Champions of Change Blog

  • Texas Gun Sense: Firearms Policy and Advocacy in the Wild West

    John Woods

    John Woods is being honored as a Gun Violence Prevention Champion of Change.

    Prior to April 16, 2007, gun violence was—for me—something that happened on the pages of a newspaper or behind the television screen. That Monday morning, however, I discovered first-hand the cost of America’s moral failure on firearms policy. I lost Maxine Turner, the girl I loved.

    I moved to Austin a handful of weeks later to begin a biology doctoral program. My involvement with the gun violence prevention movement began when lawmakers started discussing how to “prevent another Virginia Tech,” which they argued was best accomplished by forcing colleges to allow guns in classrooms—an ideological agenda having nothing to do with campus safety.

    Scientists love to believe that people make decisions rationally—that 32 innocent people dying in an act of terrorism should be sufficient justification for significant reform, particularly when there is so little downside to something as simple as expanding background checks.

    Unfortunately, rational decision-making is rarely a part of the gun debate in America. Texas lawmakers had no interest in talking to the Virginia Tech survivors, nor in reading the VT Review Panel Report, nor in learning that workplaces allowing firearms are 5–7 times more likely to experience homicides.

    Indeed, the gun debate in Texas has been filled with manufactured misinformation. The NRA has done an admirable job, for example, of supplying the public with an alternate history—that the University of Texas shooting was mitigated by armed civilians. Survivors and law enforcement remember it quite differently: armed civilians needlessly complicated the police response.

    We founded Texas Gun Sense to counter gun lobby disinformation with an objective, fact-based perspective. After the inconceivable events at Sandy Hook, America seemed ready to talk about guns again; and we knew already that Texas was prepared, its legislature having twice rejected the “campus carry” bills—which many observers viewed as sure to pass in an overwhelmingly conservative Texas legislature.

    Like Texas Gun Sense, the vast majority of Texans support the right to bear arms but also—perhaps contrary to stereotypes—believe that with rights come responsibilities. So it is unsurprising that the term “gun sense” was invented in Texas by Texans. We want what nearly every other American wants: the freedom to live and raise our families in safety.

    Texas Gun Sense has already found some success pursuing a fact-based dialogue. In February, the Travis County commissioners voted against renewing gun show contracts for county property absent guarantees of background checks on private sales. Organizers successfully defeated the guns-in-classrooms legislation for the third session in a row using white papers we prepared. We offered Texas a trustworthy source of information on firearms policy for the first time in years.

    Texas has a history of good gun sense, a legacy which Texas Gun Sense hopes to solidify. In 1994, when it was still legal for domestic violence offenders to purchase firearms, a local constable suggested that Austin Police Department simply fax relevant arrest records to any gun dealer requesting a background check. It worked, and a short time later the legislature codified such offenders as prohibited purchasers—long before it became federal law. By 2009, Texas had closed the mental health reporting loophole which enabled Maxine’s killer to buy his firearms—under unanimous consent and signed by Governor Perry.

    What we do in Texas has broader implications—36 Congressional seats and several native sons in the White House. Many federal officeholders spend time in the legislature—where we are on the front lines, discussing universal background checks. The work Texas Gun Sense does has national impact, and on everyone's behalf, I thank the White House for the recognition.

    John Woods, Ph.D., graduated from Virginia Tech and helped found Texas Gun Sense, a state-focused educational charity which promotes a fact-based dialogue on gun policy and works to educate lawmakers and the public on universal background checks in Texas. Dr. Woods now serves on Texas Gun Sense’s advisory board and is a post-doctoral fellow at West Virginia University’s Applied Space Exploration Laboratory and the West Virginia Robotic Technology Center.

  • Transforming Pain into Power

    Jamira Burley

    Jamira Burley is being honored as a Gun Violence Prevention Champion of Change.

    We live in a world that constantly tells young people that "we are the future," and in doing so, we forget about the contribution that youth can make right now. However, young people can’t make that immediate or eventual difference if there are endless barriers to their success.

    Since the murder of my brother Andre in 2005, I have worked to prevent other young people from experiencing the same adversities that I didwhether that means training the next generation of city leaders through my job at the Philadelphia Youth Commission, or meeting with members of Congress regarding comprehensive gun reform.

    My whole life, I was surrounded by people who couldn’t see beyond their own zip code; people who didn’t know how to be more because no one in their family ever was. That is why I am honored and appreciative to be selected as a White House Champion of Change for Gun Violence Prevention. I accept this recognition not for myself but for every person who stands beside me in this work. We recognize that everyone is affected by gun violence and if we’re going to prevent another young person from losing his or her life to the barrel of a gun, we have to work together.

