Commentary: Building community is key to decreasing violence and mistrust

By Anna Dick Gambucci and Tom Esch

On Feb. 11, we held a community meeting at Washington Technology Magnet School in St. Paul to talk about and strategize how to achieve peaceful communities free from gun violence. Anna Dick Gambucci organized the gathering, Tom Esch moderated it, and Protect Minnesota co-sponsored it. Twenty-five people came: concerned citizens, parents and their children, community leaders, faith leaders, and representatives from St. Paul Public Schools and a variety of community organizations.

Gun violence is a hot topic around the country right now, and especially in Minnesota. A number of area gatherings have taken place where this topic has been discussed. What made this meeting unique was the genuine welcome of all perspectives on gun regulation. We welcomed RSVPs from members of the Minnesota Gun Owners Civil Rights Alliance and welcomed their desire to speak and share concerns while also making it clear that we would be shaping a respectful conversation. It was not an opportunity for interrupting or dominating.

RSVPs and event-page dialogue confirmed that folks representing a wide spectrum of viewpoints on guns would be present. As organizers, we were both disappointed and relieved to discover that only community members who supported gun legislation actually gathered. Still we gave voice to the perspectives that are right of center and interacted among ourselves.

At the Feb. 11 meeting, there were reflections and ideas about how we can increase our own awareness, as well as the awareness of others, as we advocate for peaceful communities. We had wanted to build bridges of inclusion and gain some common ground, but that was a daunting task, especially considering the timing of our meeting. It was held on the heels of a week of Minnesota House of Representatives public safety hearings on proposed gun violence prevention legislation that galvanized and polarized many citizens involved.

We learned a few things: No. 1, it is challenging work to bring together people with different values on the topic of guns. No. 2, both those who want less legislation and those who want more have real fears, ones that tend to rise to the surface when we attempt to have a conversation. No. 3, we as organizers who do not own guns also believe that guns can increase our perception of safety in certain settings. We requested that several St. Paul police officers be present during our entire meeting, and Police Chief Tom Smith graciously accommodated.

We continue to believe that democracy happens best when people from various perspectives can have a dialogue and actually listen to each other. Both sides can be tempted to use their power to squash voices from the other side, or to overpower those who disagree with them. There are different values in how we respond to others and how we solve problems and conflicts.

Prior to the community gathering there was honest, encouraging dialogue on Facebook between several Minnesota Gun Owners Civil Rights Alliance folks and our meeting organizers. From our perspective, we saw signs of potential bridges between differing viewpoints, and dialogue was respectful and (to us) meaningful. That was a bright spot in the process of gathering to talk and listen respectfully.

This meeting was a first step toward fulfilling a vision: that building community relationships can be as powerful as legislation for increasing community safety and decreasing mistrust and violence. We hope to see more meetings of this nature and are looking for more citizens willing to come courageously to the tables to talk and institutions to back these kinds of critical dialogues and bridge building.

Anna Dick Gambucci is a St. Paul parent and the organizer for the Feb. 11 community meeting. Tom Esch, president of Creating Resolutions Inc., moderated the meeting.

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