Kayla Hicks is one trailblazing woman who’d be satisfied to work herself out of a job. The day she hears the words, “Kayla, we don’t have anything else for you to do” would be a win for the Director of African-American and Community Outreach of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence and leader of the Virginia Action Network (VAN) in the USA. Hicks, a community advocate for the past 25 years [6 1/2 focused on gun violence], travels across the United States engaging the typically unserved and underserved communities that are disproportionately affected by gun violence. Her multiple tasks include running free workshops to help those communities gain the tools needed to enact real change. Hicks recently took the time to share with Aspire her best advice for advocating on the issues you care about.
Q. What led you to become an activist?
“I had been exposed to a lot of tragedy, between foster care, abuse and neglect. I had a choice. I decided to have a better life. There’s a reminding picture in my head of when I was about 3 or 4 and my mom and two brothers and my sister (my twin sister had died by this time) would come visit me in foster care. Every single time, I would leave my doll on my bed — I had one doll — in my little room and right before the visit was over, they would always send me to get the doll. I’d hurry to get the doll and on my way back — always midway down the hallway — I could see them walking out of this big door and as the door was closing, I’d run faster. By the time I got to the door, the door would be closed and I was screaming. It was a horrible thing. I couldn’t reach the door, I couldn’t open the door, I couldn’t push the door. So I decided early on that just because a door was closed and I did not know how to get through it, I was going to find another way. I was always going to help others not hurt like I did. I found different people around me who encouraged me to be better, to do better.”
Q. What’s the first step in getting involved?
“There’s a lot of women I work with — from those with master’s degrees to those with no degrees — and one thing I encourage everyone to do is: self-check. Do not do this for the wrong reason. Some women get into a cause because no one helped them. That emptiness, that scar is still painful. They have to take care of themselves before helping others. Take care of yourself. Establish your foundation. It’s bigger than you understand. It’s not about you trying to save the world. You’re more likely to help others, do no harm if you already helped yourself.”
Q. What can everyday people get involved in the issues that they are most concerned about?
“It starts locally. Get to know your community where you live to figure out the best steps. I strongly encourage people to tap into their community. Go to your city council meetings and learn. A lot of times cities don’t know how to do anything but you’ll have concerned citizens there. Talk to neighbors about groups, organizations and ways you all can get involved. Find your legislators, learn their priorities, their policies, find the political leaders in your community. We teach individuals to understand local, state, federal law; how to navigate around your issues; what the difference is between policies and legislation.”
Q. How do you get the difficult work done?
“The most important thing is building relationships that make a difference and then putting research into those relationships so that people understand the data. The people I work with: the black, the brown and beige communities and the women of color often don’t get any coverage in the gun violence conversation. People would believe that we don’t get shot or injured or that we’re not dealing with secondary stress and those kinds of things. This is to make sure we are preparing people for our future by showing evidence matters. In black, brown, beige communities there are so many challenges, especially if you’re poor. We’ve got to give them the information, the tools and resources. That’s knowledge, sitting down with people, inquiring about what works, successes, what didn’t work and how can I integrate. It’s building these relationships that make a lasting difference. That becomes the change they are asking for instead of relying on social media, or what their cousin or aunt told them or passed down generational curses and conversations. It is so important that somebody takes the time. I call it education to action. You got to educate the individual and not take for granted that everyone knows what it all means.”
Q. How do you handle opposition?
“There are so many lines drawn. If you’re talking about gun violence, about domestic violence, and/or gun violence which is the leading cause of death for black men and boys between ages 10 and 35 and then, all of a sudden, you have a conversation about gun control which talks about the Second Amendment. All of these challenges that are put forth in front of us. It’s just like every other day when you wake up. You have to make a decision on what you’re going to do. If you want to get up and go to the door, it’s a process. You have to get up. You have to get out of bed. You have to put one foot down, one foot forward. This is how I look at it. When I’m working in this space, this is how I approach it. There comes a point when you need more than words. You have to demonstrate. That’s how I address the multiple challenges, understanding I may not have all the answers but I believe in Kayla. …Obviously it takes a dedication to service. You can’t look to get rich, to make money. Sometimes you can’t even look to make friends because the challenge to being in this space is that people are dealing with grief and there’s different levels of it. They may hate you one day and love you the next.”
Q. What should the gun conversation be about?
“Gun violence is a public health issue. It’s more about collaboration now and engagement and having people start having the right conversations. We’re talking gun violence prevention. I do not know many gun owners that want to see their kids in college, their kids in religious places, the movies, the mall, anywhere — there’s nowhere safe — who want to see their love ones harmed. So we have to start talking about how do we prevent this. People start saying, ‘You can’t do this because there’s laws on the books we’re not enforcing.’ It’s not true. We’re fighting for one reason and that’s because guns had a purpose of killing. Now it’s for profit. There’s too much money to be made. At the end of the day, if you don’t have a whole bunch of things working together, one thing’s not going to work.
Q. What makes a good leader?
“You have to trust people, you can’t micromanage. Here you’re dealing with a lot of trauma. You got to lead with evidence. I take an evidence based holistic approach You want to deal with any policy legislation. At same time everything has to be based on evidence, the key is to start teaching people that evidence matters. If you’re dealing with research, with data, whatever conversation you’re having it’s important to have a holistic evidence-based approach. I treat people the way I would want to feel. I want to feel good. I don’t want to be hurt or manipulated. We beat ourselves up enough. It’s enough the world waits for us outside every day, the cold winter day when you first walk out. The immediate shot. You want to make sure, it’s kind of tricky because everything I just said also means you have to know how to treat yourself. There’s so many of us that don’t know how to self love and we feel like we have to give the world what we didn’t get, we neglect ourselves. I always tell people when I say that you want to make sure you know kindness matters. You want to be kind to yourself so that you can be kind to others.”