    Nine years ago I didn’t choose this work, it chose me. I like to think that I was a pretty normal student. Like many, I faced my own share of adversities, but nothing I thought I couldn’t handle—even after the repeat incarcerations of both my parents and all 10 of my older brothers. That is, until I received a phone call that changed not only the way I viewed the world, but also my place within it.

    My brother Andre was murdered one month before his 21st birthday. Since Andre’s murder, stories like his continue to happen every single day in America. Stories in which young people are dying before they are even old enough to vote; where the price of leaving your home may be death. Our streets are becoming battlegroundswe have made kid soldiers out of our youth, criminals out of the disadvantaged and funeral attendees out of all of us.

    Thirty-four Americans die every day because of guns. Guns are becoming more accessible than textbooks and supermarkets. Yet we continue to serve them up to the unfit and unqualified, resulting in mass murders and mass shootings. So I ask: what can and must be done?

    Shortly after the Sandy Hook school shooting, as a member of the Roosevelt Institute, Millennial Gun Violence Prevention Task Force, we developed a list of policy recommendations addressing gun violence in America. I also have the privilege of helping to lead the Philadelphia youth engagement strategy for the National Forum for Youth Violence Prevention and Cities United. Cities United is an initiative created by Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter and New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, with a goal to reduce the homicide rate for black men and boys. Through this work, Cities United has partnered with more than 50 different mayors, foundations and federal agencies across the country.

    My brother’s death set the foundation for the work that I devote my life to, but I also recognize that this is bigger than Andre. We can no longer sit on the sidelines and allow gun lobbyists to place band-aids on gunshot wounds. The time for change is now. The body count continues to rise. Gravesites don’t lie and bullets end lives, but we can change that; we can do something about it.

    Jamira Burley is the Executive Director of the Philadelphia Youth Commission. She is also a member of the United Nations Global Education First Initiative, Youth Advocacy Group and co-founder of GenYnot.

  • Preventing Gun Violence: How My Life’s Work Became My Life’s Purpose

    Glenn G. Grayson

    Glenn G. Grayson is being honored as a Gun Violence Prevention Champion of Change.

    Columbine, Virginia Tech, Western Psych, Aurora, Sandy Hook, and the list goes on and on; 34 Americans are murdered with guns every single day. Despite my best efforts, I could not shield even my own family from the senseless violence that occurred. On October 17, 2010 my innocent son, Jeron Xavier Grayson, became a part of this tragic statistic when he lost his life through senseless gun violence.

    Rewind 14 years to the founding of the Center that C.A.R.E.S. At that time, I knew that the more exposure a child has to educational and cultural experiences, the less likely they are to turn to violenceespecially gun violenceto solve their problems.

    C.A.R.E.S., which stands for Children/Adult Recreational and Educational Services, is much more than an acronym. It represents the foundation on which youth and young adults can build their lives with positive experiences that expand their learning. The C.A.R.E.S. Promise to every child who enters its doors is to be met personally where they are in their diverse levels of personal, social and academic development. Each child will be given a helping hand to climb, step-by-step to meet adulthood with the strength and courage to be able to reach their life’s plans and goals.

    Over the years, C.A.R.E.S. has had a lasting impact in the lives of more than 2,500 families by providing year-round educational programs, cultural experiences, recreational activities and social services to inner-city youth.

    In 2011, to continue the important community work that we’d begun and to make good on the life of my son and the many lives of other innocent victims of gun violence, the Center that C.A.R.E.S. purchased a 14,000 sq. ft. community center in Pittsburgh. The center, which sits in the heart of the Pittsburgh’s Hill District, had been closed for more than 12 years at the time of purchase.

    Upon opening in July 2014, the community center will be renamed the Jeron X. Grayson Community Center and will be devoted to continuing the necessary preventative work of enriching the lives of middle school and high school students, with an increased emphasis on preventing gang activity and gun violence.

    Bringing communities together to do this work is the heart of our outreach. The Jeron X. Grayson Foundation, corporate and populous communities led the efforts in funding the $2 million renovation of the center, which will serve more than double the number of youth and families C.A.R.E.S. currently serves.

    My life’s work has been and will continue to be identifying as many resources and community members as possible to save the lives of our youth through preventing gun violence.

