As more Americans express alarm over the tidal wave of gun deaths, domestic abuse and violence in the media, foundations are beginning to address violence prevention.
BY JACK BEATTY
PHOTOGRAPHY BY MARY ELLEN MARK
Violence has a new enemy in America.Violence prevention is taking hold as another appraoch to the problem ( the other being more jails), and several foundatiosn are among those taking the lead. Their role, says Tom Coury, executive director of Boston's Gardiner Howland Shaw Foundation, is to be America's "venture captialists" of social policy, sieving what works from what doesn't.
It's no longer news that violent crime has reached unprecedented levels and its perpertrators are younger and younger. According to the latest Federal Bureau of Investigation figures, murders by youths from 7 to 17 have risen 27 percent since 1980, and a horrifying 332 percent since 1965.
Suspicious that filmic depictions of violence might be one of it's leading causes, 82 percent of the public thinks there is too much gore in the movies. More telling, 57 percent think the evening news is too violent. And no wonder: on a recent newscast on Miami's Channel 7, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal noted that there were three rapes, two fatal hit and run accidents, a wild monkey attack, a white plot to blow up blacks, children who murdered their grandmother, a 10 year old crack dealer, and a wife staler featured in stories before the commercial break.
The massacre on the Long Island railroad, the slaughter in a San Fransisco office building, the murder of Michael Jordan's father, the ever- lengthening list of unfamous children murdered and maimed- the nighly news holds up a mirror to a country in which guns are everywher (there are 2 million guns in New York City alone); in which 37,000 people are shot every year; in which millions of dollars are made off violent movies and TV shows; in which part of the national mythology, glorified in story and song; and finally, a country in which growing numbers of young men, mostly urban, jobless, barely literate, raised on unimaginably mean streets and alternately sedated or inflamed by drugs, see violence as a way to earn "respect" to make their mark upon a world indifferent not only to their plight but to their victims.
'Truly these young men have evolved a culture of violence. And culture, as the anthropologist Clifford Geertz writes, should be thought of as "the extrinsic genes," so deep is its hold on habits and hearts.Perhaps even more unsettling, criminologists say that the number of young men 18 to 24-the danger zone for violent crime-will soon begin to grow, reversing a trend that should have lowered crime among the young but did not. Bad now, things will soon get worse in the inner city, as today's 4- and 5-year-old witnesses to shootings become tomorrow's 17-year-old shooters and victims.Yet a threshold of tolerance seems to have been crossed, to judge by opinion polls showing that violent crime is now the issue about which most Americans are most concerned .
Why now? Why has a large new foundation, the California Wellness Foundation of Woodland Hills, California, and a long-established one, Carnegie Corporation of New York, chosen this moment to fund ambitious initiatives in violence prevention? The short answer is: because the national discussion about poverty and race has changed.
A Problem in its Own Right
As to poverty, not so long ago violence prevention would have been denounced as symptomatic therapy. To prevent violence, end poverty-that would have been the response. But today, in an America lacking both the will and the wallet to mount a new war on poverty, the problems arising from poverty have a new status. They are apt to be with us for a long time. Taking them seriously as problems in their own right is the better part of bleak 1990s wisdom.
As to race, an awkward patronizing reticence kept violence from being discussed honestly. To focus on crime in the inner city was to give hostages to bigots, who could point to black violence as a justification for racial discrimination, especially in housing but not only there.
No more. Perhaps because young AfricanAmerican men are becoming an endangered species; or because African-American mayors have won elections in many of our largest cities and so are responsible for the maintenance of public order; or because African-American opinion leaders like Jesse Jackson, Marian Wright Edelman and Dr. Deborah Prothrow-Stith, African-American writers and intellectuals like Brent Staples, an editorial writer for The New York Times, and Stanley Crouch, a recipient of a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation "genius" award, and African-American filmmakers like John Singleton and the Hughes brothers have been outspoken on the subject of black-onblack violence, the taboo has been lifted. These leaders depict inner-city violence as a menace to public health, a deadly vortex pulling in young men and women.
