In an exclusive interview, community advocates share how gun violence has affected their lives and what they hope these films can do for prevention advocacy. Tina M. McDuffie (host of Local, USA) spoke with SOL Development artist Brittany Tanner, who lost her brother to gun violence; Terrence L. Pitts, a lawyer and the filmmaker of 'Heaven: Can You Hear Me?'; and Ruth Rollins, co-founder of prevention organization Operation LIPSTICK (Ladies Involved in Putting a Stop to Inner City Killing) and the We Are Better Together Warren Daniel Hairston Project, named after her late son.
Tina M. McDuffie: What is the role of community in healing from the trauma of gun violence?
Brittany Tanner: I had never spoken to anyone until I was in a BE-Imaginative circle. It really taught me how to share the grief, to start the conversation. The pain will always be there, but I'm learning to live with it, and I'm learning to love in the pain.
The number one thing is to find community. Be in community. Allow community to love on you. Allow community to cook you those meals and give you a break with the baby when you need that, to hug on you, to love on you, to pray for you. I believe that the community is what rooted me and allowed me to not seek violence or not seek revenge or not be depressed about it. I really had a list of things that I needed to do to heal: I had to show up, I had to be around community, I had to talk to folks. I had to cry when I needed to cry. I had to let that out. Some days looked like crying, some days looked like laughing and remembering our loved ones.
I had to cry. I had to have the hard conversations. I had to call my loved ones and talk about it and cry about it and create spaces for myself to continue to be vulnerable in that way. But everybody's not ready. And I think being able to have a reference, things like [these films], is amazing. Then the questions start, and you manifest spaces like this.
Terrance L. Pitts: When I really think about Mothers in Charge, and you look at 'Heaven: Can You Hear Me?,' a lot of it's observational cinema. It's the camera being still, witnessing what's going on in the Mothers in Charge room. But in that kind of silent observational space, we witness those women supporting one another. And one of the women says, "If it weren't for the women here, I don't know what I would do." And that helped her to heal. So, I think, where's the hope? The hope is exactly where Brittany said it is. It's in community and us supporting one another, us holding each other up when we're down, allowing people to cry on our shoulders, just being their support.
Tina: How can we advocate for gun violence prevention?
Brittany: There are women and mothers, strong, beautiful Black women who are telling their stories and telling how they lost their sons to gun violence, and being extremely brave and claiming what it is that they needed, which was to tell their story. I couldn't not be in those spaces and share, too. I believe in Black families; sometimes you don't know what the protocol is. You don't know how to take care of a loved one. We don't know how our ancestors practiced rituals and did things surrounding grief and preparing you for that.
I created an organization called The Song Remedy. So, I used people's affirmations, and I would sing those affirmations back to them. A lot of my healing process looked like it may have been a project, or it may have been me performing, or may have been me being a healer. But it really was just me healing myself and trying to figure out how to get through what I was going through. So, I continued to create spaces where I could be vulnerable and create spaces where people could hold me and help me hold the grief.
Ruth: I lost my son, Warren Daniel Hairston, 15 years ago to unsolved homicide, and in his death, I felt like he was being revictimized. He was someone that had trouble, and instead of honoring my son, they had his criminal record in the paper. So, even in death, I felt that he was being revictimized. I went through several stages of grief – isolation, depression – but I also said I'd lead with my mother's heart, because I still had compassion.
I got so much love and support by being a survivor, by losing a loved one due to gun violence…but I was still suffering in silence, because I had another son that was incarcerated due to gun violence. Because of the stigma and shame, I wasn't talking about it. At the time, there were no programs that were working with mothers that were impacted on both ends of gun violence: community harm and incarceration. And that's when I gave birth to the We are Better Together Warren Daniel Hairston Project. It's named after my son, and it's a way to honor his legacy, but it's also an opportunity for me to heal, as well.
