Lady with a mouth and a heart

Helen Hudson celebrates a decade of Mothers Against Gun Violence

President and co-founder of Mothers Against Gun Violence, Helen Hudson has always been one to fight for the underdog. “I’ve always had a mouth,” she says simply. Born outside Jackson, Mississippi, she remembers intense racial conflict. “With my mouth,” she reflects, “if I had stayed in Mississippi and had to grow up in that era, I probably wouldn’t have made it.”

She came to town when she was two, grew up on South Beech Street, went through Sumner, Levy and Nottingham, then traveled the country knocking on doors selling magazines. “I found people all over the country,” she observes, “that actually card about other people. It gave me insight to see things on a bigger scale.” She came back to Syracuse to be close to her mother.

She is currently AFL-CIO Community Services Liaison to the United Way of Central New York. In November, she will running for Common Councilor at-Large as a Democrat.

How did Mothers Against Gun Violence start, and why?

Because in 2002, that was the year we had the highest homicide in the City of Syracuse, it bothered me that every day you would wake up and you would hear that someone’s child had been murdered in the street. And there was no outcry. There was not any outrage from the minority community, or from any community. I went to one of the pastors and I asked him if there was a way that we could go out into the streets and do outreach with these young people.

He in turn informed me that if I did that, I was setting a bunch of mothers up to get killed. That kind of threw me for a loop, and it set me back, but I went to Rev. Ellis, and that particular night he was having his prayer patrol. He invited me to come down and tell the group what we were doing, trying to start, and why we were doing it. We worked with them for that summer.

From there I started gathering women, because my family is very woman oriented. They said, “If that’s what you want to do, let’s make it happen.” We started making signs: “We love our children,” “One life lost is one too many,” and we started going on the street corners.

Now, after each homicide, we make a home visit to the victim’s mother. The following Sunday we hold a vigil. People say vigils won’t stop the violence. We know that, but it’s an important symbol.

Have we as a nation become dulled to the violence?

I think we have. We’ve become so insensitive to this that we don’t pay attention any more. But for me these are children, and there’s no way that as a community we should be comfortable with murder.

How did we get that way?

I don’t know. I think everybody is locked away into their own little world, saying, “It’s not my problem,” or “It’s not me.” But I found soon it was touching everyone. It was crossing social and economic lines. It’s crossing race.

Do you think TV has a lot to do with it?

I think TV has a lot to do with it, but it think a lot of it has to do with-I don’t want to place a blame-but I think it was from the interactions a lot of young people saw from the older people in the community, so they started emulating that, because they thought that’s what made them a man. And in reality, what makes you a man is going to school, getting an education, getting a good job and taking care of your family.

We have to get back to that mind set now, because our babies are not in that mind set of being productive. They think that blocks are territory, and they don’t own any blocks, and they don’t even pay taxes.

Did you encounter turf issues with the women you gathered?

No, because we gathered women from all over the city. I think as women, you have that nurturing part of you. So regardless of where that child comes from, we’re going to love on him because that’s what we are: we’re mothers. That’s what helps us. These young folks know that when we come, we’re coming with love. That’s what we’re selling: love.

Is the nurturing also present among the young women, or is there violence with young women, too?

Is see the violence rising with the young women, amongst themselves, but again, these children, when we reach out to them, they’re very respectful, they’re very receptive, and I think they really just want to know someone cares. When we had that hostage situation on South Avenue, when I showed up, the young lady looked at me and said, “I knew you would be here, because you’re our constant.”

So these young folks-and when I say, “kids,” I means anyone up to 35, 40 are kids to me-they need a constant. They need to know that they’re cared about. They need to know that if one life is taken, it affects everyone, not just that family. Since 1996 we’ve had 285 homicides. When you have one homicide, that affects seven people in your family. That’s just immediate. When you start counting aunts and uncles and cousins, you’re probably talking over 20,000 people.

Since 1996, those 285 deaths have affected 6,354 family members.

What does it do to the families?

It destroys these families. You’re talking something they’re never going to get over. You have a mother trying to wrap her head around the loss of a baby she brought into this world, because that’s not the way it’s supposed to be. Children are supposed to bury their parents. Now parents are burying their children. That’s backwards. Then you have the siblings, let’s say they don’t get involved with the street violence-some do because of retaliation, some don’t-but then you have all of these mental health issues coming behind you.

We go into the schools to work with 3rd, 4th and 5th graders on one level, and then we go into the high schools. What is remarkable to me is going into the elementary schools, with 200 babies in the cafeteria. The first thing we ask them is, “How many of you have been affected by violence?” Every hand went up. The principals say, “We didn’t know.”
Babies are being sent to in-school suspension because they’re being disruptive. But that child may have seen his father, his cousin or whoever murdered, and it’s never been addressed.

Do you preach forgiveness?

Yes I do. I found that if you walk around with hatred in your heart, that doesn’t do anything but fester. I do believe in the power of people. I do believe that humans are good. You know, and I know that you have a bad apple or two at some point. But if we just keep loving each other, love goes a long way. Love opens a lot of doors. And that’s what we’re trying to get these young folks to understand. I may not know you, but I love you.

Is it frustrating? Do you ever want to quit?

Yes. Sometimes the grief is overwhelming.

What keeps you going?

The things mothers say when we’ve been able to help them.

Do you think that an element of this generation of teenagers is being written off?

I think that people do have in their mind that after a certain age, that you can’t get through, but I don’t believe that. We do have to work with the young babies, start working with them in 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade. But my 16 to 25 year olds, I’m not going to write them off because they are brilliant. We just have to turn their mind set around. We just have to get them to understand just how brilliant they are.

Think of what it takes to sell drugs. If you flipped that, did that in a legal manner, you’d be an entrepreneur.

Can we do that without jobs?

We have to create jobs. It’s not going to happen overnight. But we first have to get our babies to understand that when you first go to a job, guess what, honey? You’ve got to pull your pants up. When you go to a job you can’t stroll in there at 8:05 when you have to be in there at 8 o’clock. There’s the preparation piece. A lot of our babies don’t even have a GED.

What’s up with August 14th?

August 14th actually is going to be a milestone for us. That is going to be our 10th annual Mothers Against Gun Violence Community Vigil. I am so proud of these ladies, all volunteer, donations but no funding.

The line-up at Clinton Square from 7 to 9 p.m. will be Chief Fowler will be speaking, Mayor Miner will be speaking, I’ll be doing my welcome and introductions, and, of course, Media Unit {a performance of Angels with Broken Wings: Taking the First Step, an original music theater exploration of alternatives to street violence, with scripting assistance from residents of the Justice Center} and Desmond Sampson singing.

I’m trying to get a Syracusan who plays professional basketball to be the keynote speaker. I think his story is going to resonate very well with these young folks, because he’s been in the same position.