Can ex-convicts help put a stop to gun violence? Toronto Public Health has voted to consider just that

Toronto Public Health voted on Monday to consider looking at gun violence as a public health concern. It's a proposal inspired by a program in some 25 cities around the world that draws on the first-hand experience of former gang members.

Public health board approves motion to consider treating gun violence as public health issue

Chris Glover - a TDSB trustee and Toronto Public Health board member - put the proposal to the city Monday. It's inspired by a program in some 25 cities around the world that draws in part on the first-hand experience of former convicts. (Peter Valkov/CBC)

It took 11 years from the moment Joan Howard's son was killed by gunfire outside her apartment door before she finally came face-to-face with her trauma.

Kempton Howard, a youth worker, was 24 when he was fatally shot in 2003. In the days after, his mother focused on keeping her younger son from falling into grief, turning her own into action to put things in Kempton's name: a park, a scholarship, a trophy with Toronto police's 55 Division.

It seemed to be working — until one day, the grief she kept just under the surface came to a head.

"I went to my doctor screaming my eyes out," she said.

"'You're supposed to be a strong person,'" she recalls her doctor saying. "I said, 'Eggs break sometimes.'"

That trauma and the spillover effects of gun violence are something Toronto Public Health voted on Monday to consider looking at as a public health concern.

It's a proposal Chris Glover — who's a Toronto District School Board trustee and also a Toronto Public Health board member — put to the city. It's inspired by a program in some 25 cities around the world that draws on the first-hand experience of former gang members and convicts to "interrupt" what's considered an epidemic of violence and stop its spread.

Trauma goes 'largely unrecognized'

Gun violence is a problem Glover has seen all too often in his time as a trustee, having attended no less than seven funerals — one for every year he's been in the role. 

"Those funerals and those deaths and the shootings that happen in this city, they hit not only the immediate family but there's trauma that extends to the family, friends and neighbours," he said ahead of the vote Monday.

"There's people in this city who are afraid to walk out at night in their neighbourhoods. There's all this trauma that goes on and its largely unrecognized."
Joan Howard knows the pain of losing a child to violence all too well. Her son, Kempton Howard, was shot and killed in 2003. She's has been pushing for action against gun violence ever since, but addressing her own grief has been an afterthought. (Peter Valkov/CBC)

The model first sprang up in Chicago after an epidemiologist who had travelled across the world to work on the Ebola and HIV/AIDS crisis noticed parallels in how those diseases had ravaged parts of Africa and how gun violence was doing the same back in the U.S., Glover explained. And it was so groundbreaking that it inspired a documentary called The Interrupters in 2011. ​

Cobe Williams has been with the group championing the model in Chicago for the last 20 years, and he knows all too well how exposure to violence at an early age can leave young people feeling that they have no other option.

After all, he spent 12 years behind bars for attempted murder, following in the footsteps of his father, who had gone to prison for murder when Cobe was three.

Inside, the local news became his window to a problem he never realized had gripped the city so tightly. Night after night, the stories of shootings and murders became more and more familiar.

Williams realized that until he got locked up, he was part of the problem.

'We don't look at people as good or bad'

When he finally got out, he decided he wanted to do something to help and started volunteering with the group Cure Violence.

Youth need somebody to relate to... If you've been there, you understand. You understand how to get out.- Cobe Williams, Deputy Director of Cure Violence

"I'm not going to sit here and say just because you were part of it, that you are the right worker. As long as you're credible and people respect you in the neighbourhood, and will listen to you and you have the relationships," he said.

From there, he says, the job involves a lot of listening.

"You can assume you know what they're going through, but you really don't," he said. "Some of them might not have food in their house, some of them might get bullied… some may not know how to read or write."
Ex-convict Cobe Williams was jailed for 12 years for attempted murder and now helps to set up programs for Cure Violence around the world. (CBC)

"We don't look at people as good or bad. We understand people make the choices they make, so we focus on changing their mindset, changing their thinking," said Williams.

It's an approach that former Galloway Boys gang member Jason Wisdom has seen work firsthand. Wisdom served 13 years behind bars for murder charges that were stayed last fall. 
At Monday's board meeting, he spoke about the Rexdale-based Think 2wice program, which pairs young men with ex-convicts to help them see the real-life consequences of a life of crime.
Jason Wisdom spent 13 years in prison after being convicted of murder and then exonerated. He touted the Rexdale-based Think 2wice program for working directly with inmates and young people. (Peter Valkov)

Meanwhile for Howard, her own personal battle continues, with the thought of giving up on her life never far, like a shadow she can't shake off.

But she and a group of other mothers were on hand Monday to weigh in on the proposal and break the silence of a struggle the families of those lost to gun violence live through every day. 

Howard's message: "When you lose a son to guns, it has a vast effect on us mothers…When I go out, I put on a mask. Inside it's eating away."

Toronto's medical officer of health will now examine the motion and report back on July 16.

"Youth need somebody to relate to. It's just that simple," said Williams. "If you've been there, you understand. You understand how to get out."

With files from Chris Glover, Derick Deonarain