Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza announced a $2.6 million anti-violence initiative Jan. 12 aimed at reducing gun-related violence in the city through a “three-pronged approach” that includes “nonviolence trainings, mentoring and new employment opportunities for youth,” Andrew Grande, a spokesperson for Elorza, wrote in an email to The Herald. The initiative is funded through support from the American Rescue Plan Act.
The initiative, designed to address the city’s recent increase in violent crimes, was built on community input, Grande said. He explained that the city organized “community listening sessions (and) businesses roundtables,” as well as directly engaging with “local non-profits, neighborhood associations and community groups.”
“I don't think another mayor would actually talk to people (who have experience with violence and the criminal justice system) and incorporate their input,” said James Moneiro, CEO of Reentry Campus RI, an organization that helps currently and formerly incarcerated people pursue higher education. “I don't really think I've seen an administration that receptive to us…on the ground… so I'm hopeful.” Moneiro told The Herald that his organization will contribute to the initiative by increasing job opportunities.
Monteiro said he is hopeful that the initiative will address the needs of the community by incorporating input from those familiar with the issue of violence. “Those closest to the problem are closest to the solution but furthest from the resources and power,” he said. But once those familiar with the issues can connect with those in power, “initiatives … begin to have some type of effect.”
The Nonviolence Institute, a nonprofit that works to address violence in communities, will lead the nonviolence training prong of the initiative. Executive Director Cedric Huntley said the institute will teach proven nonviolence techniques rooted in the organization’s philosophy.
Mentor Rhode Island will lead the mentorship prong of the initiative. The organization, which is receiving $1.1 million of the $2.6 million allocated, will spend most of its funding on sub-grants to fund youth mentoring programs around the city, underscoring an intent to “cover as many neighborhoods…as possible” in order to reach “young people that may not have access to these services,” Director of Mentoring Services Mark Mainville said. He added that Mentor RI will build a network among these programs to ensure that those participating have “an idea of the best (mentorship practices) and how to implement them.”
In 2020, murders spiked in Rhode Island, with 32 murders and nonnegligent manslaughters across the state, compared to 25 in 2019 and 16 in 2018, according to FBI crime data. According to data from the city, violent crimes in 2021 were down 11% from the previous year as of Dec. 26, but homicides were up 28%. Property crimes were up 4%.
The increase in violence in Providence over the past year and a half has been attributed to a number of different causes. Huntley believes the COVID-19 pandemic, along with increased access to weapons, partially bears responsibility for the trend.
Mainville also believes COVID-19 played a role in this uptick in violence. While he said that social distancing is a necessary health precaution, “it’s not good for our necessity of human connection.”
The pandemic has also created more trauma among community members because of a lack of human contact, he added, and “we know that trauma negatively affects the brain.” Mainville speculated that greater trauma in the community may lead to increased crime.
Others posit that the roots of this violence go much further back than the pandemic. According to Professor of Sociology Gregory Elliott, the initiative challenges “very deep-seated understandings” in society by applying a collaborative, as opposed to adversarial, framework to address violence.
Monteiro described the violence as “the language of the unheard,” resulting from “years of neglect (and) abandonment of certain communities.” He cited mass incarceration that “systematically removed most of the heads of families” in the late 20th century. “When you give people no choices, you put their back(s) against the wall, (and) that's where violence comes from.”
Grande said the initiative is a “unique opportunity” to address the “systemic inequities and barriers that youth of Providence face,” creating a “foundation for change and success to last into the future.”
Monteiro said the initiative is in the “pilot phase.” Once those involved with the initiative have “a good understanding of what worked and (what) didn’t” after its first year, Monteiro anticipates the initiative will improve by focusing on the most effective measures.
Beyond this initiative, Huntley wants the city to provide “consistent funding” to violence prevention organizations. “We have to do more collaboration,” Huntley said. “The next step is us really coming together and collaborating with different organizations and existing systems that are in place.”
Huntley emphasized how essential it is to “highlight the work of nonviolence” and its importance in addressing “the public health issue that's happening in our community.”