Preventing Gun Violence: In-Depth Series

This special series of interviews explores the issue of gun violence in the United States, and highlights some of the most innovative entrepreneurs and cross-sector initiatives tackling the problem.

Second-term Mayor of Philadelphia Michael Nutter is on a mission to get people talking about and actively engaged in preventing everyday gun violence that doesn’t make the headlines. In 2011, Mayor Nutter and New Orleans Mayor Landrieu founded Cities United, a collaborative effort among mayors, foundations, nonprofits, federal agencies, and individuals to interrupt the cycle of violence across the United States, specifically among urban African-American males.

Rachael Chong: Share with us what Cities United is and why you believe it’s such an important cause.

Mayor Nutter: Cities United is a collaborative effort among a variety of partners, including probably 50 mayors, the Casey Family Programs, the Knight Foundation, the Open Society Foundations, National League of Cities, the US Conference of Mayors, and others; we all partner together and focus on the issue of violence in the African-American community, its disproportionately negative impact on black males, and the best practices that we can utilize to get at the root causes of violence—whether it’s poverty, illiteracy, health issues, lack of job opportunity, easy access to weapons, inability to manage anger, or conflict resolution.

Black men are killed at disproportionately high rates, and overwhelmingly, the violence is black on black. Shootings, homicides, and violent crime in general are intra-racial. It rips out the heart and soul of a community. Seventy-five percent of the folks who are murdered in Philadelphia are black men and 80 percent of the people we arrest for homicide in Philadelphia are black men, so there are two sets of people and family members that are negatively affected: the victims and the perpetrators.

Mayor of Philadelphia Michael Nutter.

What programs do you think will impact the root causes?

Education should be first, last, and in the middle. It’s about helping people see a longer-term future for themselves. People who see themselves at 70 years old make different decisions than folks who aren’t sure they’re going to get out of their teens. We have to show young people that there is, in fact, a future and that—if you work hard, go to school, stay out of trouble—you, too, can be successful in America.

When we invest in early childhood education; when we make sure that children are getting the proper nutrition and health care; when we get parents actively engaged and paying attention to what’s going on in the lives of their children; when we create neighborhoods that are safe and support after school programs, recreation centers, libraries, art, culture, and music; when we do those kinds of things, we’ll actually have less crime.

What are some of the most promising initiatives for achieving this goal?

A lot of it starts with prevention. That’s one of the primary responsibilities of law enforcement agencies—trying to anticipate crime, going where the crime is, and using data to drive decision-making. But the police department by itself won’t solve the crime problem. We’ve expanded after-school programs. We’ve had more programs and services put into our recreation centers and libraries. We’re trying to increase funding for public education in a more sustained, recurring way, as well as take steps to create as many jobs as possible, make it easier to do business in Philadelphia, and focus on folks returning from prison—we want to help them get the education or training they need so they can go on to be productive citizens as well. You have to do a lot of things well over a sustained period of time.

It’s an opportunity to take what is often seen as a very negative aspect of big cities across America and create an environment where people value each other, value opportunity, and see a clear path: “If I do a and b and c, then I can find myself in a very, very different situation, where I’m just working and I’m not getting shot at.”

What are some of the initiatives that foundations are committing to?

Casey Family Programs is looking at how they assist us in putting a point person on the ground and possibly even attached to the city government—a person whose primary focus and responsibility would be making sure Cities United grows and flourishes in those local communities.

One of the challenges in the aftermath of the recession is trying to bring on new people. It’s easier if you’re bringing on someone who somebody else pays. So that’s a part of the model that we’re looking at. There would be implementation officers in a variety of cities across the country, possibly supported by the philanthropic community, to help a particular mayor and a number of partners and agencies stay on point, develop their plan, and execute it.

What is your biggest challenge?

The larger issue for me is how we make sure that we maximize the focus and the attention on the issue at hand—that black men are killing black men at epidemic levels, and the question is, “What are we going to do about it?”

People are dying in the streets of America and not a whole lot of people are paying attention to them. It’s not generally newsworthy. Maybe on your local channel, but it’s not driving the 24-hour, 7-days-a-week news cycle on cable television. And in the meantime, communities are ripping apart. This is a serious issue for just about every small, medium, or large city across America.

What are you seeing as innovative ways to draw attention to this issue?

I think old media, new media, social media—whichever route you want to go, you have to use all those means of communication. It’s a long-term, sustained effort about changing a culture, often times fairly specific to the African-American community, which is not monolithic; it has any number of challenges up and down the socio-economic spectrum.

We won one of the $1 million grants from the Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Mayor’s Challenge. We’re putting many of our issues and challenges out into the public sphere through a program called Fast Forward, which gets entrepreneurs to look at the issue of public safety. Normally, the government thinks it will not only take the lead, but also generate the ideas. And what we’re saying is, we have a bunch of ideas, but we’d like some other people to take a look at the same issue and try to figure out new and innovative ways to make the city a safer place.

The next post in this series will feature writer, entrepreneur, and composer Mike de la Rocha, who launched The Living Rooms Across America Tour last year.