Scarred by violence, Mississippi residents rally to rescue today’s youth from gun, gang culture

Published 3:20 pm Thursday, August 29, 2019

Brittany Gray has helped organize political campaigns for the likes of Barack Obama and the late Chokwe Lumumba, who was elected mayor of Jackson in 2013 and unexpectedly died in 2014.

She admits to not finding cursory endeavors to end gun violence appealing. Opting for a more holistic approach, Gray said she would rather determine the root cause of the issues and prioritize intentional conversations over motivational speakers and people who are not directly impacted attending rallies.

“They’re not the ones holding the guns. They’re not the ones being threatened. They’re not the ones that are fending for themselves. As a result, folks can’t really reach that population and having event after event after event is not the most beneficial,” she said.

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For Cox, 35, an older cousin kept him from indulging in the “lifestyle.” If not, the educator might have easily been detoured from the path that led him to Delta State University, where he earned a bachelor’s in health education and physical education. He also received a master’s degree in administration and supervision from the University of Phoenix.

“He told me, ‘You’re one of the smartest kids in the family. You’re going to be a doctor or lawyer. This isn’t for you,’” recalled the reserved Cox. The same cousin was later killed.

“I always talk about the blueprint. There is a blueprint for everything. In the streets, we know the blueprint for how to make money. If you sell this amount of [drugs], you make this amount of money,” he said. “The same young man thinking about getting in the lifestyle may want to be a plumber, electrician or a doctor. Nobody is pulling him under their wing and saying, ‘I’m going to show you how to make legit money.’”

The blueprint Cox is using to keep youth on a productive track is Here We Stand, a community outreach organization for young males 8-18 that he founded in 2011 and relaunched in 2017. The yearlong program services about 65 kids during the academic year and an average of 25 during the summer.

When a participant reaches their junior year in high school, he becomes a mentor for others. The five-man mentoring program is called “He ain’t heavy. He’s my brother.” Cox said the name acts as a reminder “to always have each other’s back even when one is struggling.”

Mentors teach participants life skills like how to change a tire and how to prepare for a job interview. Youth also do job shadowing of various trades so they can see that they can have fruitful lives without having to get higher education. The organization also created a community garden where Cox said they spend hours gardening and planting vegetables.

Although the young men may be considered low-performing students by school standards, Cox is undeterred.

“Some people ask me why these kids,” he said. “Because these are the kids who are going to be here. I want to show them that they have other options to be successful.”

This story was produced in conjunction with the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange and published with the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting. It is part of the JJIE’s project on targeting gun violence. Support is provided by The Kendeda Fund. The JJIE is solely responsible for the content and maintains editorial independence.