Realistic, not resigned; practical, not theoretical; truth-driven, not politics-driven: these are elements of the rapidly evolving climate of opinion about violence. As one of the gatekeepers of public ideas, the rainmakers, if you will, of the climate of opinion, foundations are both reflecting and creating the new thinking about violence and how to prevent it.
Psychologist Gary Yates is a senior program officer of the California Wellness Foundation, by far the most comprehensively active foundation investigating violence prevention. Not too long ago he noticed that the number of people murdered annually in California had surpassed the number killed in traffic accidents-and this in a state where the car is king. That perception, which might make some Californians migrate to Montana, convinced Yates that his new foundation was on the right path.
California Wellness was founded in February 1992 with a $300 million endowment by Health Net, the second largest health maintenance organization in California, which was obliged by state law to set up a foundation when it went from the nonprofit to the profit sector. After much debate its board of directors, made up of public health experts, concluded that violence had become as grave a hazard to health as polio was in the recent past.
Over the next five years, California Wellness's Violence Prevention Initiative will give $24 million "to develop and evaluate a comprehensive, multifaceted approach to reducing youth violence throughout the state," according to official literature. The initiative targets young people-taking 24 as the outer edge of youngbecause they are not only the most frequent perpetrators of violence but also its chief victims. In California, for example, homicide is the leading cause of death among African-Americans and Hispanics 20 to 24, and the second leading cause of death among their 13- to 19-year-old brothers and sisters.
California Wellness makes grants in four areas
: 1) Under its Leadership Program, it will select ten community fellows each year from applicants who could be anything from former gang members to social workers and who have shown leadership in the fight. These leaders, who will each receive a two-year $45,000 fellowship, will be asked to select two young people from their neighborhoods to mentor in leadership skills. Each fellow and his or her trainees will develop a project aimed at preventing violence where they live, which must be somewhere in California. Projects might range from increasing the wattage of neighborhood streetlights to promoting a midnight basketball league. California Wellness will also award a $25,000 California Peace Prize annually to three people who have made signal contributions to violence prevention. These prizes will hopefully draw media attention to the winners and thus propagate information about violence prevention.
2) Under its Community Action rubric, the foundation will select ten community projects in violence prevention to fund every year.
3) Under its Policy Program, the foundation will set up a Pacific Center for Violence Prevention at San Francisco General Hospital as a source for new knowledge in the field. In addition, the Policy Program will initiate an Entertainment Industry Project to lobby key stockholders in the industry to confine the killing in the movies and on TV to that which is dramatically justified.
4) Finally, through its Research Program, California Wellness will "extend and deepen the research base vital to public policy development" in violence prevention.
Renewed Foundation Interest
The fresh interest in violence prevention among foundations led to an illuminating two-day conclave in New York City last spring. The National Leadership Conference for Grantmakers on Violence Prevention drew donors, donees and experts on violence prevention-psychiatrists, pediatricians, youth workers and community organizersfrom around the country. Sponsored by the New York Regional Association of Grantmakers along with 16 other organizations, ranging from the A. L. Mailman Family Foundation in White Plains, New York to the Association of Black Foundation Executives, the meeting included Carnegie Corporation of New York, and such foundations as Gasdiner Howland Shaw, Boston, Robert Wood Johnson, Ford, Anne Burnett and Charles Tandy, Hyams, Arizona Community, Ittelson, Harry Frank Guggenheim, Edna McConnell Clark and California Wellness. Many of these foundations are currently sponsoring either research or community-based programs in violence prevention. For example:
Through a Cambridge, Massachusetts organization called Emerge, the Gardiner Howland Shaw Foundation is subsidizing research in spouse abuse. Last year restraining orders were issued against approximately 50,000 people in Massachusetts; 25 men of these 50,000 killed their spouses. Is it possible to determine what these 25 had in common so as to identify the worst risk factors among the 50,000? The research will seek to answer that question-potentially a matter of life and death for many women.
Through Chicago's Erikson Institute for Advanced Study in Child Development, the A. L. Mailman Foundation is sponsoring development of violence prevention materials for schoolsworkbooks for children, handbooks for teachers. This is crucially important; schools are the one place in society where we can be sure socialization still goes on.
