It’s been 20 years since Shunda Milhouse lost her daughter, April, to gun violence when she was 15 years old.
The mother of six said she finds joy in seeing her daughters happy, but she said the pain of losing a child never goes away.
“It’s almost like time has stopped,” Milhouse said. “I don’t look at it as being 20 years. To me, it’s almost like yesterday.”
Milhouse says April asked to tag along with one of her older sisters for Senior Skip Day. Milhouse said she would usually say no to that kind of thing, but that day she said yes. April and her sister went to a park to meet up with other friends. While they were out, a man in his 20s tried to hit on April, and April said no.
“So she walked away and somehow his ego got bruised,” Milhouse said. “And when she declined to speak with him, he went to the trunk of his car and he got out a gun and he just started shooting in the park and he shot my baby in her back.”
Milhouse said she never expected that something like this would happen to her child.
“A lot of parents say, ‘not my child. This wouldn’t happen in my home,’” Milhouse said. “But little do they know guns are being hidden right there in your home.”
She said in order for things to change — and for fewer shootings to happen — people need to be invested in their community, because when young people are taken care of, they take care of their communities.
Since April’s death, Milhouse has set up a nonprofit organization called the April Lynn Jamerson Foundation to bring kids together to teach them social skills. She said she wants April to be remembered as someone who was a good and generous friend. Most of all, Milhouse doesn’t want this to happen to any other parent.
“We need that village back,” she said. “We need to be more like when our grandparents were sitting on the front porch and they knew what was going on in the neighborhood. People got involved.”
It Takes a Village
Gun violence disproportionately affects Black families.
An analysis from the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit analyzing health issues in America, found that firearm related deaths have gone up exponentially since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
Additionally, the study found that Black children made up about 14% of this nation’s youth in 2021, but accounted for 46% of youth firearm deaths.
Earlier this year, Mayor Randall Woodfin and Birmingham Chief of Police Scott Thurmond called on parents to help reduce violent crime by taking control of their households. Woodfin said law enforcement cannot be the only solution.
But Lonnie Hannon, a health behavior professor in UAB’s School of Public Health, said the conversation around parents and their role in reducing crime has to be more nuanced.
“The interesting thing about parenting is that I think very few parents are afforded the amount of time to be with their kids as much as they want to be,” Hannon said.
Hannon, who is a parent himself, focuses on how socio-cultural factors impact community empowerment. When discussing gun violence, or any issue that disproportionately affects Black people, he said the conversation has to start with changes seen in the community.
“Black people have experienced racism and economic disadvantage since our time in the United States,” Hannon said. “But the one thing that we did have was a cohesive community — cohesive households that supported us and helped us defend against those systematic issues.”
In essence, Hannon believes that local institutions like a church or a YMCA acted as a buffer to structural issues at the macro level. But over the last couple of decades, he said he’s seen those networks dissolve, and with them support for parents.
He said that’s in part because of changes in work-life balance. People have to work more hours because it costs more to live and that gives them less time to connect with each other as a community. Hannon said there is a shortage of role models, like teachers or community leaders, to teach young people how to move in their communities and pass on a moral compass.
“One of the things that I have noticed is that for a lot of the younger people, there is no code,” Hannon said. “You know, when I was growing up — and I grew up in a rough working class neighborhood — there was a code you would never engage women. You would never engage children in whatever beef you had with someone else. Churches were off limits. And a lot of what I see today is that those groups are no longer off limits.”
A Heavy Mental Health Toll
In addition to role models, Ariyan Riggs, a junior at George Washington Carver High School said teens also need their parents to check in on them.
“I feel like most of the time that the violence that gets brought into the school is the result of something that happens at home,” Ariyan said. “Parents, it’s important that you have conversations with your kids, not just about grades [or] getting the house clean. Ask them questions like ‘How is your day going?’ Know where your child is mentally. Know where your child is emotionally. Even if they don’t feel comfortable talking to you like that.”
Ariyan said she talks to her mom pretty often and she journals daily. She said she understands that not every kid or every parent is ready to have conversations about their mental health because they can be uncomfortable, but it’s necessary.
The kind of pain that comes from constantly seeing people die in your community can overwhelm kids with stress and anxiety. That’s true for Black parents too.
“Oftentimes, people like to think that we have some superhero response to the pain and agony of children being lost to gun violence,” said Onoyemi Williams, the deputy director of Faith in Action Birmingham. It’s a community organization that often works with victims of gun violence.
“When in fact, our pain and agony is the same as in other communities when these incidents occur, the only thing is we never exit that state of pain and agony,” she said. “It is an ongoing feeling that we are never given the opportunity to be released from.”
Williams says Black parents are often stereotyped as being uninvolved in their children’s lives. That’s perpetuated by stark class and racial divisions in the city.
Williams said she’s seen both sides. When her children were young they lived in a majority white suburban neighborhood, but they moved to a majority Black neighborhood in Birmingham when her kids were in high school so she could be closer to the people she worked with in Faith in Action.
“On the other side, it’s ‘get it how you live it’. ‘Your parents don’t care. Your parents aren’t trying hard enough,’” Williams said. “When the parents are doing everything they can to, again, fight against the system that is built against them. These are parents that are working from sunup to sundown. They don’t really have the energy to come in after working all day to try to go over schoolwork. Because why? They’re trying to keep the lights on.”
She said she remembers her children telling her about seeing dead bodies in the street or having to hide when they heard gunshots walking home from school. She said there are many layers to violence when it comes to youth. In her work, she’s talked to young people who believe they had no other choice but to carry a weapon in order to survive.
“Just because you don’t live in a community where you have to do that, does not mean he lives in a community where he does not have to do that,” Williams said. “And the intersection of justice and law enforcement and how they respond to these young people is completely different from what we see in other communities.”
To help relieve some of that stress in the community, Williams’ team at Faith in Action hosts trainings on how to receive victim compensation and provide response teams that help with childcare while families grieve and process.
They also prioritize listening and empathizing with the people that come to them. Williams said the citizens of Birmingham can be more than just observers of a bad situation.
“That’s a gleam of hope that if we keep talking, if we keep telling the truth about our situations — not allowing others to co-op — and just deal with the ugliness of the infection in the community and say that, ‘Hey, we’re going to cut this out.’ The scar might be ugly, but the healing of a community will allow for so much beauty to be seen.”
It will be a group effort to truly combat gun violence in the community. Williams says law enforcement needs to act equitably. Birminghamians must act with compassion. Parents and guardians have to build strong support systems. And kids — should just be kids.
Kyra Miles is a Report for America corps member covering education for WBHM.