Last year was the deadliest on record in Philadelphia’s history. A total of 562 people were killed in 2021 — over half of them young people under 30, including many children and teens.

This surge in violence is a national crisis, and it’s no coincidence that it has happened in lockstep with the pandemic. Here’s why: COVID-19 completely shut down our everyday community resources in 2020, and we’re still a far stretch away from normality. And community — in its largest sense — plays a huge role in preventing violence.

There has always been less violence in communities with access to steady employment, meaningful community engagement, safe housing, affordable health care, and quality schools. These are the things that make for safe communities. But even before the pandemic, they were already lacking in our poorest communities.

That’s one reason I created my organization, Mothers in Charge.

Twenty years ago, my life changed in an instant: In 2001, my son, Khaaliq Jabbar Johnson, a youth counselor, was murdered. The young man who killed him in a dispute over a parking space robbed our family and community of a bright, shining light.

My son’s murder propelled me to want to make a difference. Devastated that such senseless loss of life happens over and over, I found other mourning parents determined to do all we could to prevent future tragedies. Our progress has been hard-fought. Steadily we’ve grown — where we once solely partnered with experts, today we have become experts, ensuring that proven programs are provided in the Philadelphia neighborhoods and other cities where they are needed most.

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According to our internal data, we estimate that we have put 2,000 people through anger management courses each year while partnering with local courts. We host a 24-hour grief hotline and provide grief support to hundreds of people each year who’ve lost loved ones to violence. We’ve connected vulnerable youth with mentors, anti-bullying programs, and positive decision-making training. These programs support people’s basic needs, which helps prevent violence; if not for this work, murder rates would likely be even higher.

Mothers in Charge is far from the only group doing this lifesaving work. In communities across the country, there are programs that meet with gunshot victims while they receive hospital care, offering counseling and guidance on available support in the moment they need it. Violence interrupters work in neighborhoods to identify and de-escalate conflicts before they become violent. Other programs offer healing to violence victims so they don’t end up causing violence as a result of their pain.

Like Mothers in Charge, these programs work and reduce violence, but they haven’t been given the resources or time to take root. In 2013, a two-year federal grant supported CURE Violence, a program that treats violence like a disease to be cured, and homicides in North Philly fell 30%. But the funding didn’t continue.

I am optimistic things are starting to change. Our leaders are acknowledging we need solutions beyond overpolicing and mass incarceration, which don’t deliver safety. In President Joe Biden’s COVID-19 relief packages and proposed infrastructure budget, he has encouraged cities and states to invest in community-based violence prevention efforts.

Across the commonwealth, our leaders should ensure that COVID-19 relief federal funds prioritize community-based violence intervention and prevention efforts. There is no greater threat to our well-being than our historic levels of violence; supporting proven, community-led solutions should be a top priority.

“There is no greater threat to our well-being than our historic levels of violence; supporting proven, community-led solutions should be a top priority.”

Dorothy Johnson-Speight

Even if we are able to give these programs the tools they need to grow to meet the challenges before them, we should not expect progress to happen overnight. The instability in our cities that has created violence is generations in the making and will need sustained support to be undone. A single dose of insulin won’t cure a diabetic, and so won’t a single grant to a community organization. Maintaining physical health is a lifelong process, and so is the effort to support and sustain community-based violence prevention and intervention programs.

Dorothy Johnson-Speight is the founder and national executive director of Mothers in Charge Inc., based in Philadelphia.