Sunday, January 8, 2017

the story behind UNDER the GUN


I curated an art show about guns that opens this Friday at Work | Release, but I hope we don't talk about guns at all, to be honest with you.

I don't want to talk about background checks.

I don't want to talk about the Second Amendment.

I hope, just for a minute, we can get out from under the weight of this machine and instead focus on the person holding it.

This is where we all agree: mental healthcare should be better in America, starting in all our communities.

Let's start there. And let's stay there until we've worked together to help heal our community in lasting, tangible ways.


It was back in August that I was approached by two strangers who have since become friends: John Rohrs, rector from St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in West Ghent, and Harold Cobb, rector from Grace Episcopal Church on East Brambleton. From the beginning this felt special, if for no other reason than you had two groups from opposite sides of the city coming together for a greater good. 

They had left their comfort zones for a common cause: to use art as a catalyst for community activism in ways that lead to less gun violence in Norfolk. They asked me to curate the show, and while I definitely didn't have the time, the opportunity was too great, and this cause too important. I asked my old partner, Hannah Serrano, if she would co-curate, and we were off and running. 

I did some research on gun violence.  I knew that mass shootings are an outlier (less than 1% of all gun deaths every year) so the focus shouldn't be there. What surprised me to learn was that the real problem with gun violence, when you look at the statistics, has nothing to do with terrorists, mass shooters, or even gang violence. It's suicide. 

The ratio of suicides by guns to murders by guns is almost 2-to1. These deaths aren't splashed across the TV news the way that terrorism or mass shootings are, but I refuse to let myself be manipulated by this sensationalizing. The statistics -- reality -- demand that we first move away from the gun control conversation to address the self-control situation.

It's not some "bad guy" who is most likely to kill you. 

You are.

Suicide takes about 20 veterans a day, and they kill themselves a lot more than us civilians do. "Veterans make up less than 9 percent of the U.S. population, yet account for 18 percent of all suicides in America."

As reported by the BBC, the suicide rate in the US has surged to its highest level in almost three decades, according to a new report. The problem is particularly acute among white men. "In 2014, more than 14,000 middle-aged white people killed themselves. That figure is double the combined suicides total for all blacks, Hispanics, Asians, Pacific Islanders, American Indians, and Alaska Natives."

While the mass shootings cause giant splashes that shake our communities, suicides cause just as much splash, in their own way, in the worlds of the deceased.

According to a report from Harvard Health called "Left behind after suicide," "People who've recently lost someone through suicide are at increased risk for thinking about, planning, or attempting suicide."

So if we really want to protect the innocent from gun violence, it's not the outlier maniacs we should be worried about locking up; it's the mental health services we should be opening up and expanding.

It's the depression stigma we should be trying to expel.


The art is going to be great. Hannah and I reached out to some of the most talented people in Norfolk we know to create new work. We are also bringing in some great art from around the country, made by artists who are addressing the issue in interesting, thought-provoking, and beautiful manners. 

In a way the art will serve as candles in the window, calling all to be a part of these processes of healing and empowerment that are going to be going on during the run of the show.

The art is a beginning, a spark of inspiration. The programming is how we change our little world here.

There are three events set-up to address mental heathcare and stigma.  
- There will be an all-day training for local clergy, helping them to better identify those in their flock who might be suffering from mental health issues, how to talk to them, and how to get them help. This happens 1/19.
- There will be a similar training for local bartenders and hair stylists, key "gate keepers" in our community. This takes place on Monday, January 23rd. Please reach out to me if you're interested in attending.
- The big event is a Forum on Mental Heathcare & Stigma in Norfolk. We'll have representatives from the Navy, Sentara, and Community Services on the panel, and community members will have a chance to tell their stories, give feedback, and ask questions. This happens on January 26th from 6pm to 7:30pm. Sometime in February the City of Norfolk/ Community Services Board will lead step two of this process of figuring out how our community can do better.

We felt like it was also important to address domestic violence in an empowering way. The facts are alarming: "people with a history of committing domestic violence are five times more likely to subsequently murder an intimate partner when a firearm is in the house," according to EverytownResearch.

Women need to know they are strong enough to survive after walking out that door. To that end, a group of dear friends, amazing, empowered women, have set up free women's self-defense training and an empowerment workshop, led by a former Virginia Beach police officer. That happens Saturday, January 21, at 10am.

There will also be a lot of great entertainment happening in the space while the show is up. I'll be sharing those on my Facebook page as they come. 


I need you involved.

Our community needs your help. 

Personally, I can promise you that I'm going to stick with this until we have made what is a structural difference that leads to outcomes like: 
- Lessening of the stigma of mental health issues. 
- More gatekeeper training of clergy, bartenders, hair stylists, teachers, and the like. 
- Increased access to mental healthcare, be it through the private healthcare systems, local and state government, and/or the faith community.

This time it's personal. 


A special group of people have come together to make this show and programming happen. I am hoping that not only do we make progress on this vitally important issue, but that we have built a coalition of compassionate doers that will continue to work together on other community-centric initiatives. 

A lot of good can happen when the artist community, the faith community, the healing community, and the local government come together to address problems in a united way. 

Big thanks to: 
John and Andie Rohrs, and the whole St. Andrew's family, for leading the charge.
Harold and Sheliah Cobb, and the whole Grace Episcopal family; and Win and Cathy Lewis, and the whole Christ & St. Luke's family, who have each offered such important leadership, willingness to make connections, and spiritual guidance.

Meredith and Brother Rutter, for saying Yes and for being such generous hosts.  
Careyann Weinberg, for being awesome to work with every day. This lady gets shit done. We had a meeting the other day to lay out the show..... which Careyann completely controlled -- in an excellent way -- while also being on the other line ordering a new oven. She's a beast.
And Charlie for being crazy/brilliant/wild Charlie, always coming through with the next great idea to take something to the next level. 
The whole team at Work Release has been great to work with and interact with. High five to Thomas Wilkinson, art handler and dignified gent extraordinaire. 

All the artists. We've got all first round picks in this show. Everyone has been amazing to work with. (I'm going to do a future blog dedicated just to them.) Hannah found some great artists, and also thanks to Cheryl White and Ashley Berkman for clutch suggestions. 

The City of Norfolk has been great to work with, specifically James Rogers in the Community office, and Sarah Fuller at Community Services Board. These people are smart, dedicated, open, and so clearly care about the people they serve. You'll never see their faces on the cover of a local magazine, but they're the kind of people we should be naming buildings after. They are true civil servants, and I admire the hell out of them. 

The women behind the empowerment brunch: Reese Beeler, Marcella Nicotra, Nicole Carry, Trish Ferris, and Jessie Lynn Williams. This is happening the same day as the Women's March on Washington. I'm delighted that there will be such a solid local option for people who can't make the trip. 


We are going to make a difference here. I look forward to seeing all of you out at opening night, at some of the programming, and throughout the process going forward as we find ways to heal our community from the inside out.

I know this is an issue so many of you care deeply about. Here's an opportunity for us to make a difference. THANKS Y'ALL. LOVE.

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