    Currently, I work with organizations including Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network (PIIN) Gun Violence Task Force, Cease Fire PA, Allegheny County Ask Campaign, Hill District Minister Alliance and Heinz Endowment for African American Men and Boys, to find ways to positively affect the lives of young people for generations to come.

    Further, my immediate family also created the Jeron X. Grayson Foundation, where the mission is to increase the public awareness of the impact of gun violence through education, community outreach and grant-making services.

    Jeron Grayson, who was affectionately known as "G", was also passionate about making a difference and he especially cared about gun violence and its effect on his community and society. “G” now serves as a reminder that “G” stands for Never Touch a Gun!

    Rev. Glenn G. Grayson is the Pastor of Wesley Center A.M.E. Zion Church, the founder of the Center that C.A.R.E.S. and an activist for gun violence prevention in Pittsburgh, PA.  

  • A Goal We Can Agree On: Keep Guns Out of the Wrong Hands

    James Johnson

    Chief Jim Johnson is being honored as a Gun Violence Prevention Champion of Change.

    For law enforcement, preventing gun violence is not a political or partisan issue; it is a grave matter of public safety. We know from experience that there is an urgent need to keep guns out of dangerous handsa goal everyone should be able to support.

    I am Chief of Police for Baltimore County, Maryland, and also Chair of the National Law Enforcement Partnership to Prevent Gun Violence (“the Partnership”). We are an alliance of nine national law enforcement leadership organizations working together to reduce gun crime against our citizens and our officers. The Partnership includes:

    • Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, Inc. (CALEA);
    • Hispanic American Police Command Officers Association (HAPCOA);
    • International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators (IACLEA);
    • International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP);
    • Major Cities Chiefs Association (MCCA);
    • National Association of Women Law Enforcement Executives (NAWLEE);
    • National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives (NOBLE);
    • Police Executive Research Forum (PERF); and
    • Police Foundation (PF).

    Every member of the Partnership agrees that public safety is served when gun sales involve a background check. For the last 20 years, the landmark Brady Law has required nationwide background checks for gun purchases through federally licensed firearm dealers. Unquestionably, this law has been a tremendous public safety success.

    The Brady Law focuses on a specific, critical goal—preventing gun sales to those not legally permitted to possess them, including criminals and the dangerously mentally ill. Since the Brady Law was enacted in 1994, background checks have stopped more than two million prohibited persons from buying firearms.  While there is no way to quantify how many lives have been saved since the law took effect, it is obvious that more than two million guns in the wrong hands is a recipe for more than two million disasters.

    But the Brady Law applies only when a sale occurs through a federally licensed dealer, and the fact is that up to 40 percent of firearm purchases occur between private parties where no background check is required under federal law. As we in law enforcement have been warning, that is tantamount to allowing 40 percent of passengers to board an airplane without undergoing any screening. The honor system would not work at airports and does not work when it comes to buying guns.

    As public safety professionals, we see daily the devastation caused by gun crime. Across America, gun violence claims more than 30 lives each day. Law enforcement officers not only risk their own lives to protect the public, they are increasingly the targets of gun violence. Ambushes of police have risen dramatically and were the leading cause of fatal shootings of officers for two years in a row, in 2012 and 2013. This cannot continue.

    We may not be able to eliminate all gun violence, but that shouldn’t mean we do nothing.

    I am honored to receive this recognition as a White House Champion of Change. Speaking out on solutions to the problem of gun violence is something I feel compelled to do as a public safety professional. To make my community and communities across the nation safer, I have been doing all I can to better inform the public debate and share law enforcement’s expertise with the public and policymakersin my own community, in Maryland, and nationally.

    All Americans, including our youngest citizens, should be able to grow up and fulfill their roles in the great human experience. None of us can fail them. We should take the obvious and reasonable step of requiring background checks for all sales. This is not just common senselives depend on it.

    Jim Johnson is the Chief of Police for Baltimore County, MD and Chair of the National Law Enforcement Partnership to Prevent Gun Violence, a coalition of nine national law enforcement leadership organizations concerned about the unacceptable level of gun violence in the U.S.

  • Bridging: Two Nations and Two Languages

    Armando Chavez

    Armando Chavez is being honored as a Cesar Chavez Champion of Change.

    As the principal of Columbus Elementary School, I have the honor of serving a diverse population that merits a leader who envisions greatness and provides an opportunity in which the students’ needs are seen as a priority.

    The majority of the students who attend our school are American citizens who live across the border in Mexico. I consider myself a service provider who is here to provide any type of resource to stakeholders in the school who are in need. The Deming Public School District plays an integral part in the vision of our school. Together, we foster positive attributes to receive the results we are looking for, both academically and personally. 