New York City's Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation, whose exclusive purpose is to sponsor research into the social and cultural dynamics of violence, is funding work by psychologists, anthropologists, political scientists and historians. One of its grants, to Fox Butterfield, a New York Times reporter, is for a history of the family of Willie Bosket, Jr., one of the most violent criminals in the New York prison system. The reporter aims to better understand the criminal behavior of males throughout several generations of the family and the social circumstances surrounding them. Another Guggenheim grant is for a study of nationalism and violence. The foundation has also commissioned research into the emotional forces that make violence so damnably attractive. Through Mediascope, a Los Angeles-based research and lobbying group, Carnegie Corporation of New York is supporting studies on violence in the media. According to Marcy Kelly, the president of Mediascope and one of the speakers at the New York violence prevention conference, the public says it is fed up with violent entertainment (yet continues to patronize it). Kelly's job is to furnish information to the media, the TV networks and Hollywood about the building disgust with violence.
Winning over these vacant souls, to be sure, is not the work of a season. Take Richard Donner, director of the "Lethal Weapon" movies, which are full of flippant bloodshed. He has defended his movies against the charge of being too violent with these immortally fatuous words: "I brought social issues into the Lethal Weapon movies-like when Danny Glover's family comes down on him for eating tuna."
The New York conference heard from Senator Paul Simon (D-IL), who became a leader in the fight to curb TV violence after seeing what looked nightmarishly like a real person being sawed in half on late-night TV. In his keynote address Simon recited some breathtaking facts to the astonished gathering: There are more gun dealers than service stations in the U.S. Last year in Toronto, 17 people died from firearms; in Chicago, 927. According to a study commissioned by the American Medical Association, TV violence may be responsible for thousands of murders and rapes every year. As a result of pressure from Senator Simon and other elected officials, the networks have agreed to warn viewers when programs are especially violent. They have also made vague noises about reducing the quantity and verism of TV violence.
The National Rifle Association (NRA), Simon said, has "frightened my colleagues" from legislating any gun control beyond the hardly draconian Brady bill. They need to have their spines stiffened by hearing from the majority of Americans who, according to a recent Harris poll conducted under a grant from the Chicago-based Joyce Foundation, now favor not merely gun control but a federal ban on handguns. Foundations can help mobilize this opinion, Simon said, nudging the grantmakers in their collective ribs. The NRA gave $2.6 million to congressional candidates in the 1992 election cycle. It is aiming to boost its membership to 4 million by this fall's elections-and it draws intimidatory power from the 70 million Americans who own guns.
Any foundation or concert of foundations willing to take on the NRA should attend to the advice of Dr. Mark Rosenberg, of the Centers for Disease Control, who also spoke at the New York meeting. The old debate, over the constitutionality of the right to bear arms, is sterile, he told the grantmakers. The forces of sanity need instead to play up the scientific evidence linking guns to a spectrum of human sorrows. This evidence, which is available from the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, quantifies such things as the chances a child will kill himself if there is a gun in the house-five times more than if there is no gun; or that a domestic argument will end in murder-20 times more with a gun in the house. This epidemiological approach frees the issue from the bog of ideology.
The Joyce Foundation will give $1 million this year to this effort to recast gun violence as a health care issue. Along with the Max Factor Family Foundation in Los Angeles, Joyce is also funding the "Squash It" program in Kansas City, which-making the devil do the Lord's workwill use TV ads to make kids think it's cool to walk away from violence ("Squash it" is the street term for breaking off a fight). It won't require more research or more community-based experiments to make the case for gun control, to which all studies of violence prevention inevitably recur. What's needed is couragefrom politicians, certainly, but also from foundations.
Just as tuberculosis, in the words of former Boston Mayor James Michael Curley, was "an. economic disease," so gun violence in America is a political disease. Sociopathic young people bear much of the responsibility-to say otherwise is to abandon morality-but gun violence is also caused by bribe-giving political action committees, purchasable Congressmen, canting ideologists and genocidal gun manufacturers. If its cause is political, so must be its cure. ¥ Left D.C. students protest at NRA headquarters.