Activists Give Hope to Victims of Gun Violence

Three Organizations Provide Critical Aid

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Momma’s Safe Haven hosts a forum for moms who lost children to gun violence. Photo: Beverly-Smith Brown/Momma’s Safe Haven

Ryane B. Nickens, a native of DC’s Ward 8, is no stranger to gun violence. When she was just eight years old, she saw her first dead body, which was that of her uncle David. He was shot twice on 22nd Street due to a case of mistaken identity, leaving his daughter without a father. On Dec. 3, 1993, Nickens remembers being wakened by one of her sister’s friends to find that a neighbor had shot several of her family members, including her sister, Tracy, who was nine months pregnant.

“That was hell coming to earth for me,” says Nickens, “my sister Tracy was my defender and my protector, and that night, he took my protector away.”

Nickens spent the next several years depressed and suicidal. Her parents enrolled her in therapy, and while she was recovering from the death of her sister, her brother Ronny was murdered.

“It became this thought in my head that everything I love I end up losing, so what is the point in loving at all,” says Nickens. She moved to North Carolina to pursue a sports communications career and had no intention of returning to the District after all the grief the area had brought her and her family.

Nickens had always planned on a memorial for her late siblings, but it wasn’t until her career as a sports reporter called her back to DC that The TraRon Center concept fully formulated in her mind. While the center started out as a place for teenage girls to heal, she quickly realized that it needed to open its doors to more individuals, families and communities that needed to be healed as well. Today, The TraRon Center offers professional therapeutic services and programs to those who are coping and grieving over gun violence.

Children at The TraRon Center gather for arts and crafts time. Photo: Ryane B. Nickens/The TraRon Center

The TraRon Center supports Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, a grassroots movement that was started in 2012 by Shannon Watts, a stay-at-home mom and former communications executive in Indianapolis. The day after the Sandy Hook tragedy, Watts started a Facebook group with the message that all Americans can and should do more to reduce gun violence.

The online conversation turned into a powerful movement of mothers fighting for public safety measures that respect the Second Amendment and protect people from gun violence. A year after its conception, the organization joined forces with Everytown for Gun Safety, a large national nonprofit organization that also advocates for gun control. Today, Moms Demand Action has established a chapter in every state of the country and has gained more than five million supporters and more than 350,000 donors.

The DC chapter of Moms Demand Action has been around since 2012 and is headed by Rachel Usdan. According to Usdan, Moms Demand Action showed support for the Firearms Safety Omnibus Amendment Act, which passed in December 2018. The bill strengthens the District’s gun laws by banning bump stocks (attachments that allow semi-automatic weapons to fire at the speed of automatic weapons) and increases the penalty for those caught with high-capacity magazine clips. One of the most widely supported components of the bill is a “red flag” amendment, which allows law enforcement officers to confiscate firearms and ammunition from people who are deemed a danger to themselves or others.

Moms Demand Action is also in favor of the universal background check bill, HR8, which is working its way through the House. “We will show up on the Hill when the House or Senate is having hearings, in our red shirts that have become familiar,” says Usdan. “We feel like there is a common ground that gun owners can be a part of that is going to make our country safer. We try to focus on initiatives that already have the vast support of the American majority.”

In addition to having Nickens from The TraRon Center come speak at one of its meetings, bringing to life the tragic nature of gun violence in DC, Moms Demand Action has partnered with another local organization, Momma’s Safe Haven, run by Beverly Smith-Brown.

Smith-Brown was raised in Southeast, in a low-income, single-parent home by her mother, who frequently abused crack cocaine. She’s familiar with having free rein in a drug-infested community and has experienced all of the lows that come with that, including enduring a physically abusive relationship at age 16. When she saw her son falling into the same pattern and landing himself in the juvenile system at just 12 years old, she decided to take action. She gathered moms in the community who wanted to take back their streets, and before long, what started as a simple phone tree turned into something much greater.

(Left to right) Ryane B. Nickens of The TraRon Center, Rachel Usdan of Moms Demand Action and Beverly Smith-Brown of Momma’s Safe Haven gather at the Moms Demand Action January meeting, where Nickens and Smith-Brown were guest speakers. Photo: Moms Demand Action/Rachel Usdan

Today, Momma’s Safe Haven hosts programs and community events to help both children and families. It hosts talent shows, provides mental health services, takes community retreats and leads employment workshops. “We didn’t see a lot of programs in the community that were wrapping arms around the head of the household and not just the children,” says Smith-Brown. “The main feedback I hear in the groups is that they enjoy having a space where they feel comfortable outside of their homes to speak to others in the community about their struggles.”

The three organizations often come together in the community to host events, programs and workshops. Most recently, Smith-Brown says, Moms Demand Action was instrumental in supporting Momma’s Safe Haven’s first annual “You Go Girl Female Transformational Conference,” which encourages young girls to believe in themselves through a full day of transformational activities.

On Feb. 26, Moms Demand Action will be hosting a happy-hour fundraiser for The TraRon Center at Roofers Union in Adams Morgan.

To learn more about The TraRon Center, visit https://traroncenter.org/.

To learn more about the Moms Demand Action DC Chapter, visit https://www.facebook.com/MomsDemandActionDCArea/.

To learn more about Momma’s Safe Haven, visit https://www.mommassafehaven.org/.