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Hadley Haas, a volunteer with Moms Demand Action, wears one of the group’s red and white buttons as she and others seeking an end to gun violence listen to national experts and a panel of local trailblazers during a forum in April at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh.

Image by John Altdorfer

Protecting Children 

Collaborators confront the epidemic of gun violence
by Barbara White Stack

A chilling statistic impelled Lisa Schroeder, president and CEO of The Pittsburgh Foundation, to act. The number, the annual calculation of child deaths and their causes, arrived in May of 2022.

For the first time ever, firearms killed more children aged one and older than any other cause. Violent death by gunshot wounds overtook violent death in car crashes in 2020 as the number-one killer of the nation’s most vulnerable, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported.

Schroeder found that intolerable, especially coming as it did on the heels of an 18-year-old shooting to death 19 elementary school children and two teachers at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. She asked several of her executive team members to identify solutions and advocate for them. Protecting children from gun violence clearly fell within the Foundation’s mission to improve public health in the Pittsburgh region.

Cause of Death, Ages 1‑19

Rate per 100,000 population, U.S. (2021)
Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

The Foundation partnered with two organizations that, like itself, fund nonpartisan solutions to regional challenges: the University of Pittsburgh’s Institute of Politics and the United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania.

The three agreed to conduct a series of forums in 2022 and 2023, titled Protecting our Region’s Children from Gun Violence, aimed at focusing the region’s attention on gun violence and promoting solutions through which neighborhoods, government agencies, organizations and individuals could collaborate to protect children, both physically and emotionally. Hundreds of community stakeholders and leaders attended the forums.

Now, The Pittsburgh Foundation is planning next steps. It will publish summaries of all three forums as well as a series of recommendations offered at those events. In addition, it will share the recommendations at virtual town halls and identify organizations able to implement them.

“We are looking for partners,” particularly among those already working to reduce gun violence, said Michael Yonas, Foundation vice president for Community Partnerships and Learning. “We are accountable to move this to an action step. That is one of our core values.”

The first step in this process was convening experts and community members in an attempt to understand the causes of the public health crisis killing the nation’s children. The three collaborators in this project believed they had to gather data, determine best practices and explore a wide range of potential cures for this deadly calamity.

Partnering with Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures, The Pittsburgh Foundation sponsored the first forum, Invisible Wounds: Identifying and Addressing the Trauma that Gun Violence Inflicts on Our Children, on Nov. 15, 2022, at Carnegie Lecture Hall.

As Schroeder introduced the keynote speaker, John Woodrow Cox, author of the book “Children Under Fire: An American Crisis,” she described the suffering inflicted by gunshots: “Each shooting that results in homicide or wounds generates trauma that travels outward, like a radioactive cloud.”

Schroeder told the audience that the previous spring she was feeling despondent after the massacre in Uvalde when she heard on her car radio an interview with Cox, a Washington Post enterprise reporter who for six years had researched the effects of gun violence on children. The resulting book was awarded the Goddard Riverside Stephan Russo Book Prize for Social Justice.

At the forum, Cox talked about how his research led him to a tragic insight. Gunfire traumatizes the immediate victims, of course. In addition, however, Cox found that gunfire psychologically injures hundreds of thousands, even millions more children. These include children who suffer after being in a school where a shooting occurs, even if they don’t hear or see any of the violence; children whose parent or sibling are shooting victims; and children compelled to participate in constant active shooter drills in school.

Cox also moderated a panel of Pittsburgh advocates who work to end gun violence, aid victims and heal communities. Panelists included Valerie Dixon, who lost her 22-year-old son, Rob Dixon, to gun violence in 2001, and now works as director of Family and Community Support at the Center for Victims. Also on the panel were Julius Boatwright, the founder and CEO of Steel Smiling, which works to bridge the gap between Black people and mental health support, and Orthodox Christian Priest Paul Abernathy, CEO of Neighborhood Resilience Project, which is devoted to healing communities.