We do restorative justice, but we also lead with compassion, because we believe what we do to one side we have to do to another, to interrupt that circle [of] violence in our community. We meet people where they are. In 2016, when I told my story, it wasn't the norm to be a mother that had two children that were impacted by gun violence. But, unfortunately now in 2022, I would say 80 percent of our community is impacted directly or indirectly due to homicide or incarceration.
We have the saying, “We go backwards in order to go forward.” And what does that mean? Tapping into some of our trauma history and things that we've been through. I'm a mother that was formerly incarcerated; I have over 21 years of recovery. It doesn't mean that I was a bad parent, but a lot of the stuff that was going on in my home was generational. And it wasn't until I knew better that I could do better. By being better and educating myself and getting the support and the healing I need, I can interrupt the circle of violence for my grandchildren and the other children that are in my family.
Tina: How does stigma around grief affect the healing process?
Ruth: What I realized is that nobody raises a murderer. Nobody raises a child to commit harm, that doesn't happen. But even in death, no matter what the circumstances may be, that was my child. That was my child, and his life mattered as well. There's a certain type of denial that happens; we don't want to really look at it for what it is. Whatever the situation may be, based on a stigma, the shame, the society, how they paint our children – I had to get past that and know that my child's life mattered. And he was loved. And he had a future.
And it was something about the pain of losing a child and being paralyzed with depression and grief that I had to turn my pain into purpose. No matter what it was, that was my child. That was my Danny, right? There are so many mothers and so many communities suffering in silence. They lost their words to even honor their children.
It was healing for me to walk in my truth. It was healing for me, because there were countless others. There were so many Ruth Rollinses, women that were going through the same thing, but because of the stigma and shame, they didn't have a space to honor their loved one. So what happens is, that unresolved trauma, that unresolved grief, just continues to cycle through family. If that mother’s child was causing harm, or whatever the circumstances may be, that generational trauma and hurt continues to happen throughout the family.
So I believe as I was lifted up, as I lift up other mothers and give them hope and a platform for healing, that we can interrupt the cycle of violence. Because I believe everyone needs a space to be able to heal, no matter what side of the scale that our loved one is on.
Tina: How can film transform the restorative process?
Terrance: In 2015, I was filming a basketball tournament in my neighborhood in Brooklyn. Off the court, a shooting took place. Four young men were shot. And we all rushed to the scene where the shooting took place. One young man was dying and literally expired in front of me. I was grief-stricken. I was angry. I was sad. I had all these emotions running through me and I didn't know what to do with them. At the same time, I was learning filmmaking. I was taking classes. I was trying to use my creative spirit for good, and I decided I wanted to use filmmaking as a tool to dig deeper, to investigate gun violence. Why are Black and brown folks dying at the rates we are through community violence?
Making ['Heaven: Can You Hear Me?'] was probably one of the most challenging things that I've ever undertaken. And I don't say that lightly. I was interacting with people who were traumatized. I was interacting with life and death issues and people who were in the midst of grief. And therefore I was in the midst of grief.
I found out that when you're working with other people, and you're relating to other people experiencing trauma, and you're sensitive and you have feelings, you're going to be traumatized as well. I was also a new filmmaker, so I was learning how to tell a story. But I was also learning how to tell a story that was sensitive to the people who I was interacting with, and I wanted to be as sensitive as possible. I wanted to be as caring as possible.
My true desire is that this film will help other people heal, that it will help other people talk about their grief and trauma, and it will help create awareness of the need to invest more resources in our communities, in Black and brown communities, for violence intervention, prevention and trauma services. It's something we don't talk about enough. I also have hope that in talking about these really tough issues, that we're creating awareness, that we're breaking down silos amongst ourselves, and that we're helping educate folks. And with education and that awareness, I think, comes action.
"Heaven: Can You Hear Me?" is now streaming online and on WORLD’s YouTube Channel. Stream "When the Waters Get Deep," presented in partnership with KQED Arts and Culture in San Francisco on KQED Arts' YouTube.
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