A campaign to counter the allure of violence
The text messages rolled in from gang members as soon as Tony “Big Time” Seymore’s handsome face appeared on a giant billboard in Mattapan Square.
“Good look, big homey,” one read.
“Yo, yo, you’re big time for real.”
There is no shortage of programs meant to reduce violence in Mattapan, from summer camps to drug-free family days. But a new campaign — which includes Seymore, an antiviolence activist in the community — aims to connect with younger people attracted to gang life by the glamorization of crime in the media.
The Boston Public Health Commission, which launched the campaign with a federal grant that has also funded Seymore’s work, hopes that teenagers see the billboard and realize they can be “stars” by doing good, that they can aspire to be a violence interrupter like Seymore, whose portrait runs alongside his quotation: “Honestly, I hope my job ceases to exist. That’s my hope for the future.”
Through the end of October, Seymore and a dozen Mattapan residents – a group that includes victims of violence, community activists, and a man in jail – are being featured in the health commission’s $150,000 media campaign tagged “Our Mattapan. Many Pasts. One Future.”
This is a portion of the $2 million “Our Mattapan” project, which seeks to connect families and children with case managers, install a team of violence interrupters, and advance work on other antiviolence programs.
The commission and the Boston Police Department say they chose Mattapan partly because residents were eager to participate. The media campaign, featuring work by Boston photographer and filmmaker David Binder alongside words of the subjects, includes placements on billboards, buses, and bus shelters across Mattapan, where more than 120 shootings have been reported since April.
Will it help? That is the question. Health commission officials say this kind of campaign, putting the spotlight on real people, has not been done before.
Seymore, 52, is not naïve. He notes that on Sept. 4, he stood at a gathering with Mayor Thomas M. Menino to celebrate the launch of “Our Mattapan” and less than 24 hours later, on the corner of Norfolk and Clarkwood, somebody fatally shot 19-year-old Walter White.
“Right after the campaign starts,” Seymore said, shaking his head as he stood outside Brothers Restaurant on Blue Hill Avenue, in the shadow of his billboard.
The campaign has drawn its share of skeptics.
“I didn’t notice it at all,” said Angela McMillan, a student walking by the billboard, noting the preponderance of advertisements in this busy stretch of Mattapan.
Korey Mello, who works in the area, read Seymore’s words and shook her head.
“ ‘I hope my job ceases to exist?’ I don’t know what that means,” she said. “My guess is there’s some type of grant money being thrown around.”
Barbara Ferrer, executive director of the Boston Public Health Commission, is not surprised to hear doubts. She also notes that the campaign is not targeted at everyone.
“When you see Tony’s message and you’re part of a gang or you’re thinking you want to be in a gang, you understand what he’s saying,” said Ferrer. “As a person who has no idea what a violence interrupter is, that message may not resonate.
“But then you go down and see the message of the woman who talks about going to see her son who is dead. As a mother, that message might resonate very hard with me.”
Audrey Brown-Perkins, a Mattapan woman whose oldest son, Antoine, was just 20 when he was fatally shot in 2006, heard about the campaign from Seymore and volunteered. She and her son Amani, 14, posed for a series of posters.
In one of the images, set to go up on a bus shelter, Amani rests his head on her shoulder. She stares straight ahead. “We can’t give up on our children,” she is quoted as saying. “When kids don’t feel like they’re important or that anyone cares, they’re going to reach out for the next thing.”
Marilynda Whitney said she volunteered because she felt she did not receive enough support when her son, Eric, was stabbed 14 years ago.
“Losing a son was like having part of my heart taken away,” her message reads. “But if I can share my story and help somebody else, I know that’s what Eric would want.”
Other subjects include Mattapan House of Pizza owner Ari Poulopoulos and Boston police Sergeant John Ford, who is assigned to Mattapan.
“Mattapan isn’t about the five-minute news clips you see on TV,” Ford states on his poster. “I’d fight to work here, because this is a community that really cares.”
Binder’s documentary “Calling My Children,” about a Boston family dealing with loss, aired on PBS earlier this year. Of the photographs he took for “Our Mattapan,” said Binder, his favorite is one of “Dave the Barber,” an image lit slightly from one side and featuring a quotation from Dave talking of his frustration with the kids on his block.
Some of the poster subjects agreed to appear with their first names only. They include:
■ Sonya, a longtime resident and caseworker at Mattapan Community Health Center: “Mattapan is evolving, and I like the change. I know all my neighbors. People are friendly. We talk about each other’s kids. We all look out for one another.”
■ Maurice, 27-year-old inmate at South Bay House of Correction: “I stole my first gun when I was 15, and three weeks later I got caught. That was my first gun case. I was committed to DYS from 15 to 21, and I kept going back-and-forth, back-and-forth.”
“My interest is in direct, straightforward, and unadulterated imagery,” said Binder, 52, who has done work for The New York Times, People Magazine, and The Boston Globe. “It’s to get out of the way and allow the subjects direct access to telling their story.”
His images captured the attention of Menino, who said art is an important aspect of “Our Mattapan.”
“It catches your eye, and it’s why you’re going to read the slogan,” he said. “They’re people from the neighborhoods, not actors you usually have in these ads.”
Standing proudly under his billboard at Brothers one afternoon, Seymore admitted he was reluctant, at first, to pose for the project.
“It’s kind of weird, but at the same time I like it,” he said and laughed. “I’ve rode around it about five times. I’m not going to lie to you.”