The second forum, held April 18, 2023, was sponsored by the University of Pittsburgh Institute of Politics and held at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh on the North Side.

Mark Nordenberg, Pitt Chancellor Emeritus and chair of the Institute of Politics, introduced the program and noted that none of the three sponsoring organizations could have conceived when the Children’s Museum was envisioned that this group would convene in its halls 40 years later to try to stop gun violence against children.

Nordenberg told the audience that the United States is the only large, wealthy country where firearms are the leading cause of death for children and teens. In fact, Nordenberg said, shootings are not among the top four causes of child deaths in any other such country.

Rev. Tim Smith of the Keystone Church in Hazelwood tells attendees at the second of three forums titled Saving Our Children from the Epidemic of Gun Violence that it’s easier for too many kids in Hazelwood to get a gun than a healthy meal. Serving on a panel of speakers with him, to his left, is Jamil Bey, founder and CEO of UrbanKind Institute, and Dr. Elizabeth Miller, co-lead of the Pittsburgh Study, among many other titles.

Image by John Altdorfer

Firearm Mortality Rate, Ages 1‑19

Rate per 100,000 population, U.S. (2020) and peer Countries (2019)
Source: KFF analysis of CDC Wonder and Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) Global Burden of Disease data

Mark Nordenberg, University of Pittsburgh Chancellor Emeritus and Chair of the Institute of Politics, which in partnership with The Pittsburgh Foundation and the United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania sponsored three forums on gun violence, listens to speakers during the third forum in June.

Image by Michael Drazdzinski

Samantha Balbier, director of the Institute, agreed with Nordenberg, saying, “I can’t believe I am introducing speakers on gun violence in the same place where I have spent countless hours with my children.”

Speakers included Rev. Tim Smith of Keystone Church in Hazelwood, who said that, for him, gun violence meant presiding over an overwhelming number of funerals for men and boys and lamenting that guns had erased all of their potential.

Other speakers were Dr. Moira Szilagyi, immediate past president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, and Rosanna Smart, co-director of the RAND Corp. Gun Policy in America research initiative. They talked about the frequency and consequences of shootings.

During her career as a pediatrician, Dr. Szilagyi said she treated five children killed or injured by gun violence. “Like motor vehicle deaths, gun deaths are preventable,” she said.

Smart, a Ph.D. economist and researcher, described research results that suggested ways to reduce gun violence. Smart told the audience at the Children’s Museum that the issue took on urgency for her last year when she became a new mom. She showed a slide illustrating the 50 percent increase in gun deaths among children and said of her son, “It is painful for me to think about him being represented in this chart. I can’t imagine getting the call that your child is in lockdown at school, or sitting by his hospital bedside.”

The third and final forum, Mobilizing Communities for Action: How Organizations Can Come Together to Prevent Gun Violence, was held June 13, 2023, in the James E. Rohr Auditorium in The Tower at PNC Plaza, Downtown. Bobbi Watt Geer, president and CEO of the program’s sponsor, the United Way, opened the forum with the plea: “Help us chart a better future.”

The four speakers all said in one way or another that gun violence isn’t a problem that can be solved by a group, a program or a year’s time. It will require, instead, long-term commitment to a holistic plan created by a coalition of stakeholders, including faith leaders, young Black men, law enforcement, philanthropy, nonprofits, political figures and corporate chiefs.

The speakers were Sean Garrett, president and CEO of United Way of Metro Chicago; Josh Fleitman, campaign director for CeaseFirePA; Anthony Smith, executive director of Cities United; and Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey.

Gainey, whose sister and niece both died from gun violence, spoke passionately about the need for action, pointing out that there had been more mass shootings than days in 2023.

Smith told the forum, “We gotta have a vision for our children of Pittsburgh. What do we want Pittsburgh to look like in 10 years for them? How do we come together collectively to make that happen?”

