In 2021, as President Biden took office, various stakeholder groups met with members of Congress to encourage action on gun violence prevention, a signature goal of the new administration. As part of the process, Congress sought out scholars of color to share their perspectives on the problem and potential solutions.
Dr. Shani Buggs, an assistant professor in the Department of Emergency Medicine at the University of California, Davis, was one such researcher. Buggs, who studies the drivers of and public health interventions for gun violence, in turn contacted her own network of Black and brown scholars, seeking their input on the most important gun violence issues of the moment.
“It was important to me that it was not just my voice that was heard,” Buggs says.
A meeting with Congress has yet to materialize, but Buggs’s network of scholars kept meeting to discuss the issue and it sparked the idea for an organization to uplift the work of Black and brown researchers.
“There was a strong desire among these scholars to join forces and elevate visibility and opportunities for Black and brown scholars for their meticulous research and expertise to be acknowledged and valued in the same way that white researchers have been centered in conversations about gun violence in Black and brown communities,” Buggs explains.
In July, the Black and Brown Collective: Centering Community Solutions to Gun Violence, officially launched as a new organization focused on increasing research to inform solutions to gun violence — specifically research led by scholars of color. The planning of the collective was supported over the past year by Arnold Ventures and others, including the Joyce Foundation, the California Wellness Foundation, and UC Davis.
We’re interested in changing the narrative about gun violence to inform solutions. We need better research and public education around the causes, consequences, experiences, and potential solutions to this complex problem.Jocelyn Fontaine vice president of criminal justice research for Arnold Ventures
“We’re interested in changing the narrative about gun violence to inform solutions,” says Jocelyn Fontaine, vice president of criminal justice research at AV. “We need better research and public education around the causes, consequences, experiences, and potential solutions to this complex problem. We want safer communities, more justice, and a more equitable justice system response to the problem of gun violence. The Black and Brown Collective aims to help make those changes a reality.”
“Communities that have been impacted by gun violence will be equal partners”
While gun violence has declined over the past three decades, it remains concentrated in disadvantaged Black and brown communities. Homicide is the leading cause of death for young Black men and the second leading cause of death for young Hispanic men. Therefore, it is particularly important that scholars from these communities, many of whom are intimately acquainted with the dynamics and impact of gun violence, receive support to study the problem and its solutions.
The Black and Brown Collective brings together a racially, ethnically, and geographically diverse group of two dozen researchers from the University of Maryland, the University of Chicago, the New School, RTI International, and other institutions dedicated to building data on gun violence and an evidence base on effective interventions.
The collective has three primary objectives: to increase racial equity in gun violence research funding, to increase representation and build the pipeline of young Black and brown scholars in the field, and to center the voices of the communities most affected by gun violence. That last goal includes forming partnerships with community leaders to identify characteristics of the problem and consider questions of research design, ethics, methodology, data analysis, and dissemination to inform gun violence solutions.
Buggs is currently the co-chair of the organization. She began her career in public health as a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Gun violence was not her original research interest, but shortly after she began the program, the mass shooting in Aurora, Colorado took place.
“I was struck by how much attention it got, compared with how little attention the more frequent shootings in Baltimore received, which were no less devastating or deserving of the same calls for resources, healing, and action,” Buggs says.
Buggs came to believe she could make a greater social impact by devoting her studies to community violence and its prevention. Over the years, her work has examined firearm violence as it relates to policy, structural violence, neighborhood collective efficacy, community-driven intervention strategies, and policing.
Too often, Buggs says, researchers on gun violence in Black and brown communities have reductively pathologized patterns of interpersonal violence instead of seeking to understand it with contextual, intersectional, and systems-level thoughtfulness. That’s why it has been so important for her to build a network of researchers who are more proximate to the problem.
“This is an issue that affects our families, our communities, and our loved ones in ways that are different from that of people who aren’t as closely impacted,” she says. “That makes our research no less rigorous, but at the same time, this is not simply an academic exercise for us to explore.”
Co-chairing the Black and Brown Collective alongside Buggs is Dr. Joseph Richardson, the MPower Professor of African-American Studies, Medical Anthropology, and Epidemiology at the University of Maryland. Richardson says his involvement in research on gun violence is personal.
“I grew up in Philly, clearly a city that has high rates of gun violence,” he explains. “I was an adolescent coming of age in the crack era, and that was our first wave seeing peaks in gun violence across the country. I had several people in my neighborhood who died of gun violence. I just happened to survive it.”
