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Local leaders working to tackle 'violence epidemic'

Photo by Lynne Deliman 
Community members weigh in on how to address gun violence during a June 23 public workshop.  


By Jamie Wiggan

More than 10% of homicides recorded in Allegheny County during the first six months of 2021 took place in the small communities of Stowe and McKees Rocks.

In addition to the six deaths tallied between January and June, countless more non-fatal shootings have also shaken the Sto-Rox communities.

Lee Davis, Allegheny County’s violence prevention coordinator, said this points to a “violence epidemic” that calls for solutions on the same scale as those employed around the world to tackle the coronavirus pandemic.

Searching for local solutions, community leaders have held a series of public workshops to pool resources and invite residents to weigh in on what’s needed to stem the bloodshed.

“There’s so many layers to this,” Davis said. “That’s why you see so many organizations at the table at these meetings, because everybody has to be a part of the solutions.” The sessions are being led by Grow Sto-Rox, a collaboration of local non-profits working in tandem with the school district to lift up the student body by strengthening all aspects of the community from human services, to economic development and everything between.

Overseeing the partnership is Communities in Schools of Pittsburgh, which provides holistic support to students and families of five area districts, including Sto-Rox.

More than 30 people packed a communal space at the back of the Second Baptist Church in McKees Rocks during a recent meeting June 23. The church is located just behind the Hays Manor public housing facility, which is reputed as a hotspot of crime and violence.

Pastor Michael Murray, who led a community-wide march for peace in 2019, emphasized solutions can’t just revolve around conversations and programming but must involve face-to-face contact with those caught up in cycles of violence.

“Occupy the spot,” he said. “We’ve got to go where they’re at.”

Some there spoke about the lack of stimulation on hand for youths of the deprived community.

“A lot of kids – including my own – they have nothing to do,” said Samantha Levitzki-Wright, Sto-Rox school board president.

Others said the programming is there, but for whatever reason few are taking advantage of it.

“We’re doing so much – but who knows it?” said Cynthia Haines, executive director at Focus on Renewal.

“When someone says there are no resources, it maddens me.”

Local law enforcement agencies are also joining the conversation, with McKees Rocks Chief Rick Deliman, Stowe Chief Matt Preininger and Michael Vogel, police chief for the Allegheny County Housing Authority, all attending some of the meetings.

While they were there to speak to the ways policing plays into the discussion on violence prevention, they stressed it doesn’t stop there.

“We’re not going to arrest our way out of this, that’s not the issue here,” Deliman said during the First Baptist meeting.

So what is the issue?

According to Davis, who has worked in violence prevention for 17 years, there are some clear priorities, but no easy solutions.

Parents affected by gun violence give birth to children who carry the trauma with them and pass it along when they in turn have children, he said. Breaking those chains takes deliberate – and skillful –intervention.

“You’ve got to have trauma support – someone who can talk to these kids,” he said. “You’ve got to have trained professionals who know how to deal with this and you’ve got to make it a priority.”

Taking on board input given during the workshops, Davis and the other Grow Sto-Rox partners are working to put together a violence prevention curriculum that will prioritize trauma support while also addressing the larger social and economic forces that exacerbate gun violence.

Davis has already met with some of the young men involved in recent Sto-Rox-area shootings, and he said many would quickly turn their lives around if they felt it was a realistic option.

“Most of these guys don’t want to do this, but when they get so far in it’s hard to get out,” he said.

Davis said his own life testifies to the alternative futures that could exist for them. It also gives him respect and standing when he meets with them to steer them in that direction.

“I was one of these kids – I lost a younger brother and seven first cousins to gun violence,” he said.

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