That is what The Pittsburgh Foundation and its partners, the United Way and the Institute of Politics, are seeking with this project — a vision for safety, health and thriving for the region’s children.

Barbara White Stack is a freelance writer and editor.

Pumping up Public Health

It’s a new era for community foundations. Constructively recycling money – that is, soliciting grants, studying issues, then subsidizing problem resolution — no longer is considered the gold standard.

Community foundations are now taking on leadership roles to tackle serious social ills. Doing that is among the challenges that The Pittsburgh Foundation has accepted under its new strategic plan, which envisions an equitable, just and vibrant greater Pittsburgh. A key area for the Foundation to make that happen is public health.

As the Foundation’s vice president for Community Partnerships and Learning, Michael Yonas has a broad mandate that includes public health. He also manages scientific, medical and research funds; convenes external stakeholders to solve public health and environmental problems; and coordinates internal and external research and learning.

These activities will be conducted in a manner that engages those most impacted by the issues at hand.

Public health promotes and protects the health of all people and their communities. It is a science-based and data-guided practice that strives to give everyone a safe place to live, learn, work and play. Public health issues aren’t limited to illnesses such as COVID-19. Gun violence, pollution and lack of access to safe and affordable housing are also public health issues. Public health also operates across the spectrum of social and environmental determinants of health, and addresses persistent racial and economic disparities in diseases such as asthma, cancer and diabetes.

Operating under the tenet that health and safety are basic human rights, Yonas and his team are working to improve personal health, public health and well-being through participatory and prevention-focused activities and research. The department’s research, convening, policy and advocacy, Yonas says, will be rooted in the values of racial justice, collaboration, community, trust and accountability.

Over the past year, the Foundation and partners have been working to improve coordination and cooperation among community-based health care organizations such as Primary Care Health Services Inc., which operates 10 neighborhood clinics, and larger providers such as UPMC and the Allegheny County Health Department.

“What’s missing from the current system is recognition of the expertise, skill and capacity of people in these neighborhood organizations to help support our broader structure,” Yonas explains. That is particularly important because the populations typically served by the community-based health organizations are harder hit by public health crises such as COVID.

Cultivating communication among health care providers will be a step toward reducing health care inequities, another public health issue that the Foundation has prioritized. Dr. David A. Lewis, a member of the Foundation’s board of directors and medical director and director of research at UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital, says that the current state of public health covers more than the physical body.

“There are mental health issues that confer risk for medical issues,” says Lewis. “So kids who are exposed to drugs are more likely to have accidental causes of death in association with those, particularly alcohol.”

He says that the rate of schizophrenia is highest for people who were born and raised in a high-density area, like a major city, as opposed to less populated areas, but the reasons remain unknown.

The Foundation also is supporting breakthrough dementia research, including through the establishment of two Levidow-Pittsburgh Foundation Chairs in Alzheimer’s Disease and Dementia Disorders at the University of Pittsburgh.

Dr. Tharick Pascoal, a neurologist and associate professor of psychiatry and neurology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, reviews images of the brains of patients in the memory clinic at UPMC. He says he feels a sense of urgency to conduct successful research to help people with Alzheimer’s disease.

Image by Renee Rosensteel

Ruth Ann John, a medical assistant at Primary Care Health Services Inc. in Homewood, administers a COVID vaccine to Cara L. Finley, who lives in a nearby apartment building and has been coming to Primary Care Health Services for so long that she remembers when Dr. Jerome Gloster, now CEO, was her kids’ pediatrician.

Image by Joshua Franzos

Dr. David Lewis serves on the board of directors of The Pittsburgh Foundation. In that role and in his professions, he advances his passion to close the equity gap in medicine, especially in the area of mental health. Lewis is Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry and Neuroscience, Thomas Detre Professor of Academic Psychiatry, chair of the Department of Psychiatry, and director of the Translational Neuroscience Program at the University of Pittsburgh, as well as medical director and director of research at UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital.

Image by Joshua Franzos