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Mothers unite to harness grief into action, justice

Sandra Larson
Sandra Larson is a Boston-based freelance journalist covering urban/social issues and policy. VIEW BIO
Mothers unite to harness grief into action, justice
Sarah Flint, coordinator of Mothers for Justice and Equality, with a photograph of her son James Flint, who was murdered in 1981. (Photo: Chris Lovett)

Mothers for Justice and Equality (MJE) held a kick-off rally on Oct. 8, marching from Grove Hall to Morton Street. Pictured here, holding the banner, (from l to r) are: Angie Smith, MJE Founder Monalisa Smith and Kim Odom. (Chris Lovett photo)

In the framed photograph on Sarah Flint’s desk, James “Jimmy” Flint looks straight at the camera. He’s a handsome boy, with smooth caramel-colored skin and close-cropped hair. It’s summer, and the short sleeves of his polo shirt fit snugly around youthful muscle. He’s not exactly smiling, but there’s an openness in his face, an adolescent mix of vulnerability and defiance.

He is 15. The rest of summer, high school and life await.

But this is the last picture of Jimmy. He didn’t live to see 16. On Aug. 20, 1981, he was stabbed by another teenager in a fight at Orchard Gardens housing development, and pronounced dead at the hospital that night.

His death left a wound that will never fully heal, one that for Flint — and for too many mothers before and after her — is ripped open each time another young person is murdered.

It’s nearly 30 years now since Jimmy’s death, but the killings go on with a regularity that can be numbing. Boston had 72 homicides in 2010. The vast majority occurred in Dorchester, Roxbury, Jamaica Plain and Mattapan. Seventeen victims were under age 21, including three 14 year olds.

Now Flint, recently retired from the City of Boston’s Department of Neighborhood Development, is coordinator for a new group that aims to zero in on the root causes of violence while keeping a spotlight on the continued murders of Boston’s youth.

Mothers for Justice and Equality (MJE) was founded last fall by Monalisa Smith, a vice president at Citizens Bank. Smith has long been an active force in the community, as a Dorchester native and as Citizens Bank’s director of community investment. But she was jolted into a new kind of action when her 18-year-old nephew Eric Smith was shot to death on Sept. 2.

“When my family was dealing with it,” she recalled, “people would ask me, are you okay? And I thought, ‘No! I will never be the same.’ That’s the truth.”

Smith couldn’t rest. She said that murders of adolescents had somehow become perceived as the norm. “[But] it is not the norm,” she said. “How can this be OK? If we even have a breath in our body, we have to do something. When children are on the street under white sheets while school buses drive by. Children go to school and someone’s gone. That is just not OK.”

She started making phone calls. She quickly gathered a team of mothers, including Flint; Merveline Chambers, mother of Ivol Brown; Kim Odom, mother of Steven Odom; and Tina Chéry, mother of Louis Brown and founder of the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute. She tapped area clergy members as advisors. She also brought in nonprofit executive directors such as Pam Ogletree of Children’s Services of Roxbury, Mia Alvarado of Roxbury Youthworks, Inc., Ken Smith of YouthBuild Boston, Janet Collazo of La Alianza Hispana and Rev. June Cooper of City Mission Society.

They convened at Deliverance Temple Worship Center in Dorchester and immediately organized a kick-off rally for Oct. 8, starting at Grove Hall — near where Eric Smith was shot — and marching to Morton Street. More than 600 people attended, including Boston City Councilor-at-large Ayanna Pressley.

“It was stunning,” she recalled in a telephone interview. “The march was one of the rare times you could see and feel change in progress.”

Pressley is vice-chair of the city council’s Public Safety Committee and chair of the new Women and Healthy Communities Committee. Her committee had recently convened hearings where families of homicide victims testified about their experiences, so MJE’s mission resonated with her.

MJE members are uniquely qualified to act in this arena, she added.

“[These mothers] are authorities on the issue. They have Ph.D.s in suffering,” she said. “Their voices need to be heard. Too often we’re talking about people impacted, or vulnerable, but we’re not engaging them as stakeholders in solutions. Who better to inform us than people on the front lines?”

Smith’s professional experience lends her some tools to make things happen.

“Monalisa is a strategist,” said Chéry, who sees MJE as an additional force in support of the families that come to the Peace Institute for assistance. “She has that corporate background that is so much needed. Now that she is a survivor, she’s looking at this through a different lens.”

The mothers’ effort is gaining momentum. The Boston Foundation/StreetSafe Program gave them a $30,000 capacity-building grant and the use of office space. They are working on a website and informational brochures. The group is forging relationships with city and state elected officials. They have met with Gov. Deval Patrick to call for action on one of their key goals: increasing opportunities and reducing obstacles for youth coming out of the juvenile justice system.

“We’re looking for prevention and intervention,” explained Flint. “What help do these kids have when they get out? They have CORIs, they may be banned from coming back to public housing. Where do they go? How are they getting support for finishing school?”

In addition to reforming re-entry services for youth, Flint hopes MJE can help bring fairer treatment for families of murder victims.

 “Homicide is a huge trauma. You’re put in the light, there are accusations,” she said. “You have to deal with police, with courts. With other deaths you don’t have to deal with that.” The assumption, spoken or not, is often that all young murders victims are gang members.

Flint said she still resents that a judge showed concern about the perpetrator’s family’s ability to make bail, but not the financial strain her son’s funeral put on her. She never got a chance to make a victim statement, as a plea bargain avoided a jury trial. And no one notified her when the youth was up for parole two years later; she found out only when her sister saw him on the street.

Part of MJE’s plan is to take a good look at what existing agencies are doing, to examine where funding is being used effectively or not. For Smith, a crucial piece is a definition of success that the entire community agrees on.

“How do we measure success?” she asked. “If we have great programs in Boston but we have 70 murders in a year, what does success look like? What good is MJE’s work if we cannot say we had no murders and no children going into juvenile justice system?”

Smith compares her fledgling group to Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), a group sparked by grief that went on to change laws and attitudes nationwide. The group has studied the model of MADD as well as anti-violence advocacy efforts by mothers in Argentina, Israel and Ireland.

“I envision this spreading across the country,” Smith said. “We form our coalition in Boston, and then show the folks in Chicago this is how it’s done. So eventually we’re mothers across the country, with one voice. Changing the agenda.”

But the immediate goal is to spread the word locally — to civic leaders, to nonprofit groups doing complementary work and to grieving mothers when they are ready. “The Bible says, without a vision, the people will perish,” she said. “We are looking to gain members, and start a campaign.”

Growing up, Smith said, she was fascinated by Martin Luther King Jr.’s work. Thinking about it now strengthens her resolve.

“I say to mothers, back in the sixties when they marched, they knew they were marching into danger. They knew there’d be dogs, they knew they’d go to jail,” she said. “When we march there’s no danger. We just need to open our mouths. We’re told there’s not an injustice because it’s blacks killing blacks, and so on — but that’s not true. It is an injustice. We just have to figure out how to tell it. This story must be told.”