Can ‘Gunderstanding’ help fight youth violence in D.C.?

A sit-down with founder of the T.R.I.G.G.E.R project, Tia Bell, on her background and her organization’s goals

The Des interviewed Tia Bell, founder of the True Reasons I Grabbed the Gun Evolved from Risk (T.R.I.G.G.E.R) Project. T.R.I.G.G.E.R aims to “denormalize and destigmatize gun violence in communities of color across the nation,” per their mission statement. The following interview was slightly edited for clarity and conciseness.

The Des: Please introduce yourself.

Tia Bell: I’m Tia Bell, founder of the T.R.I.G.G.E.R. project.

Bell: I am from D.C., born and raised. I went off to college but I’ve been in D.C. ever since I graduated. I just say my whole life.

Des: Could you talk a bit about your childhood in D.C.?

Bell: I had sort of a unique experience. I played basketball and I was tall. My mom was loved by the neighborhood, by the city before she was a victim of gun violence. There was nowhere we couldn’t go because of her respect and love. I was her sidekick. I was really working to craft my sport of basketball. So everybody – drug dealers, store owners, pastors, teachers, friends – everybody kept me out of trouble. I grew up privileged in that regard.


In terms of resources, my mother was in the streets, but she gave it up when she realized my career in basketball could be promising. I ended up being the first in my family to finish high school, college, and then get my Master’s.


Between the ages of ten and seventeen, I almost lost my mother to gun violence and my uncle. I lost friends, my mother’s friends, my friends’ friends and family. In all of that though, what I learned was grief. What I know today is from grief. I found just a greater drive to hone in on basketball and save my community. But I had my career ending knee surgeries at the end of my college career. So, I started my Master’s in youth development. I moved home in 2016. I’ve been on the ground ever since.

Tia welcomes guests to The 3rd Annual End Gun Violence Citywide Festival hosted on Gun Violence Awareness Day at Freedom Plaza. Orange is worn for gun violence awareness, credit The TRIGGER PROJECT

Des: Could you tell me a little bit about what inspired you to start the T.R.I.G.G.E.R. project?

Bell: I feel like I’ve been doing this work since I was a kid. My mother became a victim of gun violence, but I was asked not to retaliate. The people I knew would do anything to make us feel better about what happened to my mother. I asked them for it to be peaceful because I played basketball in the same area. I played safely for years before going to North Carolina, kicking off a career and a path potentially to the pro. 


I feel like I’ve always modeled what I know today to be preventative behaviors. I was always open to people mentoring me, supporting me, guiding me. I was just a giver, and a healer, and just a leader. I feel like I started the work when I was ten. But formally, we started in 2019.


I learned about all these people that were doing this gun violence prevention work, but I was the only person there from D.C. It just baffled me that this conversation was happening, and we were most harmed and closest to the White House, but we weren’t involved. At the moment, I had a movement called For Youth, which I was running in honor of my uncle who was killed. 


A lot of the youth that I worked with, I met at vigils, on high school visits or basketball courts. I just sort of showed up wherever youth were, and just by being my natural self, I built rapport. I was a credible messenger. Being positioned in all of these roles, I learned that it was just a matter of gaps with meeting the needs of young people. 


Young people were blamed as the individual cause of gun violence, when really gun violence was a symptom of trauma, systemic discrimination, racism, and the conditions in our city. We lose, and then we forget, and we lose and then we get angry or activated and then forget. It’s a cycle.


And so, T.R.I.G.G.E.R. became intentional in 2019 at this conference because I realized people didn’t have a regard for the shooter. A lot of the initial conversation was around ending mass shooting and suicide. And it was cool to just be like, ‘oh, Black people kill Black people. So we’re not going to address that.’ Community violence is what they call that. And I just felt offended. I knew that gun violence was a public health issue. I realized gun violence was already deemed a public health crisis 20 years ago.


True Reasons I Grabbed the Gun Evolved from Risks came about because I felt it needed to be the voice of the shooter and understanding their circumstances. Or like we say, ‘gunderstand.’ There needs to be the voice of the victims who are criminalized or just sort of left to deal with the emotional and social harm on their own. It’s deep.

A quick invitation and gun violence prevention lesson given to tourists on the morning of The 3rd Annual End Gun Violence Citywide Festival. credit to The TRIGGER Project

Des: What year did For Youth begin?

Bell: For Youth started in 2016. I did a Youth Day D.C. at Emery, which is where I asked them not to shoot. We went to houses all throughout Emory. We started with a youth conference. 


