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New gun violence prevention coalition gets seed money from Champaign County

A man sits next to his desk, with sunlight from the window lighting up half of his face. He has papers and a desktop monitor behind him.
FirstFollowers Marlon Mitchell sits at his organization's headquarters in Champaign. Mitchell says he has lost FirstFollowers students to gun violence.

CHAMPAIGN — A new coalition of small nonprofits aims to tackle gun violence in Champaign County.

Called H3 for “harm,” “healing” and “hope,” the coalition is the brainchild of FirstFollowers. The non-profit group helps formerly incarcerated people with their re-entry into society.

“Although my organization’s name is on it, it’s not a FirstFollowers initiative,” explains FirstFollowers executive director Marlon Mitchell. “There are other people under this umbrella doing the work. The difference is that we took a proactive approach to make sure that this money that’s time bound is distributed equitably to folks doing the work.”

FirstFollowers has successfully lobbied Champaign County to earmark some COVID-19 relief funding for gun violence prevention. At its July 21 meeting, the Champaign County Board decided by consensus to set aside $1.4 million for one year of related initiatives, including $500,000 for H3.

The mission is personal to Mitchell, who says he has lost students in FirstFollowers’ workforce development program to gun violence.

The Champaign City Council has set aside $3.2 million for gun violence prevention from its American Rescue Plan relief package as well.

All American Rescue Plan dollars have to be spent by the end of 2024.

H3 members include nonprofits focused on mental health, education and entrepreneurship.

Mitchell says these nonprofits fill needs identified by those close to the problem of gun violence. For example, the nonprofit Business Elevator tackles poverty by encouraging minority business ownership.

“That creates jobs,” Mitchell says. “That also creates income for certain communities. So [the Business Elevator] framework is digging into marginalized communities seeing, ‘How can I help you get started in your business — provide you with that capital and attach you to a mentor?'”

According to Business Elevator, less than one percent of businesses registered in Champaign-Urbana are certified minority-owned.

County board approves gun violence prevention money, despite some skepticism

Stephanie Fortado (D-Dis 8) is one of the Democrats representing parts of the city of Champaign on the county board. She says coalitions like H3 and another county-funded coalition could be the change the area needs to prevent gun violence long-term.

“One of the things that to some degree it’s been lacking in our community is the sustainability piece. … Both of them are comprehensive, they have a lot of partners, and they’re the kind of thing that I think could leverage national money,” Fortado says.

While Republican board member Tim McGuire says he’s skeptical about the new coalitions, he did not formally oppose giving the coalition money during the county meeting.

“We’re limiting the ability of the organizations and programs that we have currently to be successful and will likely waste – well, not completely – we’ll spend the money on programs that will not continue after a couple of years,” McGuire says.

McGuire says the Champaign County Juvenile Detention Center is one example of an existing program that doesn’t have enough money to retain its staff.

When County Executive Darlene Kloeppel asked whether the board was in agreement about the plan to set aside $1.4 million for the four, gun violence prevention organizations, all board members either nodded or stayed silent.

FirstFollowers will not use county money for its share of work during H3’s first year.

Emily Hays is a reporter for Illinois Public Media. Follow her on Twitter @amihatt.

Picture of Emily Hays

Emily Hays

Emily Hays started at WILL in October 2021 after three-plus years in local newsrooms in Virginia and Connecticut. She has won state awards for her housing coverage at Charlottesville Tomorrow and her education reporting at the New Haven Independent. Emily graduated from Yale University where she majored in History and South Asian Studies.

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