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As gun violence rattles R.I., politicians need to offer more than words

Instead of talking about nonviolence, Rhode Island’s elected officials should be figuring out how to fund the organizations that are already doing the hard work

The Nonviolence Institute says it does not support violence in any form, "full stop."Courtesy of the Nonviolence Institute

One of the things that makes Rhode Island special is, because of our size, it’s not uncommon to see a congressman at the grocery store, the governor at the beach, or a senator having dinner on Federal Hill. People often walk right up to them and tell them how they really feel.

And when we need to show the unity the most, like following the stretch of shootings that has shocked Providence and Pawtucket over the last few days, our size is an advantage: We can gather most, or sometimes all, of our elected officials together for a press conference. In fact, they’re expected to show up.

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So with all four members of the US congressional delegation, Governor Dan McKee, Attorney General Peter Neronha, and Mayor Jorge Elorza gathered at the Nonviolence Institute on Monday morning, there was reason for hope. Surely a big announcement was on the way, something significant to prevent a summer of violence in our capital city, maybe funding for the people who are already on the ground, doing the work.

Instead, we saw a group of men congratulating themselves about what they’re trying to do to pass gun control bills at the federal level. A bunch of guys talking about the need to offer more opportunities to our young people, particularly young men of color, and zero actionable suggestions on how to do so. It was somehow both well intentioned and tone deaf at the same time.

The big announcement never came. There was nothing to offer. It was like the politicians left the final page of their talking points in their cars.

What they easily could have done Monday was offer funding for the organization that was hosting them.

The Nonviolence Institute has been instrumental to lowering the number of violent crimes in Providence over the last two decades. The organization’s street workers know the gang members, understand what’s driving a spike in shootings, and do their best to squash beefs before guns are ever fired.

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There was a time, in the mid-2000s, when the Institute employed 15 street workers. Now it’s down to five of them, according to Cedric Huntley, the organization’s executive director.

Huntley told me that he could use 20 more street workers, spreading them throughout Providence and into other communities. While some businesses say they can’t find workers for whatever reasons, Huntley said he could fill his staff tomorrow.

He just needs the money.

It would cost about $3 million a year to hire 20 more street workers, Huntley said. That would cover the salaries, training, and additional staffing to oversee the new employees. Add another million dollars and he could ramp up the important victim services programming that the organization offers, to help the families of those who get caught up in the violence.

Make it $10 million over three years, and he could practically work miracles.

As Diana Garlington, whose daughter was killed in a 2011 shooting, said during Monday’s press conference, Rhode Island is about to get billions of dollars in federal pandemic relief funding. There are worse ways to spend a few million dollars than tackling gun violence.

That’s something Governor McKee and Mayor Elorza could announce right now, and because there’s federal funding in play, they wouldn’t even have to worry about throwing their respective budgets out of balance.

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It’s not an outlandish request, either. In Connecticut, Governor Ned Lamont has already said he wants to set aside $3 million in federal funding for gun prevention strategies. The advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety is calling for cities across the country to use part of their relief money to address gun violence.

Would $10 million for the Nonviolence Institute prevent every shooting in Providence? Of course not. The politicians were right on Monday when they said there’s no single measure, no cure-all piece of legislation that will immediately end this senseless violence.

But the money would help. We know because it has helped in the past.

A few of Monday’s speakers praised the late Sister Ann C. Keefe, who helped found the Institute following the shooting death of Jennifer Rivera in 2000. Sister Ann died in 2015, and here’s what we miss the most: She never would have let anyone at that press conference on Monday leave without a definitive plan in place to address the violence.

She would have demanded more of our politicians.

And so should we.


Dan McGowan can be reached at dan.mcgowan@globe.com. Follow him @danmcgowan.