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Flint, MI– Angalia Bianca, an anti-violence author and advocate, has a tattoo of a teardrop under one eye.
It’s not filled in, she assured the crowd gathered to hear her speak at Flint’s Ferris Wheel on July 6. When it’s not filled in, the tattoo means you’re mourning somebody. When it’s filled in, that’s when it means you’ve killed somebody.
Bianca never killed anyone, but by the time the Chicago native was 20, she belonged to gangs. She was addicted to heroin, was arrested several times, and ended up serving 12 years in prison. By her own account, she was a “horrible criminal person,” and a “career criminal,” but she’s not that person anymore.
Now 11 years sober, she has worked as a “violence interrupter” for the anti-violence group CeaseFire, and currently works with Acclivus Inc., a community health organization focused on Chicago’s most vulnerable neighborhoods.
She said judging by the rising numbers of homicides Flint is currently experiencing, “street outreach” is necessary.
Street outreach is just what it sounds like—workers getting out on the streets and reaching out to “at-risk” people. It involves de-escalation, mediation, and showing them other ways of life.
Bianca called this a “public health approach” that works. But in order for the program to work, she said outreach workers need to have credibility, and the community needs to be involved in the process.
For at-risk people, the message of finding a new life path won’t work if it’s coming from their parents, or the police, she said. Their response would be, “you don’t understand.”
“If you don’t have lived experience, then young guys involved in high-risk activities, they’re not going to listen to you,” she said.
The outreach workers need to be people from the community that have “credibility.” She said that in Chicago, the at-risk people she works with can trust her, given her history. She can understand what they’re going through because she’s been in the same situations.
For Flint, she said workers would need to be from the community.
“Somebody could be like, ‘Oh, I remember you, you knew my uncle.’ So now you’ve got credibility,” she said.
In Chicago, Bianca said outreach workers were hired with approval from a panel made of residents, pastors, community leaders, and police officers.
That panel works together to determine teams of workers, and where they should go. They have weekly meetings to discuss how things are going.
“You have to have the community involved. … Everyone has to have a voice at that table,” she said.
Once outreach workers are established, Bianca said social media is a helpful tool for finding fights that may elevate to the level of violence.
“A lot of violence happens, initiates, and escalates online on Facebook, and then goes offline to real shootings and homicides,” she said. “Roughly, about 76% of all shootings in Chicago have initiated and escalated on social media.”
Flint Police Chief Terence Green said this is the case for many instances of violence in Flint too.
Bianca told the story of a time she worked with a man who was really angry after being “disrespected” on Facebook. He told her he was going to find the person behind the disrespectful post, and kill him.
Bianca said she kept repeating what his plans were to him, and eventually he realized he was responding in an extreme way. But still, she did not leave him alone for the rest of the night to make sure he didn’t get upset again and try to commit this act of violence.
She also spoke about the importance of “wraparound services,” and said that they are what saved her. When she got out of prison, she stayed with A Safe Haven in Chicago for eight months.
Every night at 8 p.m., she had to wash one window with Windex and paper towels. The counselors told her that if she didn’t participate, she’d have to leave.
“They were teaching me accountability and responsibility. I had to be somewhere, at the same time, at eight o’clock, and do one little small thing,” she said. “And then they allowed me to answer the phones … and I felt so important, you know. So this empowered me and made me want to go and do more.”
Bianca said Flint has a great program here already, that she would like to see get funding to do more work like what she’s experienced in Chicago: the Rise Up Initiative.
Rise Up is a community organization working on reducing violence and overdoses in the city through mobile units working on the streets, and providing connections to resources that individuals need to get away from crime and drugs.
Michael Bolton is the director of the nonprofit organization, a recovery coach, and a harm reduction specialist.
“This is something that we want to hammer for a year straight. We want to get funding for a year straight,” Bolton said.
In addition to interrupting and intervening in potentially violent situations, he said he eventually has dreams of building tiny homes for the homeless, bringing in more urban farming, and more.
Bianca said funding programs like this now will save the city money in the long run, because gun violence is expensive.
Such initiatives are not brand new. Other organizations around the country have implemented similar models.
According to a state-by-state analysis published in 2019 by the U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee, the annual cost of gun violence in Michigan is $6.9 billion. That number comes from employer, healthcare, and police and criminal justice costs, as well as lost income.
Police Chief Green said the Flint Police Department is partnering with Rise Up, but that it is just in the “infancy stages.”
“I think it looks very promising,” he said. “That’s just another component of community outreach we’re adding to the Flint Police Department in order to build trust.”
To learn more about Rise Up Initiative, you can visit their website here. To learn more about Bianca’s story, you can find her book, “In Deep: How I Survived Gangs, Heroin, and Prison to Become a Chicago Violence Interrupter,” here.