Matt Driscoll

Matt Driscoll: A grassroots effort to reduce gun violence, one connection at a time

How big an impact can a simple message have?

What’s the power of forging connections, of neighbors getting to know neighbors and bonds of trust being built?

Finding answers to these question requires inexact science. The outcomes of grassroots community building and activism are typically difficult to measure.

But, to hear Safe Streets executive director Priscilla Lisicich tell it, they’re very real.

And the efforts are well worth it.

“It’s those small indicators,” Lisicich said earlier this week. “This is my work. I believe it makes a big difference. You’ve got to stay the course.”

This is my work. I believe it makes a big difference. You’ve got to stay the course.

Safe Streets executive director Priscilla Lisicich

While this statement could accurately sum up the 27-year history of the nonprofit Safe Streets organization – which started in Tacoma in 1989, as what the agency describes as “a call to action to take back the streets of Tacoma as gangs from California moved in” – it’s also an apt mantra for the more recent efforts of a very grassroots outfit known as Project 253.

It’s work Safe Streets and a number of other area organizations, from Metro Parks Tacoma to the city of Tacoma, Pierce County Juvenile Court, the Pierce County Minority Bar Association and many others have embraced and joined.

The fruits of this emerging partnership were on full display in June when Safe Streets’ annual March Against Crime coincided with Project 253’s first-ever “Wheels Up Guns Down” event at Tacoma’s Star Center. According to Project 253’s Vince Vaielua, some 500 people showed up, sowing the seeds for a string of similar, smaller “Put The Guns Down” events that will kick off Friday at Terra Heights apartments near 96th Street South and South Hosmer Street.

June’s Wheels Up Guns Down event, which featured a lowrider car show, sought to draw young people into a conversation about reducing gun violence, and included food, music and the active involvement of Tacoma law enforcement. It was seen as such a success that Vaielua and his partners immediately started discussing where to go next.

According to Vaielua, Friday’s event at Terra Heights, which will be followed by similar events across South and East Tacoma through October, “derived from this conversation of ‘Why are we just going to stop there?’” It will include the obligatory food and music, but also important things like job resources, child ID cards courtesy of Safe Streets, a chance for neighbors to connect and problem-solve with other neighbors as well as the law enforcement officers who serve them.

“We wanted to identify different communities of need, set up shop, and build some relationships,” Vaielua said this week. “There’s a very organic feel, where we have people coming together. … We just want to bring a sense of hope, promote a message of peace, and bring some tangible resources to the community.”

As Lisicich admits, “We’ve really been flying along … making it up as we go. We all looked at each other (after Wheels Up Guns Down) and said, ‘Well, we’ve still got some hotspots in the community, so maybe what we need to do is just keep this going.”

We wanted to identify different communities of need, set up shop, and build some relationships. There’s a very organic feel, where we have people coming together. … We just want to bring a sense of hope, promote a message peace, and bring some tangible resources to the community.

Project 253’s Vince Vaielua

Selecting the locations for Project 253’s upcoming series of “Put The Guns Down” events was a strategic endeavor. As Lisicich acknowledged, community hotspots for crime and violence were targeted, and the hope is for tangible results.

Friday’s event from 2 to 5 p.m. is in what Terra Heights property manager Cindy Johnson describes as “a tough area.” She cites drug activity in the blocks surrounding Terra Heights as one of the main concerns.

“I’m listening to my residents, and I definitely care about what they think. I want them to feel safe and comfortable in their neighborhood,” Johnson said, shortly before posting fliers for Friday’s event at the complex she helps run.

“I think Project 253 can offer something for people to look forward to, and help change their community.”

And therein lies the beauty of work like this. It spawns not from a directive from the top, but rather an impetus from below – community members rallying together to create something meaningful, accumulating support as they go.

“We’re all coming together … providing opportunities for people,” Vaielua said.

“There’s no secret sauce to how that happens.”

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