Far Out of Our Comfort Zone

This piece was written for Living City Magazine which covers developments in interreligious and ecumenical dialogue, and features profiles and interviews with people who are making a difference.  It appeared in their March 2019 issue.

I’ll never forget the moment I heard the news. I was out of town and away from the newsroom, but I couldn’t avoid this story. For the second time in a month, a toddler was the unintended target of gun violence in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Violence was surging in the city and starting to affect everyone, including the journalists at our television station. After the first shooting just weeks earlier, our employees had decided to donate money to help pay for the 2-year-old victim’s funeral. After this latest killing, we knew we had to do more. But what?

The newsroom staff was tired of covering crime and these heartbreaking stories. Television stations like ours are good at covering the news, but rarely do we take steps to try to change it. In this case, in order to stop covering crime, we had to reduce it. That was our challenge.

After a few weeks of brainstorming and meeting with community leaders, we launched a campaign we called “Victory Over Violence.” No one entity would be able to stop the violence, so our goal was to unite and empower the various groups in Central Arkansas who were already working to curb it. We met dozens of organizations doing amazing work in various key areas like education, hunger, jobs and mentoring. In many cases, few people in town knew about these good works, and we found the groups rarely knew about each other.

We took steps to connect the groups and bring them together through various events and initiatives. Throughout it all, love of neighbor was at the root of everything we did. How can you love a neighbor well without getting to know them? In order to reduce crime and homicides, we had to help people know and care about each other, and ultimately create a culture where violence wouldn’t be tolerated.

44835448_10218011071653546_7816058373765332992_nWe started simple in neighborhoods through “Victory Walks.” In these events, we’d work with community organizers to put together a march in targeted areas of town. We’d walk about a mile through the neighborhood and end at a park or church with a gathering, cookout and activities for the kids.

We had no idea what to expect at our first event. This wasn’t our line of business and took us far outside our comfort zone. We were pleasantly surprised when nearly 1,000 people showed up, including many community leaders. The first event proved many people felt the same way we did: they were fed up and wanted the city to change.

As we aimed to bring community groups together, we found a powerful ally in U.S. Congressman French Hill. The Republican lawmaker and Catholic came to our first event and recognized the campaign could be good for his district. Sitting down with Rep. Hill, it was clear he was interested in tackling the root of the crime problem and ensuring children had a bright future. We asked him if he could help us bring the city and state’s top leaders to the table to discuss concrete ideas to implement in Little Rock. He did just that, bringing in Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, then-Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola and other local leaders.

Not everyone was as easy to win over. Little Rock Police Chief Kenton Buckner seemed skeptical of what we were doing. I certainly understood his distrust of partnering with a media organization that wasn’t always favorable in its coverage of the police department, which had its fair share of problems. It was difficult to get him to attend meetings or make commitments to the Victory Over Violence campaign. However, we weren’t going to be successful if we didn’t have the backing and cooperation of the people responsible for keeping our city safe.

I understood that the first thing I needed to do was “make myself one,” stepping into the shoes of the police. Instead of complaining about a lack of cooperation, I signed up for the Little Rock Citizen’s Police Academy. During the 12-week course, I was able to better understand the way the department combated crime, talk to officers about their experiences and share with them our coverage plans and guidelines.

At the graduation ceremony for the academy, the chief stood in front of our group and challenged us to keep working to make Little Rock a better place to live.

“Do something. Be active,” Buckner said. “Like Kellerman over there, step up and try to make a difference.”

Chief Buckner came to our next Victory Over Violence meeting and many of those that followed. The next time I made a request for help from the department, I received an immediate response of support.

21761876_10214609323411966_3245841873245447531_nOver the next 24 months, we hosted seven Victory Walks for more than 4,000 people. We signed up more than 300 mentors to connect with at-risk children. We held three job fairs with partner organizers that served more than 2,000 job seekers, including a job fair specifically for convicted felons. Our stations raised more than $100,000 for non-profits working to combat violence. We hosted three town hall meetings and held a clean-up day at area school campuses and homes that served foster children.

Our group also brought more than 60 church leaders together, including Little Rock’s Catholic bishop, at a luncheon that resulted in two citywide prayer rallies.

We haven’t rid the city of violence. We never will. However, we’re making an impact. After the first half of 2017, Little Rock was on pace for a record high of 75 homicides. As our campaign grew, the murder rate slowed, ending in 52 for 2017. In 2018, the number dramatically dropped to 41.

While the majority of the credit goes to our police department and city leaders, we can’t help but think our campaign helped.

At the end of 2018, Chief Buckner accepted a new job in Syracuse, New York. While I was sad to see him go, I was moved by a phone call I received shortly after he left town. It was a fellow news director at a TV station there in Syracuse.

“I called to ask you about Victory Over Violence,” the news manager said. “Chief Buckner said to call you and ask you about it, because he wants to do it here.”

All it takes is a spark.

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