Dominant public narratives can be defined as stories revolving around a central idea that “eclipse others and have the most power to shape public consciousness” (Metzler, Jackson, Trudeau 2021). Yet, in the face of gun violence, the often misleading dominant narrative of personal responsibility and stereotypes eclipse the crucial voices of those directly impacted by violence. We hear and see in the media a distorted perception of certain youth, especially Black men, as dangerous criminals without acknowledging the systemic issues and stories of these individuals that convey them as humans rather than villains. It isn’t until one takes the intentional time to make space for these stories and actively listens for these narratives to take shape. Nonviolence International is a proud partner of the International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA). IANSA is an organization committed to the disarmament and opposition to gun violence. Its work involves representing and advocating for those involved in this movement on an international platform while providing resources such as campaigns. IANSA’s Aim for Change Campaign seeks to shed light and amplify these voices through a workshop that allow the youth to express their stories of violence, masculinity, and community in a safe space through creative mediums of art.
Youth violence includes any individual 10-29 of age as “a victim, offender, or witness” in an interaction involving intentional physical force (CDC 2022). Even before I was considered a youth, I can recall a life threatened with violence, specifically gun violence. It was during this time that I experienced a lockdown due to the threat of armed students, heard the news that my friend survived the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, and hoped each day that the names on the news after each tragedy wouldn’t be a familiar one. Although my experience comes from the United States, where “1,000 physical assault-related injuries” are treated alone each day, youth violence is a global public health issue that has psychological, physical, and social consequences. Globally, 200,000 youth homicides occur each year– a number that does not include the injuries that go seen and unseen, and thus, untreated every day.
There are a variety of factors that contribute to the youth violence issue, and a factor often overlooked due to its normalization is harmful masculinity. So many gender norms and elements are normalized that even I was taken aback at what I had been socialized to not only understand for myself but also apply. It made me contemplate the gendered differences in compliments, media portrayals, and even classroom dynamics. The problematic gender norms that socialize and are encouraged in many societies often construct the erroneous normalcy that violence and force can prove one’s masculinity. This often manifests into crime, even in the youth as “84% of youth homicide victims” and perpetrators are males (WHO 2020). The extent of such gender-based gun violence has been explored previously at NVI with IANSA and demonstrates the fatal consequences of toxic masculinity. In response to the identification of issues such as gun violence, problematic gender norms, and systemic failure, the Aim for Change Campaign– the result of a collaboration between the International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA), the Human Centered Design Program at Algonquin College, and Gun Free South Africa (GFSA)– was developed.
Aim for Change is an artistic workshop for youths around the age of 10-12 that is facilitated by youth workers, who help the participants reflect on their experiences and encourage them to break the cycle of violence. This campaign’s goal is “to bring children together and encourage them to challenge the problems they see in their communities (i.e. gun violence) by expressing their thoughts and feelings in a safe, fun, artistic, creative, and engaging way” utilizes art as a preventative and reactive tool (https://iansa.org/aim-for-change-campaign/). The end result of this workshop is a zine, an “informal magazine” composed of each participant’s artwork using any material available such as newspaper, pencil, and even lipstick. During the creative process, participants are provided themes to explore specific issues. The six themes are:
- Personal Heroes: the individual’s personal hero (what they may view as masculine)
- Guns and Me: how gun violence affects the participant
- Breaking Free: experience with gun violence and gangs in the community
- Making Waves: what one lacks in the community (resources, support, unity)
- Shout Out: empowers participants to use their voice even when they feel powerless
- Anything You Want
These themes and the purpose of each demonstrate the intentionality of this campaign– from its name to its global vision and even the team members that developed it. I had the pleasure of meeting with two individuals, Anna Ranger and Amarjeet Singh (who introduced himself as Amar), who were members of the multidisciplinary team that developed Aim for Change. Through our conversation, I was better able to understand the development of this project as well as the purpose for each element.
Even in the nature of the campaign itself, Amar notes how the team sought to “hit two birds with one stone” (fulfilling two goals with one agent). By hosting a workshop, the children not only had “an indirect way… to communicate how gun violence impacts their lives” but also a productive extracurricular activity in a community that lacked “a lot of things such as recreation activities” (Singh). Providing participants with positive programming is crucial because it disrupts the recruitment of children with nothing to do with being targeted by gangs. This not only demonstrates how the team sought to address the individual issues of each participant but also the broader structural issue of scarcity in the community.
However, this context of an art campaign raised another concern that, ironically, the campaign wanted to combat: gender norms. Anna brought up the point that they “were also worried that art itself can be gendered for young people. We were a bit worried that only female students would be interested in a workshop that was framed as involving lots of art.” This worry, which fortunately has not raised any major obstacles to participation, reminded me of the gender norms that I had not even consciously been aware of due to the level of normalization and socialization. Although it is difficult to be actively conscious of all the societal norms prevalent in our daily lives, I was encouraged by how Anna and Amar also found themselves becoming more mindful through the development process of this campaign just as I became more mindful through this research process. I believe this goes on to show that we do not aim for perfection but constant learning for a better world.
