to give us $25 out of each person’s month.”

“We pay (for) a person (to) come out of prison with the recidivism program and get two years paid college tuition. They don’t pay nothing. If they go to college, they get a degree. But we have people coming outta school that fall off and need a new start finding some financial aid…It’s not fair. We can go in our community right now and meet up with young people that are probably homeless and Martin Luther King Park, what can I do to help you? Some of ’em might want education, but because they’ve never been to prison, they don’t qualify for that. Make that make sense.”

What do you view as the most significant barriers to creating a violent-free Kalamazoo?

“A few GVI members and a few members in the other entities  in the community have a past. So their past doesn’t allow them to be in the schools.

“GVI needs to be supported as far as to be able to get in a position to teach without being shunned (for) the guys (who) don’t have the best records. They might not have the best records, but they have the best mindsets… GVI has experience. GVI, they’ve lived, they’ve been to prison. They’ve been in situations that put them in prison that they know now that if they knew what they knew then they wouldn’t have went to prison. But because they didn’t have anybody to teach them to not do what they was doing to go to prison, let them teach these young men, this is what you do to stay out of prison… We have to get these young mens with a different mindset. Right now, all they know is kill, kill and survive.”

What can those in positions of power learn from the action you’ve taken?

“Learn to listen and not just talk, learn to take in what we see and learn from that. What we can do to make it better is to get better with figuring out what the kids need before they become teenagers, so these kids don’t just go into high school like this. These kids are coming from elementary hurt and growing up that way. When you have a kid in elementary that is acting out, fighting, beating up teachers, and he’s nine. Oh honey, believe me when I tell you, when he hits ninth grade, it’s on and popping because he will be carrying, because right now he’s protecting himself as a little man. We can talk all day, but if we’re not listening to what they need or listening to what they don’t have, we’re just going in circles. And, and we’re gonna keep going in circles and we’re gonna keep paying for funerals.”

For community members who may feel helpless in the face of such a complex issue, how do you empower them to become part of the solution?

“Support our kids while they’re growing up. And make ’em so they can get the promise, the promise of living until they’re 25. GVI wants to promise our kids that being 15 is not a milestone …

We have the young man that died the other day. He has two babies and his girlfriend is pregnant. So as a community, what I would’ve liked to have done, and I’m not gonna say I’m not gonna do it now, is be a hundred percent behind this family to show our community that we can do this. She lost him, but she don’t have to lose us… As a community, we can come together and just like they’re killing each other, we can kill that.”

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