    Working with a dynamic staff who is as dedicated to the students as the administration is is essential. I could not accomplish one task without the support of a faculty who understands the larger picture of being supporters of a community who in turn depend on the school for leadership. Since the school is seen as the heart of the community, we must provide services above and beyond the status quo.

    Providing services for students who are poverty stricken must be in place in order to satisfy the basic needs of our students. We work in conjunction with programs such as the Roadrunner Backpack Program, Rio Grande Education Cooperative, and our after school program collaboratively funded by the county of Luna, City of Deming, and The Deming Public School District. These resources allow me to further enhance the educational setting for all students in our school. 

    Our area has difficulty communicating with families across the border. In some cases parents are not able to cross, but the child crosses to receive an appropriate education. Making families feel comfortable knowing their children are safe allows me to further build on the relationships needed to fully assist with our students’ progress. Initiating Skype conferences between both the parents and the school has helped us bridge the gap of communication. When parents need to discuss issues with teachers, a local business has volunteered their facilities to ensure this process can continue seamlessly.

    It is with great humility that I share my endeavors on the path of receiving this honor. My teams at the school and district level have given me the opportunity to enhance the school and touch the lives of our children. So many dedicated individuals allow me to soar; thus reaching new levels of achievement and triumph.  Students are the focus; growing and learning will lead them to be productive members of any community in which they choose to live. 

    Armando Chavez serves as principal of Columbus Elementary School (Deming Public Schools) in Columbus, NM. The school serves a population in which 99% of the students enter as monolingual Spanish language students. Most of this unique group of students were born in the United States and live across the border in Mexico. During his tenure as the leader of the school, he has emphasized the importance of education.   

  • A Life Reinvigorated: A Sense of Purpose in Teaching Immigrants

    Xavier Muñoz

    Xavier Muñoz is being honored as a Cesar Chavez Champion of Change.

    I am honored to be selected as a White House Champion of Change on a day that celebrates Cesar Chavez, whose life of service continues to inspire people to pursue empowerment.

    I impact the community through AmeriCorps, the flagship program of the Corporation for National and Community Service. As one of several AmeriCorps members with the Literacy Council of Northern Virginia (LCNV), I teach classes of adult immigrants to use English as a tool for directing their own American journey. I also make it easier for volunteer instructors and class aides to provide quality instruction by taking care of administrative duties and providing sensitivity training on what beginning learners may experience in the classroom.

    But I didn’t get into AmeriCorps service to give back to the community. The choice to become a full-time volunteer was a self-involved endeavor much like my time in undergrad. I pursued courses of study based primarily on what I was previously good at and what had a clearer career path. But early academic progress spiraled into incomplete assignments not submitted and anxiety-driven withdrawals from class participation that nearly brought me to a standstill. After petitioning to avoid academic suspension, I graduated through transfer credit a year later than expected.

    “Should” and “ought to” dragged me forward for the following year and a half. There was no heart to follow until I found myself spending two evenings a week helping a Jamaican man to read. I would come home ablaze with reflections on how I could make the next day even better. Encouraged by this budding interest, I joined LCNV to further learn how to teach adults. 

    Most of the 1500+ LCNV learners a year are immigrants. Some are high-skilled workers; many have no more than a few years of education. Some have been in the U.S. for years; some, only for days. I’m awed by their courage. I think to my father, who came to this country as a child in a three-generation Colombian family. And I think to my mother, who came to this country knowing only my father. Because of how hard my parents have worked for respect and for better lives for my brother and me, I see in my students how important education is for them and their families.

    In one of my classes, I have students from the Central African Republic, China, Iran, Mexico, Somalia, and Vietnam. I feel empowered by teaching when they say how very happy they are after we get library cards and practice finding books, when they look to each other rather than to me for support in class (thereby proving that English is an international languagenot just mine but theirs, too). That I can share in their success is what propels me forward. AmeriCorps service really has given purpose and direction to my future. And it is for these adults that I will pursue a graduate degree in teaching.

    So I hope that this Champion of Change recognition brings to the national consciousness the potential that radiates in the lives of adults with low levels of literacy and English proficiency and that this recognition calls to action those who recognize the needs of adult education and the broader impact it has on our families and communities.

    Xavier Munoz is currently serving a second year as an AmeriCorps member with the Literacy Council of Northern Virginia, a non-profit community-based literacy organization that specializes in providing low-level ESOL and literacy instruction to adults so as to them to participate more fully and confidently in their communities.