Mothers for Justice and Equality Takes on Gun Violence

Photo By Zengzheng Wang

ROXBURY, Mass.—On 2 September 2010, someone gunned down 18-year-old Eric Smith on Blue Hill Ave. in Roxbury. The very next day, Eric’s aunt, Monalisa Smith, vowed to the Boston Herald that “those who are out there committing these crimes will understand the devastation they’re causing.” While nearly four years have passed and police have yet to apprehend Eric’s killer, Smith has made good on her promise. Shortly after her nephew’s death, she founded Mothers for Justice and Equality (MJE) – a group of mothers who have lost children to violence and are determined to end the bloodshed that plagues their communities. Smith and fellow MJE founder Priscilla Flint recently sat down to SCN to talk about their mission and the rash of violence the city has seen this year. Smith said that after her nephew’s death, she was determined to empower mothers in local neighborhoods afflicted by violence in order to create what she calls “change makers” who can positively impact their communities from within. “I really felt like I wanted to do something to really give voice to the people,” Smith said. “That I was to be able to understand what has happened to us and how are we going to change the story of our streets.” Smith began recruiting mothers shortly thereafter. Flint said she originally wanted to get her sister involved because she had lost a child to violence, but instead Flint wound up becoming one of the organization’s founding members. Since then, Flint said she has seen MJE change many lives. “I love this organization because I see the change,” Flint explained. “I see the women come in broken and see them leave lifted up.” While Flint’s children were not victims of gun violence, she understands the pain caused by the death of a child. According to Flint, she lost one of her children in a car accident and another in a fire. She also said that she has experienced homelessness, spending ten months living on the streets at one point. In 2010, Flint published her autobiography, I Look Back and Wonder How I Got Over, through Xulon Press. Flint said working with MJE has given her the opportunity to speak up about issues affecting her and her community, including gun violence, affordable housing and homelessness. “I’ve been through a lot,” she said. “And my community has always been my passion. I’ve always loved my community, and for me to see what’s happening to it, it just really gets my blood flowing.” Flint is a perfect example of the type of change makers that MJE hopes to create. “Our goal is to begin to create change makers,” Smith said, “to begin to create women … who will take up the cause and begin to go out and recognize there’s an issue, begin to mobilize citizens and begin to gain that type of respect from local and state government that change has to happen. A lot of the things that’ve happened to us happened because we slept on it.” “Even Dr. King talks about it in some of his speeches,” Smith continued. “He talks about, ‘Don’t be the Rip Van Winkles of modern-day times, only to wake up and find out that change happened and you weren’t part of the solution.’” In recent years, Boston has recovered from some of the most brazen acts of violence in recent history – including the 2007 shooting of Meals on Wheels driver Cedrick Steele, the 2010 Mattapan Massacre and the non-fatal shooting of 13-year-old Gabriel Clarke while he was on his way to church choir practice in Roxbury. There have been 19 homicides in Boston this year, according to the Boston Globe – more than twice as many as last year at this time. Of those 19 murders, seven occurred after Smith and Flint sat down with Spare Change News in March. Smith said that while she has been surprised at how brash some of these shootings have been in recent years, she has been equally surprised by the response from local police. “You’re seeing them catch the perpetrators,” Smith said. “You’re seeing a very immediate response to these things, and I believe that that is going to really send a message to these folks that really thought that they could get away with this crime. I am seeing more in the newspaper about individuals being prosecuted and convicted, and I think this is going to be the change maker in terms of law enforcement.” Smith said she hopes the police continue to be diligent as the weather continues to get warmer and kids are let out for summer vacation. “I’m concerned about the summer, you know, what will happen when the weather gets warmer,” Smith said. “I’m hoping that there is more police visibility, there’s more community visibility on the streets, because that is going to be the change maker here as well.” Smith feels it is important for young people to have summer jobs that they can go to instead of spending their time on the streets with nothing to do. “Violence is going to happen,” Smith said. “How we deal with that is going to be the tell-all, you know. How we respond to it is going to be very important.” Along with combating violence, Smith and Flint also talked about the issue of large developments throughout the city that have led to higher rents. According to Smith, that happened because people within the community were not paying close attention when it came time to go to the polls. “Rent control went away because we allowed it to go away,” Smith said. “We did not vote. We did not understand what was on the books and we voted ‘okay’ for that, or we never went to the polls. We need to begin to take it back a few steps and begin to really educate ourselves on, What does that legislation mean? What does that vote no or vote yes mean? Because the folks who are for it, they have the resources to begin to market it. They begin to spin it differently so we begin to believe that this is good for us. “A lot of the developments we see happening right before our very eyes are not low-income housing,” Smith said. “They have a few pieces in it, but that’s market housing.” Smith and Flint also want to create what they call “community fellows” whom local governments can invest in to help represent communities and bring about the change those specific neighborhoods need. “If you create fellows, what do you do? Your mission is to begin to give them the seed funding to be able to go out and do what they do,” Smith said. “On a larger scale, organizations that have fellows, they find the change makers … and they then invest in her vision. They pay her salary for three years so that her community change gets up and running.” “But those type of fellow programs, we don’t have that at the grass-root level,” Smith continued. “Those are at the higher level where they look for the best of the best, and they begin to invest in them. We need to [invest in] those people at the bottom that have vision, that have the drive, that have the passion to really move our city to the change that it needs to be at, and we need to invest in them.” Since Eric’s death, Smith and MJE have made inroads with people in their community, as well as local officials. Smith said Mayor Martin Walsh has stopped by their offices to talk to them about issues affecting local communities and that they plan on speaking with him again in the future about how to deal with those issues. MJE has received numerous awards and recognition for its work. In 2012, Smith the Boston Globe named one of its twelve most innovative people in Massachusetts. MJE was also named one of the Globe’s 100 best innovators. The Boston Foundation also awarded them a $30,000 grant as part of its StreetSafe Program. These awards were milestones for MJE. But as Smith was sitting with the president and executives of Citizens Bank, where she also works, to receive another aware, she says that she suddenly had a realization. “Something came to me as I was sitting there and said, ‘No matter how good you are, or how smart you are, no matter how much you do, you will never bring your nephew back,’” Smith said. “I realized that it wasn’t about him. It was reall
y about what was happening with the people, [and] that he’s never coming back. His life was taken from us, and in order for him to move forward, this change has to happen.”