Q. How do you push on during the “bad” days?
“You have to believe that you can make a difference, that you can change something. It doesn’t mean you have the answers but if you have hope and you’re encouraged and you believe in yourself… I think the lack of self-love and knowledge is a human issue that we all deal with and why we see so much violence and why we don’t have conversations that are clear.
“You have to believe that you can make a difference, that you can change something. It doesn’t mean you have the answers"
Q. What is the change we need?
“I do believe that people should be responsible gun owners. There should be checks and balances. Just like owning a vehicle. You should have to be required to be licensed and it should be across [the country] not by city and state with a certain amount of mandatory practice hours, then you have to take a test and then you have to show proficiency in understanding, not only the knowledge, but you have to show proficiency in using a firearm. It is difficult to use a firearm. It’s difficult just in a calm situation. There should be some requirements. We will have one set of guidelines for gun ownerships and it will look something like the DMV. It doesn’t have to be any different, you’re carrying an ID, you have to go through the full process just like you were getting a driver’s license to own a firearm.
Q. Is there something you want people to know about the work you’re doing?
“Kindness matters, one small act of kindness can change the world. You can really be the influence that stops somebody from doing something horrible and then you can also be the person to change the world. When I’m speaking to small groups and even large groups of people, I always remind them that there’s a lot of quotes from Dr. King and Malcolm X and Mandela. I tell them there was one Martin, one Malcolm, one Mandela. It just takes one.”
Q. Is it harder to be kind today given our current political climate, leadership?
“Kindness is not harder but it’s easier to feel angry. I’ve sat in rooms where there are parents mourning the loss of their children, adults and toddlers that were killed by high powered weapons and then you’ll see these groups of white males come in with high powered weapons to intimidate the family and that makes it difficult for me, makes me angry. It’s difficult for me to not show the human side of me that cares, to now show I care but I have to also remember that some people are on the edge. Hurt people hurt people. If you’re nasty to someone who’s carrying a firearm, you never know it takes a few seconds for someone to check out so you don’t want to be contributing to that checking out moment and you can’t always stop it. It would be a false narrative to suggest that we can stop all gun violence or injuries or death but it’s just like traffic lights. When we had had so many accidents, injuries, death there was research and funding and guess what? We figured out that traffic lights and stop signs they do work. They do reduce and prevent vehicular homicides and accidents. Do they reduce them all? Of course not. But look what we’ve done. Can you imagine driving around with no stop signs?”
Q. What’s a bad day?
“Bad is just a challenge. I would say, I’m dealing with so much trauma, it’s bad. Beyond the gun, beyond the bullet. I’ll give you an example, I was working in D.C. doing some regular work with gun violence when I got a phone call from back home down in Hampton [Virginia] where I live and it was someone I had worked with in the community. I have these CANs across the country, community action networks, and this person was from the Virginia Action Network. The phone call was simply this: he called me because he’s been working with me for five years and his friend had called him because her 6-week-old granddaughter had died and they didn’t know what to do. I said ‘Oh my goodness, you mean someone shot a 6 -week-old and they said ‘No, they don’t know what happened. She was not breathing’. At that point it became my responsibility and my job to now help them to figure out how to bury a 6-week -old child because they’re in my space. They had no money. They didn’t belong to a church. So I had to start calling all of the gun violence prevention networks that I had because we come from every different background. I start calling people in to help. In an hour, I was able to get a pastor, church funeral expenses paid for, got the body over to the medical examiner. We were able to get that child buried but that was a very challenging day because I’m already dealing with violence and dealing with pushback when all I’m doing is trying to help. Now I’m also being exposed to other levels of violence. On top of that it didn’t stop my phone from ringing saying ‘My son was shot, can you please come? They won’t tell me if he’s dead. They won’t tell me who did it.’ Then later on that so challenging day is when I get multiple calls in regard to death and injury in gun violence and other ways with the people I’m working with.
Q. Did having the childhood you have had influence your whole life?
“Yes. I’m a living example that no matter what the trouble, no matter what the challenge — I don’t know who or where I learned this from when I was young — but you can change the way you think. You can change the way you live. It’s all about how you are processing what’s happening. If you went through tragedy and you’re thinking about it, you’re looking at something that happened and we have to learn how to place ourselves in the present. People are so conditioned by what we see on social media, what we hear in songs. They want to live in romance of the sun, run through the fields with a rainbow and jump into a bucket of gold. It’s okay but you can’t live there. Visit your dreams but you’ve got to wake up to accomplish stuff.”
Q. What do you hope you’ve accomplished when you look ten years down the road?
“I want to work myself out of a job. Let me be so good that they don’t need me anymore. That’s my success story. …If I could work myself out of a job, they can say ‘Well, Kayla, we really don’t have any reason to be out here because the community knows about policies and procedures, they know who to talk to, they know how to advocate, they know how to have an elevator speech, they know how to write a letter to the editor, an op-ed, they know how to do an interview, we don’t have anything else for you to do’, then I’ve won.”
Q. And for women?
“I have a saying, “She is because she rose, so ‘Sheroes’ is my tagline. In 10 years from now, I’m hoping we have a world filled with ‘Sheroes.’ No matter what they have gone through — and women tend to go through a lot, a lot of secrets that were never told, a lot of scars that will never heal but they rise above all of that pain and they learn it’s Okay to be unapologetic and loving yourself. To take your right position next to any man, any woman and doing what you know is right to help this world because if we don’t do it, we’re going to be in a lot of trouble.”
*Interview has been edited and condensed for publication.
Write to Gayle Jo Carter firstname.lastname@example.org.
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