In the latest 2020 “Fresh Perspectives” blog post presented by the de Beaumont Foundation, Javier Lopez, Chief Strategy Officer for the Red Hook Initiative, reminds us of the ways public health can fall short in the fight against gun violence. Javier is a long-time advocate for Black, Indigenous and people of color communities and currently serves as an advisor/consultant/board member for Community Capacity and DevelopmentNos QuedamosPolicy LinkRadical Health, and the Community Justice Action Fund.

Performative Allyship: when an individual from a majority or privileged group (e.g., white/straight/cis/abled) identifies as an “ally” and professes their support of and/or solidarity with a marginalized group in a way that is unhelpful to that group, draws attention away from that group, or actively harms that group.

Public health practitioners are part of a privileged group. As part of a system, they decide what is evidence-based, often through a hierarchical and patriarchal system that upholds the very tenets of white supremacy.

Public health overall does a fantastic job of diagnosing a problem from afar. But outside a group of health equity leaders, the field has a poor track record of self-evaluating its role in maintaining the larger structures of power and privilege.

So forgive me for cringing when I hear so many public health practitioners, scholars, researchers, and self-appointed leaders amplify the messages that “Gun violence is a public health issue!” and “Gun violence is an epidemic!” devoid of any concrete action. The probably well-intended words are counterproductive when there are no public health measures that lead to sustainable and tangible investments in gun violence prevention.

Indeed, we have succeeded in mainstreaming these proclamations. From presidential platforms to think pieces to impact briefs, and even within public health research, the relationship between gun violence and public health is widely acknowledged. Even the Dickey Amendment on Federal Funding for Research on Gun Violence finally lost some of its strength in 2019 when Congress allocated $25 million in federal research funds to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health.

Despite this progress, gun violence prevention programs in America, and especially in Black, Indigenous, and people of color, or BIPOC, communities, have yet to receive the public health funds necessary to end gun violence and eradicate firearm-related homicides. The $25 million investment in federal research will lead to more papers and conversations, but it will not make its way to front-line prevention any time soon.

Public health, perhaps in fear of retribution or ridicule, has yet to offer clear and consistent commentary on how the movement to shift resources away from police departments and back into communities can curb gun violence. A growing body of evidence points to rates of gun violence decreasing in places where these community-driven programs, led mostly by BIPOC, are in place.

If you’re a public health practitioner on any level who is speaking out about firearms-related violence and homicide, you should also consider the following ways to support BIPOC-led gun violence prevention programs:

  • Fund or raise funding. Call on senior leaders in health departments and health systems and those who advise philanthropic entities to move funds into these programs.
  • Provide testimonial support. Local policymakers are increasingly exploring BIPOC-led gun violence prevention programs. You can help make the case for these programs by going to public forums and offering your analysis, voice, and expertise.
  • Build added-value partnerships. Develop consensus on performance metrics and work together to author papers and conduct research that results in funding for front-line groups and organizations.

Public health has a critical role to play in articulating and supporting a co-created vision of a future where everyone, especially BIPOC communities, can be safe, healthy, and free of all forms of gun violence. It is time to shift public health’s resources, practices, policies, and systems to respond to this crisis with action, not just words.

Until that day comes, just saying, “Gun violence is a public health issue! Gun violence is a public health epidemic!” is performative, not a catalyst for meaningful change.

Browse the gun violence prevention sessions on tap at the APHA 2020 Annual Meeting and Expo, and mark your calendar for the OpeningMonday and Closing General Sessions, which all focus on violence and how public health can better respond.

This blog post was first published on APHA’s Public Health Newswire.

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