When you were little, what did you want to be when you grew up?
For me, the answer usually rotated between some sort of doctor or a writer.
I grew up in an environment that recognized my strengths and weaknesses and offered resources to work on both. In middle school when I struggled with depression, a stable home greeted me after school each day, providing security. In high school when I struggled with anxiety, an attentive teacher noticed, offering reassurance. In college when I was sexually assaulted, support services wrapped around me, granting space to heal.
This environment was made possible, in part, by quality affordable housing opportunities for my parents, a school that afforded teachers the capacity for individualized support, and a university with ample resources.
This support allowed me to become the type of doctor that writes a lot, fulfilling childhood aspirations.
We all experience challenges in life; some of us are able to achieve our goals nonetheless. It’s hard to say whether successful outcomes after adversity stem from resiliency, a supportive environment, or some combination of both. I feel strongly that my environment was a key ingredient for reaching my own goals.
There are individuals, neighborhoods, and communities that aren’t afforded environments with these structures in place to help people thrive. The consequences can be dire, even for resilient and goal-oriented individuals.
No child says, “I want to be involved with violence when I grow up.” But firearm-related injuries are now the leading cause of death for young people.
Gun violence affects people and communities of all characteristics. However, community violence (including gun violence) disproportionately invades low-income communities of color that may suffer from decades of disinvestment and ultimately lack supportive environments.
In this context, we consider supportive environments as those that offer access to quality housing options, healthcare, economic stability, education, and related key drivers of stability (CDC).
Addressing gun violence in communities characterized by long-term disinvestment is complex and requires solutions that acknowledge that complexity.
Local Gun Violence Prevention
In 2020, a mass shooting took the lives of four people and injured others in the Beatties Ford community in Charlotte. Nearly 200 shell casings were collected following the tragedy. In 2021, Beatties Ford was selected to receive the Alternatives to Violence (ATV) program, a firearm violence prevention program. The UNC Charlotte Urban Institute (Institute) is currently conducting a three-year evaluation of ATV.
The Beatties Ford community is a historically under-resourced community that now copes with both the outcomes of that disinvestment and displacement pressures from a rapidly gentrifying West End increasingly flooded with investments.
In March and April of 2023, the Institute’s evaluation team (including the authors of this article) conducted 250 surveys in the Beatties Ford area. The survey asked local residents to share their knowledge of their community’s strengths, challenges, and attitudes related to violence.
Our team heard stories that evidenced long-term disinvestment in the Beatties Ford community firsthand when conducting surveys in the same location as the 2020 mass shooting. Although we can’t share specific stories (to protect the privacy of study participants), we illustrate a typical day of surveys in the following paragraphs. Survey-related findings are italicized.
A Day of Community Surveys
We parked next to a business in the community, where we saw individuals passing time. One individual shared, “We found a quiet spot where we don’t have to worry about gunshots.” The survey results showed most respondents agreed with the statement “people are worried about violence in Beatties Ford.”
We received permission from the business manager to set up our survey tables near the business; they quickly agreed to sign a form allowing us to continue our work.
Outside, about a dozen community members chatted around bus stops on both sides of the road. Many of these individuals appeared to be carrying bags of personal belongings. We quickly engaged community members interested in the survey— some were eager to share their experiences and hopes for the community. When asked to describe Beatties Ford in one to two words, local residents expressed a wide range of sentiments: “busy,” “fair," “rough”, "good.”
Given recent investments in the offices of violence prevention in North Carolina State as well as Mecklenburg County, one might presume gun violence is the top concern for local residents. However, one of the most frequently cited community challenges was homelessness. Homelessness can be a consequence of economic instability–a legacy of the long-term disinvestment in the Beatties Ford Neighborhood. Today, the median income of families in Beatties Ford is about $30,000 per year, compared to $200,000 per year in neighborhoods such as Myers Park and Eastover. Poverty is a social determinant of inequitable health outcomes, such as violence. People who experience homelessness are at higher risk of being victims of violence than those who are housed.
We easily recall an individual who was experiencing homelessness and seemed happy to share their story with our team. They were being treated for a major health problem but seemed to be in good spirits. After completing the survey, they shared photos of beloved family members, gifted one of our researchers an embrace, said “God bless you,” then left, greeting familiar faces passing by.
We observed evidence of extraordinary hardship, such as homelessness and significant health challenges, and yet a spirit of togetherness and hope for progress in the community. Some survey respondents had lived in Beatties Ford for decades—their entire lives. Respondents reported about the rich history, willingness to help neighbors, and family-orientation of the Beatties Ford community, among other assets. These factors help explain the commitment to the community expressed by several residents.
When asked about the strengths of Beatties Ford, an individual looked up and said, “it’s you all being out here.” Now, we strive to fulfill that perception of our roles as researchers at a public institution and advocate for improved resources in the Beatties Ford community.
In our recently released Alternatives to Violence Evaluation Year-One Report, the evaluation team recommends that the broader community address the structural, social, and other key risk factors for violence that the ATV team is unable to address alone. This recommendation aligns with the City’s broader efforts to create a safer Charlotte, such as through SAFE Charlotte work, as well as with the Mecklenburg County’s violence prevention plan.
SAFE Charlotte acknowledges that addressing systemic issues is critical to ensuring a more equitable community and opportunity for all residents. Through the City’s Corridors of Opportunity program, investments are being made in 6 key corridors. Projects have focused on affordable housing, infrastructure, transportation, and workforce and business development. Continued investment and support will be needed to realize a safer Charlotte for all. The county’s violence prevention plan also highlights the need to address broader systemic issues.
A separate part of our evaluation included interviews with ATV program staff. We asked them about their experiences working with program participants, who are usually adolescents and young adults. One staff member shared:
“I have had kids that I have asked, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’
And they said, ‘Nobody ever asked me that.’”
Preventing violence requires addressing whole people and whole communities by creating environments that allow individuals to thrive and dream about who and what they can become.
Let’s work together to support Charlotte communities so that we can ask children what they want to be when they grow up, then rest assured knowing we’ve done what we can to create an environment that supports the answer.
Note: These evaluation activities took place with funding from the City of Charlotte. The evaluation was approved by the University of North Carolina at Charlotte’s Institutional Review Board. Our team did not plan to write about this experience; as such, quotes from interactions have been paraphrased or re-phrased, and specific examples shared, with identifying details omitted, occurred more than once to protect the identities and privacy of community residents.
Special thanks to Angelique Gaines and Bridget Anderson for their contributions to this article.