Marla Davis-Bellamy, CeaseFire
By Tara Murtha
As a kid growing up in Mt. Airy, Marla Davis-Bellamy remembers watching violence erupt around her. “I remember the gang violence,” she says. “And I remember Sister Falaka Fattah, who took to the streets and brought these young gang members into [her] home. That made the difference.”
Back in the day, Queen Mother Falaka Fattah, mother of U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah, pioneered the personal approach to youth street violence that informs Davis-Bellamy’s work today. Devastated after learning one of her sons was mixed up in a gang, Fattah invited all the troubled young boys from her neighborhood to live with her in her house, which she then converted into an organization for at-risk boys.
“Not to say law enforcement didn’t play a part, but it was … mothers,” says Davis-Bellamy. “It was the love.”
As director of Temple University’s Center for Health Law, Policy and Practice, Center for Minority Health and Health Disparities and the Philadelphia branch of CeaseFire, Bellamy-Davis also lends a personal perspective to Philly’s fight to get kids to put down the guns. But in a much more organized way.
CeaseFire—founded in Chicago by Dr. Gary Slutkin, a professor of epidemiology who focuses on infectious disease control and reversing epidemics—is a program that views gunfire homicides as a disease that needs professional, evidence-based intervention to stop it from spreading.
The program trains big-brother figures—ex-cons and occasionally, guys who never got caught but have reformed anyway—to be outreach workers and what they call “interrupters.” They embed themselves in neighborhoods, talk to clergy and corner-store cashiers, locate the troublemakers, hear about beefs and then settle scores by mediating arguments.
“When you hear about the homicide or even the shooting, there’s a whole story behind it,” says Davis-Bellamy. And all we’re doing is counting numbers, not thinking or not knowing the story about … this person’s life.”
Growing up, Davis-Bellamy intended to enter politics. But then she had a random, haunting revelation. It was 1994, and she was in grad school studying government administration at University of Pennsylvania and interning with state Rep. Dwight Evans.
“There was a concern about violence at that particular time in rural areas of Pennsylvania, and Evans had a program that was looking at this whole notion of school violence, and I began kind of looking at that,” says Davis-Bellamy. At the same time, she had a sideline gig writing doing research for the school district, which was at that time debating the merits of full vs. half-time kindergarten.
As Davis-Bellamy set about interviewing kindergarten teachers, what they said was alarming. “I talked to people who have been teaching 30 years and teachers that were new,” she recalls. “All of them talked about how violent their students were. They talk about kindergarteners years ago being nurturing and kind. Not anymore.”
She began consciously observing violence and its patterns. Then, in 2002, Davis-Bellamy was appointed chief of staff for the Pennsylvania Department of Health. During her six years in Harrisburg, the office began to look at violence as a public health issue. She helped develop a program called the Pennsylvania Injury Reporting and Intervention System. Working out of three hospitals with the highest incidence of gunshot victims—all in North Philly—the program approached gunshot patients while they were still recuperating and intervened by offering counseling services.
When she left office, the program dissolved. But CeaseFire, which she had learned a little bit about while in Harrisburg through then-Gov. Rendell, stuck in her mind. When she got back to Philly, she called them up and asked them what had to be done to bring the program here.
It’s a bright and early Monday morning and a homemade memorial program, the kind printed on a copy machine and folded like a brochure, rests on Davis-Bellamy’s Temple University office on North Broad Street. She picks it up off her desk and holds it up in the air. On the cover is a photo of a smiling young black man named Joseph O’Neil Thomas. Friends called him Joey. He was murdered on Jan. 13 at 19 years old. “His mother was murdered when he was 4 years old, and so his father was struggling as a single parent,” says Davis-Bellamy. “He just kind of got sucked into the streets.”
Over the weekend, Davis-Bellamy attended his funeral. She looks at the photo, places it back down on her desk and clasps her hands. “He’s our first homicide this year.”
When Davis-Bellamy says “our” first homicide, she does not mean the city of Philadelphia’s, which, as headlines around the country have noted, sustained 32 homicides so far this year. What she means is that Thomas’ murder was the first this year in the second Police Service Area of the 22nd District, the Strawberry Mansion neighborhood. Because of its high homicide rate, that’s where CeaseFire has set up shop for the last six months.
It’s also happens to be the neighborhood where both of Davis-Bellamy’s parents taught school. “My grandparents are from here too,” she says. “So I feel right at home.”
According to Davis-Bellamy, an evaluation of CeaseFire's Chicago neighborhoods conducted by four universities over three years and funded by the U.S. Department of Justice found a 41 to 73 percent drop in shootings and killings in CeaseFire zones; a 16 to 35 percent drop in shootings directly attributable to CeaseFire; and a 100 percent reduction in retaliation murders in five of eight neighborhoods.
In Philly, the pilot program is a bare-bones operation consisting of four outreach workers working with 51 clients. Davis-Bellamy is waiting on reports and analysis of CeaseFire’s first six months, but a review of the first-quarter’s efforts is promising, showing a decrease in shootings and homicides from 27 in the preceding quarter to 21, and mediation of more than 30 conflicts that had the potential to escalate to gun violence.