Loss is something that we all experience at some point, but in urban communities we experience it more often.
When I was 10, my stepdad told me, “You need to start taking pictures with all your friends cause one day you’re gonna look at them and say ‘He’s gone, he’s gone, and he’s gone. He’s in jail, and he’s in jail.’” At the time, I didn’t know what he was talking about.
Now, when I think of loss, I think about my friend in eighth grade. I’d known Lamar since we were five, we went to elementary school together. When I think about us being in class I remember him goofing off in the cafeteria. That’s something that I always hold on to: him goofing off.
Lamar was from the Crescent Park community and I lived in the Manor, two large low-income apartment complexes in the city of Richmond, in the San Francisco Bay Area. The complexes are close – you could hear when something was going on in the other. I heard the shooting that killed Lamar, though at the time I didn’t know who was targeted. Then someone said Lamar and his cousins were in the car that got shot up, and Lamar was the one who got hit.
Lamar’s funeral took place near our homes in Richmond. It was my first time going to a friend’s funeral.
From there, the shooting and deaths kept coming. I can’t count the number of people I know who’ve been shot or died on my hands. There are definitely more than 10. If you count the adults that I knew as a kid, more than 20.
As a teen, I started writing about my community for Youth Radio, a youth development organization in Oakland. I covered what people in the hood were dealing with, like trauma, and was learning about healthy food. It made me think about general wellness in my community.
That’s when I organized my first healing retreat. At the time there were a lot of women in the community – my sisters, cousins and friends – who all had babies and had been dealing with some sort of postpartum depression. They got together in the Manor, all those new young mothers. They held each other, cried and provided support for each other.
The healing circles got me thinking about my place in my community, and how health and consciousness and surviving are connected. I thought about the mental state of young people in our communities.I thought, “How can I create a space where people can feel connected to their community without fearing that someone’s gonna come shooting it up?”
When we don’t create social spaces for each other to have a good time, it’s deteriorating our health in a way.
Much has changed in the Bay Area since Lamar’s death. Statistics and news reports show that gun violence in the region has declined sharply in the past decade. In 2006, there were 42 shooting deaths in Richmond and the city was seen as one of the most dangerous places in the country. By 2017 there were just nine fatal shootings there. But I was still seeing people get shot in my community.There’s still mental trauma that’s not being addressed.
Our community still needs healing. Hurt people hurt people. Someone who pulls the trigger is extremely hurt. That person is dealing with suffering and trauma. No one can kill and just be OK. I have sympathy and empathy for that because that person needs some type of resource. They need help.
We have to heal our people and change the hood culture. I’m always gonna rep my hood, but hood culture is not about killing. It’s about struggling sometimes but elevating yourself from your struggles, and then going back and helping people like you.
And it takes the hood to heal the hood. We know what we need, we are the experts on this situation. This is our life and we need people who resemble us to say, “Look bro, you don’t have to be doing this.”
So I started organizing. I set up book drives around the city of Richmond, and began facilitating healing circles for mothers who lost their sons to gun violence. Another project, Healed by Akosua, is providing social spaces where people can come together to deal with any type of trauma. I got involved in Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice, a national group that advocates for violence prevention and victims’ services.
There’s still a lot of work to be done. There are many women-led organizations and projects in California, like the RYSE Center in Richmond and California surgeon general Nadine Burke-Harris’s call for trauma screenings for kids. But we need more men helping young men transition into other paths.Advertisement
When I was organizing healing spaces in Richmond, young men came up to give me props but they didn’t show up in the space. Being vulnerable is a touchy thing.
I was still organizing and promoting healing throughout my community when a friend told me about a grant for people who do this kind of work.
Last year, I was invited to participate in the Survivors Speak conference – a day of action for crime survivors with a march and meetings with state lawmakers in Sacramento. My cousin, Fontino Hardy Jr, had just been killed, and I had planned to carry his picture during the march.
When I was packing my bags for the conference, I heard shots. In my community, when you hear shots, you immediately feel a pit in your stomach. You have a nagging feeling that someone you know may be involved. So you run outside, you need to be out there.
I got to the scene and saw a pool of blood. Then dudes came toward me trying to hug me, to comfort me. They told me it was my brother who got shot.
My mom and I met up and headed to the hospital. Meanwhile I was on the phone with a friend who had been at the scene. At first we thought my brother got shot in the neck. Then we heard that it was the head.
It was Marczari. My little brother was 18 at the time – the funniest kid. Always been a lil’ homebody type.
When we got to the hospital, it was locked down. It’s not abnormal – when kids get shot in a hood community, hospitals worry about retaliation – but it’s devastating as a family member because there’s no way to figure out what’s going on.
We were out there for three hours before we saw him. Three hours of crying, just hoping for information. I can’t even imagine how that must have felt to my mother.
In my community, when you hear shots, you immediately feel a pit in your stomach. You have a nagging feeling that someone you know may be involved
We finally got inside the hospital around 2am, as my brother was undergoing surgery. Afterwards, only two people could come into the room at the same time, so we alternated until 5 o’clock in the morning.Advertisement
All of a sudden I realized I had to leave for the conference in Sacramento. My sister drove me back home. I jumped in the shower. My bag was already packed. She dropped me off at the bus station, and there I was on my way to Sacramento to the crime survivors’ conference.
On the drive I just stared out the window – just thinking that it could be really bad, and I’d be all the way in Sacramento.
I wasn’t crying. I was being hella strong, thinking, “I’m going for my brother, I’m going for Fontino. I’m going for Richmond.” I was pumping myself up, but deep down it was a tough thing.
I got to the conference and it was beautiful. Hundreds and hundreds of people who had some type of trauma, some type of pain. And they decided to do something about it. They lost their family members, but they created organizations, they created opportunities for other people so they don’t have to experience the same thing.
A couple weeks later Marczari came home and already had hair growing over his surgery scar and would play video games in his room.
It’s been about a year. Marczari is back to playing video games and being his old self. It’s moving to see him walking and talking. And this year, he actually went to the Survivors Speak conference in Sacramento.
- As told to Abené Clayton. Monifa Akosua is a community organizer and healer from Richmond, California, where she holds healing circles for women dealing with postpartum depression and the loss of their sons to gun violence. She now works in the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in Oakland as an advocate and organizer.
- Gun homicides in California’s Bay Area have dropped 30% in the past decade. This piece is the first in a series by local and national experts on what’s driving the decrease.