OST Voices #20 | The Power of Picking up a Pen or a Microphone Instead of a Gun by Tia Bell, Executive Director, The TRIGGER Project

OST Blog Series
May 31, 2022
Blog Post

Youth practicing yoga in the park

I started thinking about the need for the TRIGGER Project when I was 10 years old. I was born to a teen mom and raised in DC when it was the murder capital. I lost my stepfather when I was nine. I almost lost my mother when I was 10 when a bullet hit her leg in a drive-by. I became a nurse, a co-parent, a bodyguard. I surrounded myself with coaches, pastors, teachers, store owners–anyone who would look after me. I begged people I knew who solved problems with guns not to do it, and not to retaliate. I started thinking even then about the true reasons people grabbed the gun–which later inspired the name of the organization–TRIGGER stands for the True Reason I Grabbed the Gun Evolved from Risk.

The curriculum I developed for TRIGGER focuses on growth, healing, and gun violence awareness. The first three weeks center positive youth development, self-awareness, self-worth, and Affirmations. We build community, mental and physical and financial wellness, explore our culture and family history. During the second three weeks, we introduce the topic of gun violence, with discussion, research, reflection, and guest speakers. At the end of the summer, youth present their findings at a leadership conference they put together on their own. Everything we do in the organization is youth-centered and youth-driven. I give credit to my young people. They have a trigger finger but they don’t pull it. Instead they pick up a pen or a microphone or a phone to create an alternative that has a positive impact, proving that prevention is possible.

Basketball was my outlet and vehicle for change. In high school I led HD Woodson in back-to-back championships and was the first in my family to finish high school. Right before I left for my first year at North Carolina State University, I lost my uncle to gun violence. By then I had lost so many friends that gun violence was normalized. I heard gunshots all the time. I didn’t realize until I was at college and talking with my teammates that this kind of environment wasn’t the norm. I started to become numb and desensitized to the violence because I wasn’t in the middle of it anymore, and then I felt ashamed. If I played a good game, reporters would ask about my background, and it took a lot of heart and courage to open up about it. At school I was too rough, but at home I was too soft. The biggest blessing in my life was at that time I started receiving counseling through the student health center, where I learned about trauma, grief, and adverse childhood experiences. That whole experience has strengthened my ability to serve as a youth advocate–I understand the young people I’m working with and I try to help them find their voices just like I did.

I moved home the week I earned my master’s degree in youth development and immediately was attending vigils for people lost to gun violence. People got to know me and would come to me with their stories of loss or near misses or their attempts to get out of a dangerous situation. I had to honor the voice of the shooter and the victim, because the line between them is so thin. There are so many factors in a person’s life that make them more likely to become both a victim and a perpetrator. I put all my energy toward preventing gun violence–presenting assemblies in schools, working as a school counselor, advocating on Capitol Hill, and working on violence interruption with the White House. finally starting the TRIGGER Project.

Every school needs a TRIGGER University or similar safe space where adults can provide opportunities for young people to experience safety, healing, and awareness. We should have a chapter at every school in the region, especially those whose students are most impacted by gun violence. Last year we organized a citywide conference on ending gun violence, including coaches, faith leaders, policymakers, nonprofit organizations, and youth. We need to work together to make a difference.

Gun violence is now the number one cause of death for young people in the United States. This epidemic spreads through modeled behavior. We know the risk factors and the protective factors. We need to integrate public health, social justice, and positive youth development. We are currently partnering with the University of Michigan Youth Violence Prevention Center to evaluate our outcomes and help us demonstrate that our strategies are effective. We’re working every day to use creative and positive youth development to make change. We just need more people to listen to what we’re saying and take the change to a higher level.

Connect with the TRIGGER Project on FacebookInstagram, and YouTube. Learn more about their upcoming conference here.