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adrian walker

Bullets to billboards

The billboards - reminders of lives cruelly cut short - should begin dotting the city’s skyline by mid-June.

Designed by surviving relatives, the billboards will depict young victims of homicide. But they are not just victims. They are sons and grandsons and nephews and occasionally daughters, and Monalisa Smith hopes the images will jolt you when you look at them.

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“Our goal is to wage a campaign for our children,’’ said Smith, the president of a grass-roots group called Mothers for Justice and Equality. “We wanted to humanize them and say this is not normal, and not just about drugs and gangs. Our goal was to humanize them.’’

Mothers for Justice and Equality was formed as a support and advocacy group for the tragically expanding ranks of parents who have lost their children to violence. Now Clear Channel, the communications behemoth, has agreed to donate 57 billboards over several months depicting the victims.

Jermaine Goffigan will be there. So will Trina Persad and Steven Odom, all familiar names to those who have followed the senseless violence that has beset the city in the past decade or so.

“Jermaine Goffigan was very young and I think we have forgotten that,’’ Smith said. “It reminds us that [his death] is not forgotten and will not be forgotten for us as a community.’’

Smith came into the antiviolence cause through the sad but traditional route: losing a family member. Her nephew, 18 year-old Eric Smith, was shot to death in Grove Hill in a 2010 homicide that remains unsolved.

Her group’s tactics are largely adapted from the work of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. By Smith’s reasoning, that organization succeeded by humanizing the issue of drunken driving. Her group hopes to do the same with urban crime.

“The Centers for Disease Control says 12 children a day are dying from violence, and 86 percent of that is from firearms,’’ she noted. “And the majority of that is black and brown boys.’’

If it is boys who are more often than not the victims of these crimes, it is women who have turned out to be their most visible and passionate advocates after death. When I asked Smith why that is so, she noted that men are welcome to join Mothers for Justice and Equality, and some do.

“We believe mothers play a unique role in the community when you think about the influence mothers have on their children and on their sons,’’ she said. “We believe mothers have the influence to change the dynamic.’’

If the short-range goal is to raise awareness of victims, the long-range goal is to encourage Congress to pass a resolution declaring this never-ending stream of killings a national crisis. To that end, politicians including Mayor Thomas M. Menino, US Senator Scott Brown, and Elizabeth Warren have met with them or spoken at their monthly breakfasts.

They are forums for action, but they serve a therapeutic function too. “We have these breakfasts, and a mother gets to stand up and ask Scott Brown his position, and that helps us heal,’’ Smith said. “We are not just sitting quietly while our children are being murdered.’’

Being heard is a significant part of the process of dealing with grief. “The biggest challenge for us is to manage our emotions,’’ Smith said, “because we have been impacted by violence, and we have to get beyond the emotions and think about solutions.

“This problem is so big, it’s overwhelming.That’s why these small successes are making us feel like we’re making a difference.’’

Billboards are not going to stop a shooting. But if they can affect the way the city responds to one, they will have served their purpose, Smith thinks.

“The power is in the people,’’ she said. “We just have to recognize that.’’

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at walker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.
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