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Roanoke commission debates if talent show will prevent gun violence

Roanoke’s Gun Violence Prevention Commission was created about two years ago with a challenge to mitigate chronic violence caused by guns and the people who use them to kill or wound others.

The commission, composed of elected officials and citizens, was also granted about $1 million in public money to make headway without specific guidelines about how to accomplish its mission.

During its tenure, the commission has used its funding, from the American Rescue Plan Act, on a variety of initiatives, from providing gun safety locks for city homes to staging memorial art projects and candlelight vigils.

Meanwhile, in terms of numbers, incidents of people killed or wounded by gunfire have remained consistent in Roanoke over the past two years. According to Roanoke police statistics, the city had at least 65 incidents in which a victim was hit by gunfire in 2022. Seventeen of those were homicides. In 2021, there were 66 gunshot incidents, of which 15 were homicides.

There have been two firearm deaths in Roanoke since the new year began.

“One of the problems is we’re coming up with long-game solutions for immediate crises,” Gun Violence Prevention Commission member Tim Harvey said earlier this week during a meeting that revealed different opinions about ways to attack the issue.

On Tuesday’s meeting agenda was discussion of funding a city youth talent show, a proposal that originated late last year. The commission has already agreed to allocate $3,000 towards marketing for the event. Commissioner Nicole Ross said about 100 middle and high school students have registered to participate.

Roanoke’s Mayor Sherman Lea, who has been outspoken about his frustration with persistent gun violence, addressed the commission in person.

“Help,” Lea told the commission. “We need your help. We need you to make the tough decisions. We need you to make the unpopular decisions. But we want to make sure that we can tell people we’re getting our money’s worth.”

Lea has advocated tangible, potential short-term solutions, like enforced curfews and improved lighting in blighted neighborhoods.

Roanoke City Council wants to be more familiar with how the commission and its partners are spending money.

“Council wants to become more involved, not in terms of attending a meeting, but talk to you about it, and ask that question about the mission,” Lea said. “The mission is to curb gun violence.”

“I think it’s a good thing we’re dealing with young people, helping them progress in the future and be aware of what’s going on. That’s happening, and I think that’s important,” Lea said. “But we just from time to time as a governing body have to talk to the public about the outcomes. Are the numbers going down? Or are we having a shooting two, three times a week?”

Some commissioners, mindful of balancing financial resources and demonstrable outcomes, also discussed staging a talent show as a means of targeting gun violence.

Rabbi Kathy Cohen, another commissioner, said the event doesn’t seem designed to serve the city youth that are most at risk of engaging in criminal activity or exhibiting violent behaviors.

“I’m personally not the least bit convinced that these are the at risk students that we need to reach out to,” Cohen said. “To me that’s problematic, that we are reaching out with a tremendous amount of money, probably to a group of students that are not at risk.”

“This may not reach the highest risk youth,” commission chair Joe Cobb said, “but I think that it will reach some vulnerable youth for whom this might be the only kind of outlet they see where they can make a difference in the big scheme of things.”

Chris Roberts, the city’s youth and gang violence prevention coordinator, said the talent show reaches kids who haven’t been reached before.

“Those high risk guys, they’re getting attention. But it’s those guys that fall in the middle, in the cracks, that don’t have a high criminal element, that may not be academically strong or athletically strong, there is a gap that people fall into,” Roberts said. “And this could catch them.”

Commissioner Stacey Sheppard noted that when city youth service providers ask children and teens what services or programs they want or need, the kids ask for healthy activities that are arts-based.

“Something other than basketball,” Sheppard said. “Something other than fixing up basketball courts.”

Commissioner Nicole Ross said the talent show will give youth additional opportunities to shine both on and off the stage. Some students are designing the stage sets and prizes, and others are signed up to work as ushers or pass out programs.

“We’re also having any young person that has their own business, if they draw and they have art, they’re going to be able to showcase that, as well,” Ross said Thursday. “Everything we’re doing in this is letting our young people know, ‘We see that you have greatness in you, and we’re giving you a platform to showcase it.’”

“After the talent show audition, we’re going to meet with them twice a month, coaching them, teaching them preparing them so that they’re ready to take the stage,” Ross continued. “That’s another opportunity for some mentorship, another opportunity for us to provide those workshops.

Ross' original "entire ask" for funding from the commission for the talent show was $25,000. That includes the already approved $3,000 for marketing and would cover cash prizes, two venues and other production costs.

The auditions are scheduled for Jan. 28 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Dumas Center in Roanoke. Students can also submit their audition virtually. The talent show is slated for March 24 at the Jefferson Center, a venue that may cost around $12,000.

“We think just because they’re young, they’re not experiencing these traumas. That’s not so. These young people are dealing with a lot. Some of these young people that were killed, they were sitting in class with them before,” Ross said. “These things are real. And we can do something great. And for money to be the reason that there’s an issue when there’s so much of it with this commission… that gives me pause.”

The commissioners came to a consensus Tuesday that the event is a good idea, but some continued to question the show’s price tag.

“Is a small amount of education worth a large amount of money?” Cohen said. “A talent show being great for the kids… I am right there. I just am not right there at the amount of money and through this particular commission.”

“I understand the dollar amount. I get it. It is a lot. It’s hard to argue against that,” Roberts said. “But what we’re up against, dollar amounts will always be a barrier to the work that you’re asking people to do.”

“This is almost as large as some of our major funding programs that have multi-year sustainability,” commissioner Elliott Major said. “It’s great. But what’s good isn’t always effective.”

But the commission agreed Tuesday that the show must go on.

“We have an audition scheduled that has been publicized, and the kids who are auditioning are excited about this,” Cobb said.

But how it will be funded remains under discussion.

“I think we’re being very responsible in how this carries out and the longer-term impact it can make while valuing the talent of the youth who’ve stepped forward,” Cobb said.

Others believe in the commission’s preventative mission, which proffers results that are less immediately tangible and harder to measure.

“I do love and appreciate the work that we are doing. Don’t be misunderstood,” Ross said. “The commission is doing a lot of great work. We don’t always see eye to eye, but I know that we do have a passion to serve the community and to do the best we can.”

The commission was created “to study the issue of gun violence in the community, recommend strategies for prevention, intervention and response to reduce incidents of gun violence and address its effects on the community,” the city’s website explains.

The group of nine commissioners, chaired by Roanoke Vice Mayor Cobb, has received about $1 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds through the Star City Strong Recovery and Advisory Panel, Assistant City Manager Angie O’Brien said Friday.

Of that million, $150,000 has been allocated for current commission programs, another $150,000 for the commission’s marketing plan, $50,000 for a community assessment, $400,000 for violence interruption grants awarded to community organizations and $300,000 for mini-grants, also awarded to community organizations.

Some of that money has already been expended. O’Brien said she could not identify Friday how much money is left in each of those five categories without consulting city accounting staff.

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Emma Coleman covers public safety and courts in the Roanoke Valley. She can be reached at (540) 981-3198 or emma.coleman@roanoke.com.

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