We used our natural resources as catalysts for understanding gun violence. We used [football] to understand doing the little things, like dreaming, as a protective factor to gun violence. We picked up young people and brought them in our cars. Even back then I didn’t recognize that our government or our community organizers do events and expect people to show up, but rarely do we have the resources, or the capacity to really, truly meet people where they are.


We just are trying to work alongside our youth to create a true landscape for public health. Because we think gun violence is, unfortunately, the perfect platform to expose how systemic negligence can lead to this disease spreading.


But right now, it’s really difficult to find funding opportunities and partnerships because of the flexibility that our model requires is almost infinite. That’s really our battle now. And then you see things like the curfew, or the 90 day bill legislation going into effect, and you just see so many public safety trends.


If we could really stop with the generalizations and just meet people individually where they are because right now we see it spreading individually the most. It’s beyond even hood and gang violence. It’s just people solving their problems quickly with a gun.

Late Director Linda Harlee Harper and Founder, Tia Bell at the MLK Library during The 2nd Annual End Gun Violence Citywide Conference in 2022. Credit to The TRIGGER Project.

Des: Could you talk a little bit about what the T.R.I.G.G.E.R. project’s mission is? What are you all doing on a daily basis?

Bell: On a daily basis, we have three contact points with our young people. One is a quick hit. We might meet with one of our young people or one of our youth ambassadors that needs a book bag or a gift card or groceries. Quick touches are also events.


Our second model, intensive skill building, is like a university. So if you just think about an admissions office, where you greet a young person, that’s essentially my phone. They’re exploring majors or exploring support opportunities. They might need counseling, yoga, healing or breathwork. They might need groceries, basic needs, a ride.


Then the last point of contact is sort of sustained support. So, for example, I have a young man that I helped get home from school a few minutes ago. I help him almost every day to get to and from school. He was not going to school after he lost his best friend, which was the first homicide of the year. 

We just no longer can wait on the government to support them. By not being in school,  he is subjected to also being a victim or perpetrator. We’re doing everything we can, literally.


But our bread and butter is our summer youth employment program. It’s called T.R.I.G.G.E.R. University. It’s the school of prevention. They learn self and social awareness. And then they’re equipped with gun violence prevention strategies so that they can become peer advocates and suicide prevention. There is a huge population of young people who don’t want to resort to the gun, but sometimes the gun is the easiest option, unfortunately. And they can’t pick up a phone and call someone like T.R.I.G.G.E.R. University.


So we’re really just trying to push the city to understand the importance. I talked to the summer youth employment office and I said, ‘You know, our youth are calling me every day asking if we have any work for them.’ Because pay ended when the summertime ended, but the need still exists. I sent them a budget of how much it would take. I think we have a roster of 106. We did our programming without any city support and we have one of the largest rosters in D.C. It’s hard work.

Safe space and hugs are a key ingredient to spreading gun violence prevention education and building emotional intelligence with youth in D.C., credit the TRIGGER Project.

Des: Could you tell me a story of someone you feel you’ve had a great impact on?

This isn’t even fair. There’s so many I want to mention.


Another young man that particularly comes to mind just because of where he lives, the amount of exposure and the grief and the trauma everyday that he faces and just his tenacity and intention to prevail and lean on me and be vulnerable. He’s 23. He’s a young father, working two jobs. And now he picks up youth in his community to bring them to T.R.I.G.G.E.R. This is his last year at summer youth employment. Ideally, I would be able to offer him a career, a starting job, but we don’t have the resources.


He took youth who are highly prone to using a gun to solve the issues. He was bringing them to T.R.I.G.G.E.R. University everyday this summer. He was talking to them, crying with them, growing with them, and holding them accountable.


He likes to say all the time, ‘I used to be in the newspaper for having a baseball bat in my hand and then I got into the newspaper for having a gun in my hand. And now, hopefully I’ll make the newspaper again for saving somebody.’ So I always try to get him in the spotlight. He’s mission driven and he personifies prevention. It’s all around him still to this day in this moment, but he stays safe with the opportunities.


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Can ‘Gunderstanding’ help fight youth violence in D.C.?

An interview with The T.R.I.G.G.E.R. Project founder, Tia Bell, a gun violence prevention organization in Washington, D.C. that provides support to young people. The organization’s mission is to “denormalize and destigmatize gun violence in communities of color across the nation.”

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