Initially, this campaign’s target community was in South Africa, but through the global reach of IANSA, the vision of Aim for Change is to be international. For this purpose, art then became a flexible agent that allowed the “workshop to be translatable in many different places.. Whenever language barrier comes to play– visual art is a really good solution because we can communicate through images” (Ranger). Anna and Amar discussed with me the long-term vision of Aim for Change functioning like pen pals for children internationally. In each area that creates a zine, even with different languages, the universal character of art would allow for the zines to be exchanged with the hope that “children experiencing gun violence will feel less alone” (Ranger).
Using art as a means of expression allows the participants to communicate difficult and heavy topics, which is especially significant for children that have grown accustomed to gun violence as an undiscussed normal. The team specifically chose a zine “to keep it really open so that the participants could engage in thinking about their trauma in whatever way they felt comfortable with” (Ranger). Additionally, the ability to construct their own narrative emphasizes the “individual’s sense of self” and perspective, which empowers participants’ individual voices while assisting in the “externalization of their problems and strengths” (Padilla 2022). I believe Amar put this process best: “When you make children think about these things that affect them, that is when they are able to acknowledge, accept, and work on these things.”
Youth have the ability to change, but they face structural, societal, and individual barriers to change. Just like the meaning behind this campaign’s name, we must shift the presence of violence to positive change for youth around the world in the same way this team was able to shift “aim,” a word associated with gun violence to one associated with the hope of a world without such violence. This can not be done alone, but this does not mean one does not make a difference. In fact, Anna speaks to the strength of her interdisciplinary team. After hearing the contributions each team member made to the creation of Aim for Change, I agree with this statement.
Having only met a part of the team, I was truly astounded by the work that they had done and the process of research, collaboration, and execution to create a workshop that sought to tackle such big problems one component at a time. It was not only Anna and Amar’s team at Algonquin College but also many thoughtful, passionate individuals from GFSA and IANSA that led to Aim for Change. In many ways, the process of developing this campaign reflects elements of creating a better world. It takes individuals of diverse backgrounds, strengths, and passions that seek a kinder world for all –especially those that bear the burden of remaining complacent to the world we live in now– for change to begin and be sustained. I am honored to share a world with so many of these individuals and urge you to be one of these individuals with bold fullness.
The tangible final product of the Aim for Change workshop is a zine– an informal magazine– that is constructed from pages made by each participant. In order to showcase each page while remaining true to the original “magazine-like” style of the zine, I used a digital magazine format with each page dedicated to an example and/or pilot workshop’s zine page. These zine pages capture not only the creativity of each individual but also the themes that thoughtfully guide the participants during the zine-making process to productively explore their experience with violence. I chose to categorize my digital showcase of the zine pages by themes to highlight the intentionality of each theme while providing examples of how these themes may manifest onto paper. Each zine page was dynamic on its own, but a particular piece that stood out to me is shown on page 2 titled “Guns and Me.” The page is composed of a gun with an X across it along with an incredibly raw and powerful poem. As I read through this poem that begins with “because there was a gun,” I felt the urgency of the crisis at hand. A youth’s world should not have to begin with “because there was a gun,” but rather “because there was school,” “because there were books,” “because there were people that cared for me,” and most importantly, “because there was a safe world for me.” I believe that the world should not only be hoped for but created.
Through the process of exploring the origin and completion of this campaign, I can see how we are creating this world for our youth. In my research, I was able to identify the patterns that are prevalent in areas of youth violence, specifically in relation to guns. These patterns relate to toxic masculinity, resource scarcity, gangs, and other broad and daunting issues. Although it was discouraging to continue to see a reality where these issues have become prevalent to the point of normalization, I was also inspired by the bold steps each agent involved in the Aim for Change campaign such as IANSA has taken to confront them. Additionally, I have come to embrace the notion that everyone can be involved in the aim for change. Whether it is a psychological background or coding expertise, is through the variety of strengths that makes collective action that much more powerful. I have come to learn this at Nonviolence International as well. When we value our collective wisdom and power, we are able to more effectively realize a world of humanity, especially for those that do not have the resources to do so.
Beaumont, Sherry L. “The Art of Words: Expressive Writing as Reflective Practice in Art Therapy (L'art Des Mots : L'écriture Expressive Comme Pratique Réflexive En Art-Thérapie).” Taylor & Francis, 28 Jan. 2019, www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/08322473.2018.1527610.
Heilman, Brian, and Gary Barker. “Masculin Norms and Violence: Making the Connections.” Promundoglobal.org, Promundo-US, 2018, promundoglobal.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/Masculine-Norms-Mens-Health-Report_007_Web.pdf.
Metzler, Marilyn, et al. “Youths and Violence: Changing the Narrative.” American Journal of Public Health, American Public Health Association, May 2021, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8157800/.
“Preventing Youth Violence |Violence Prevention|injury Center|CDC.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 14 Apr. 2022, www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/youthviolence/fastfact.html#:~:text=Youth%20violence%20is%20the%20intentional,victim%2C%20offender%2C%20or%20witness.
“Youth Violence.” World Health Organization, World Health Organization, 8 June 2020, www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/youth-violence.