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Metro Detroit youth getting their arms around gun violence with “Hugs Not Bullets” campaign

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Put the guns down. Give hugs on New Year’s Eve instead.

That was the theme of the “Hugs Not Bullets” campaign that kicked off Wednesday at the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center. The goal is to stop the tradition of ringing in the New Year by shooting a gun in the air.

In its ninth year, the campaign is a partnership between the NSO (Neighborhood Services Organization), faith-based groups and the law enforcement community. The NSO Youth Initiatives Project (YIP) will be the front line for this. It started as something to reduce celebratory gunfire on New Year’s Eve as well as other holidays but now is a year-long initiative.

“This initiative is extremely important to me because it is organized and led by young people,” said Detroit Mayor Dave Bing. “And too often, they don’t get the credit that they deserve. Too often, we look at young people and say they are the problem but this is the solution. Getting people involved in our city is going to bring our city back.”

The launch of the campaign comes on the heels of the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, which makes the plea to put the guns down even more poignant. Gun violence was brought to the fore with that event, which took 27 lives in the Sandy Creek School … 20 of them children … six adults … and a very disturbed 20-year-old with a gun.

Unfortunately, youth gun violence is at an unacceptable scale across the country. It just doesn’t get national airtime unless it happens in one tragic spot.

Did you know that nationally, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), homicide is the second leading cause of death among all youth aged 15-24 years and is the leading cause of death among black youth in that same age group?

There were 4,828 youth homicides in 2010, according to the CDC in the United States.

Or for perspective … more than 180 Newtowns.

Every year.

While some politicians debate what the best course of action is in front of the 24-hour news cycle, Geaunei Hemphill, a junior at Osborn Evergreen Academy in Detroit (Osborn is a high school, for those who don’t know), is one of the young people taking action.

“Twenty of the victims (at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown) where children. That tragedy deeply affected us. It’s a clear reminder that one bullet can affect the lives of many,” said Hemphill, who pointed out a child is not safe hiding under a bed when the New Year’s gunfire starts.

But how to make change?

The focus of Hugs Not Bullets is peer-to-peer. That means student-to-student conversations, which is more successful because it is a relatable messenger combined with a trusted dialogue. Community and classroom workshops reinforce the constructive way of conflict resolution and productive ways to settle disputes instead of pulling a trigger. The conversations and workshops will be on all levels – elementary, middle and high schools – and will address not just gun violence, but some of the causes behind it such as bullying and gang activity. The original message that celebratory gunfire (shooting guns into the air) can cause harm, too, will be share. As we all know, what goes up, after all, must come down.

Hemphill, who looked as comfortable as someone twice her years behind the microphone, said “let’s work together to end the epidemic of gun violence.” She may be a minor in age, but she is working harder than many adults to take action.

To learn more about the Neighborhood Services Organization, visit their Facebook page or website.

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