a conversation with Lumumba on People’s Advocacy Institute

Rukia Lumumba is executive director of the People’s Advocacy Institute in downtown Jackson. She is a graduate of Tougaloo College and holds a law degree from Howard University. Lumumba recently spoke to Sun Senior Staff Writer Anthony Warren about the institute and an initiative its working on to address crime in Jackson.

First things first, what is the People’s Advocacy Institute?

“We’re a nonprofit that provides three main types of support to community members, in an effort to transform the communal system and create a more participatory democracy. We provide free legal support, specifically to people who are serving long sentences in prison without the possibility of parole. We also provide electoral justice efforts, where we work to help all members of the community, regardless of their criminal history or economic status, to participate in the governing of their towns and their lives. The third type of support is community safety development. We provide support and technical assistance, training, guidance and resources to help community members to develop initiatives to prevent harm from happening in their neighborhoods and communities.”

What do you mean when you say harm?

“When I say harm, I mean anything that causes a negative impact on individuals. That includes economic harm, conditions that create instability in the community, such as people not having a living wage, or the ability to meet their basic material needs. Other harms are physical harms, the traditional harm that is caused when someone assaults someone physically or harms someone with a weapon like a gun.

“One thing we’re looking at are the murder rates that occur in Jackson. How do we decrease that? What are the causes of it?”

What are the reasons behind the city’s high murder rate? 

“We learned a lot of it is interpersonal harm, a dispute between two people who have known each other for a long time, neighbors who get into an argument over something very small that escalates. This is not just a Jackson problem, but a Mississippi problem. As we travel throughout different counties, where we’ve been asked to speak, what we’re hearing is that folks are using guns as a way to mediate conflicts or problems. Because a gun is there, it increases the likelihood that someone will be harmed. We’ve heard of cases where a father shoots a boyfriend of his daughter, just because he wants the boyfriend to leave his yard. “We’re trying to look at the ways we can intervene and interrupt that violence and prevent that harm from happening.”

What are some ways to interrupt that violence?

“Offer training and other options to deal with anger and stress. We’re looking at somatics training, to teach people how to shift their bodies, minds and whole thought processes when they’re in anger. It sounds really flowery, but it’s a practice we see people in all phases of life engaging in. It’s about making these practices normal and not weird. That’s just some of it. There are other things, too.”

I want to go back to something you said earlier, about people turning to guns to solve conflicts. Why do you think so many individuals do that?

“It’s an easier solution. You don’t have to think about another way to handle the conflict. You don’t have to think about things like, ‘how do I change my tone?’ It’s a quick fix. If you have a gun in a drawer and can pull it out to stop someone from screaming at you, you’re going to do it if it’s available. It sounds really simple, but I think guns have become an available option to people as a quick fix.”

How do you stop people from having the mind set of wanting to reach for a gun?

“One thing is we have to have real conversations about guns with our children and with each other. We hear in the news about gun violence all the time, but we’re not having conversations with children about how guns can impact people for the rest of their lives, or how improper use of guns are harmful. We’re not having these conversations. Some people might be, but the majority are not.”

Let’s talk a little bit about PAI’s violence interruption initiative. What is that?

“It’s something we are developing here. It’s not completed yet, we’re literally in the development process. We hope that we will have a complete program plan in place by January 2020. We’re basing it on two national models, from Cure Violence and the ‘Credible Messenger’ approach. Cure Violence has existed for over 10 years and has programs around the U.S. that train people to become ‘interrupters’ of violence in the future. As interrupters, they’re trained professionals that go into the community and prevent a violent act from occurring. They live in the communities where violence is most prominent. What they’re doing is building relationships with community members to have a closer ear into the conflicts that are developing so they can mediate those conflicts.

“The other piece is the ‘Credible Messenger’ initiative, out of the Credible Messenger Justice Center, a program where those who have experienced harm become sponsors for others that have committed harm. They become advocates and help address factors that may lead to a person causing harm.”

How does Credible Messenger work?

“Credible Messenger is similar to being a sponsor at an AA meeting. This credible messenger is there to help a person shift their circumstances and situation. They help prevent you from engaging in an act that may cause you to go deeper in a bad situation. They help you get a job you might need or help you get the education you may need. They help you begin to really think about other options and ways to deal with hard or challenging situations, create long-term goals and see all the opportunities that exist out there for you.”

How does PAI determine who will be interrupters or where to target efforts?

“Number one, we’re doing a lot of data analysis. That’s a huge part of this – defining where violence is happening the most. We’re looking at ZIP codes across the city and narrowing it down to the particular neighborhood and then the particular streets in those neighborhoods. Then, it’s about looking at what type of violence is happening, who the survivors are, who the perpetrators are and their age range – that begins to tell us who we need to talk to.”

Have these programs been successful elsewhere?

“In Chicago, on the northwestern side and in the Auburn Gresham neighborhood, (organizers) saw a decrease in gun violence by 17 percent and a 100 percent decrease in murders. In Englewood, they saw a 34 percent decrease in shootings and a 100 percent decrease in murder. In the south Bronx, gun injuries decreased by 37 percent and shootings were down 63 percent. In Brooklyn, gun injuries decreased by 53 percent and gun victimizations were down 15 percent (since programs were implemented). And these are in areas that are known to have the highest gun violence rates.”

How long will it take to get interrupters and sponsors in place once the program in Jackson is started?

“I wish I could say it will take a month, but I don’t know. It will take finding the right people, hiring them and training them. A lot of training has to happen. After that, we’re pretty much good to go. It might take two to four months to actually see (the program) full-scale implemented. What we’re doing now, what we’re going to be launching this fall, will be a pilot program to begin ‘credible messenger’ work. We’ll begin to work with young people between the ages of 17 and 15 on the notions of conflict resolution, education and employment, goal-setting, building strong community relationships and training them to become messengers themselves.”

What is the cost for these initiatives?

“Based on Cure Violence’s numbers, a small program at base costs $500,000. So if anybody wants to help fund-raise that would be amazing.”

When you say small, what do you mean?

“A program that has the very basics – one that would include a site director, outreach supervisor, two outreach workers (credible messengers) and two violence interrupters. That also includes the cost for community meetings and events. Every time a shooting happens, there has to be an immediate response. That could include an organized march or an organized neighborhood dinner to come together and talk about what happens.”

Have you decided which neighborhood to focus on in Jackson?

“We’re looking at ZIP code 39213, but we haven’t confirmed this neighborhood.”

How will you raise the money?

“We are raising money right now through grants and donations. Once the money is fully raised, we will issue an RFP to the community for community members to fill positions or deliver services. We want this to be collaborative. This long-term change will involve all of us, not just some of us.”

The group’s next meeting is Tuesday, August 27, at the COFO Civil Rights Education Center, at Jackson State University. For more information, email PAI at info@peoplesadvocacyinstitute.com, or call (601) 885-3240.

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