When Richardson came to the University of Maryland, he found that he was the only gun violence researcher on campus, and he was somewhat isolated in the field. That’s when he met Dr. Carnell Cooper, a Black trauma surgeon at the University of Maryland who helped pioneer hospital-based violence intervention programs (HVIP) in Baltimore, and Dr. Tanya Sharpe, an associate professor at the University of Toronto and the founder and director of the Centre for Research & Innovation for Black Survivors of Homicide Victims. Together they discussed the state of gun violence research and noticed the absence of Black and brown scholars in mainstream grantmaking and media coverage.
Working with Cooper, Richardson established an HVIP in Washington, D.C. in an effort to reduce gunshot victimization in the trauma centers of local hospitals, which has served as the model for five additional HVIPs in the metropolitan area. He also made a documentary to highlight the voices of young Black men who had received HVIP services.
“I knew that there were people doing the work,” he says, “but we needed better infrastructure to connect us, because we were in these really disparate circles.”
Today, Richardson is thrilled to expand the network of Black and brown gun violence researchers through the collective. He is particularly optimistic about the collective’s mission to center the voices of the communities most impacted by gun violence.
The communities that have been impacted by gun violence will be equal partners in identifying the problem and working in an equitable relationship with scholars.Dr. Joseph Richardson MPower Professor of African-American Studies, Medical Anthropology, and Epidemiology for the University of Maryland
“I haven’t seen that approach taken,” Richardson says. “The communities that have been impacted by gun violence will be equal partners in identifying the problem and working in an equitable relationship with scholars on the research design, the dissemination, and the translation of research into policy interventions.”
Another researcher involved with the collective is Dr. Stephanie Hawkins, vice president of the Transformative Research Unit for Equity (TRUE) at RTI International. Hawkins became involved in gun violence research when she saw its impact on young children during her training in clinical psychology.
“I realized that I had the option to work with these young people and their families one by one, or I could use my research to inform policy that can help create positive change in their communities,” Hawkins says. “That has been my pathway to being in this space of community violence prevention.”
In her current role at RTI, she worked on a five-year evaluation of male survivors of violence, a project supported by the Justice Department’s Office for Victims of Crime.
For that project, Hawkins convened local evaluators, which helped build a network of gun violence researchers. Many of those scholars are now a part of the Black and Brown Collective.
Like Richardson, Hawkins has found that the perspective of Black and brown researchers on gun violence is critically important — and direly under-represented.
“Researchers of color, we look at things differently, we ask different questions,” Hawkins says. “People in communities that experience gun violence look like our own family members. It could be our own experience, so we look at the world differently. That vision deserves the same level of attention as other researchers who may not have had these experiences or perspectives but get way more press and attention. The world needs to be expanded, and other voices need to be heard.”
Hawkins explains that her work with TRUE at RTI will provide opportunities through the Black and Brown Collective. Their research programs and emerging equity scholar program will create spaces for Black and brown scholars to begin their careers through summer internships or regular employment. There are also many researchers at RTI who can provide robust collaboration opportunities.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better event”
In July, the Black and Brown Collective held a one-day meeting in Chicago, co-sponsored by AV and the Joyce Foundation, to launch the network. In attendance were the members of the collective’s board, research partners from institutions like Johns Hopkins University, and the collective’s core group of scholars who have been developing a research agenda over the past two years. The event also attracted funders, including the Pew Charitable Trusts, the MacArthur Foundation, and representatives from the Justice Department.
The goal was to present the agenda to research partners and funders and invite feedback — as well as to solicit more funding for this important work.
We want to create lasting change and peace through the synergy of science, community, and collective action. That is the ultimate goal.Dr. Shani Buggs assistant professor in the Department of Emergency Medicine for the University of California, Davis
“The soft launch was amazing,” Richardson says. “As someone who has been part of the planning process, I couldn’t have asked for a better event where everyone was engaged over the entire five hours.”
Buggs notes that the collective has already received interest from several funders, and additional researchers are eager to join. The next step, she says, will be a public launch, with a formal announcement of the board, development of the staffing structure, and completion of a research agenda. The collective will also bring on an executive director to guide the organization.
“We are intentional about collaboration and about shifting the paradigm in how we think about gun violence in the United States,” Buggs says. “We want to create lasting change and peace through the synergy of science, community, and collective action. That is the ultimate goal.”