Cities United

Executive Director of Cities United Anthony Smith addresses the Knoxville City Council shortly before it voted unanimously in favor of a contract with the non-profit on April 6, 2021. 

In a meeting on April 6, the nine members of the Knoxville City Council voted unanimously in favor of entering into a contract with nonprofit Cities United, an organization that works in 130 cities across the nation to lower gun violence and gun-related deaths among Black boys and young men.

The contract, which is set at a maximum of $75,000, will be used to help Cities United construct and implement a sustainable plan of action in the city of Knoxville to address youth gun violence. With the strategic partnership, Knoxville will become part of Cities United’s goal of cutting the rate of homicides and shootings among young Black boys and men ages 14 to 24 in half by 2025.

The partnership comes after the city reported 12 gun-related homicides in the first 47 days of 2021, compared to only three homicides during the same period in 2020. Knoxville Police Chief Eve Thomas and Mayor Indya Kincannon, along with several other community leaders, came together to renew the fight against gun violence after four students from Austin-East Magnet High School alone were killed in shootings between January and March.

This is not the first time that Knoxville has partnered with Cities United. The city even hosted the Cities United Convening in 2018, a three-day event that brought together more than 300 mayors and community leaders from across the nation to share and discuss strategies for reducing violence.

Erin Gill, chief policy officer for the city of Knoxville, said that the contract, which includes the purchase of a sustainable planning package, will deepen the work that Cities United is able to do in Knoxville.

“Of course, we recognize the need to not only think about boys and young men of color but young people in general, and in particular, those who have been recently impacted by gun crime and violent crime,” Gill said. “We want to engage in part of a strategic planning step, helping us convene those stakeholders locally and making sure that what we look to do in Knoxville in collaboration with local partners is reflective of the best practices that they have seen work in other communities.”

Anthony Smith, executive director of Cities United, said that the Louisville, Kentucky based nonprofit will build off the work being done by various crime prevention and community building nonprofits in Knoxville. He believes that Cities United can help Knoxville have a more united and holistic approach to preventing youth gun violence.

“We know that you all have a nice foundation of work and people doing good work,” Smith said. “Part of that is an assessment to figure out where the gaps are and how we do that intervention work to make sure that we have folks who can get to those young folks who are at risk at that moment and disrupt that and then help them get to a different place.”

Part of the strategic partnership between Knoxville and Cities United means that Smith and his team members will be spending time in Knoxville to assess what plan of action will best fit the city.

“We spend a lot of time there, really making sure that you all have the infrastructure to make sure that this work continues and that this work can be successful and that everyone has a seat at the table,” Smith said. “We want every city to have a comprehensive safety strategy that identifies the work, so we can not only identify who’s responsible — but are we making any progress? So we help cities not only convene, but also work through a process of designing and implementing their strategies.”

Cities United has found success in lowering crime rates among youth in cities like West Palm Beach, Baton Rouge, Houston and Denver. Andre Canty, an alumnus of UT who works as senior associate of national initiatives for Cities United, reported before the council that Denver had in fact modeled a new center for entrepreneurship after the Change Center in Knoxville. He said this kind of partnership and strategic sharing is a key feature of the group’s work.

“It just feeds into the connection between the cities and Knoxville, so Knoxville in this sense has helped other cities in so many ways to get involved,” Canty said.

The council passed the resolution unanimously, in large part because of the confidence the councilmembers had in Canty’s presence as a Knoxville native. Vice Mayor Gwen McKenzie, a vocal proponent of programs to prevent youth gun violence, spoke highly of Canty’s personal experience in the city.

“I fully support this, primarily because we do have someone from Knoxville who has actually lived in East Knoxville who’s experienced a lot of the things that some of these young people are going through now,” McKenzie said. “His work with so many organizations that have been around for quite some time gives us a very unique advantage as it relates to working with Cities United.”

McKenzie made sure to mention that the new strategic partnership with Cities United in no way diminishes the work already being done by organizations like Knoxville HEART and the Change Center. Instead, she said that the building of a sustainable strategy will hopefully expand the work that these groups are able to do in partnership with one another.

“I do want to just take a moment to thank these organizations who have done the work, who continue to do the work while we’re in transition with this contracting and taking our strategies collectively to another level to help have a greater impact in saving young people and helping families in our community,” McKenzie said.

In addition to the recent spike in gun homicides in Knoxville, there is another reason that the contract with Cities United is a well timed response by the City Council: April 12-16 is National Youth Violence Prevention Week (NYVPW). In order to find out more about the city’s events to mark the 20th anniversary of NYVPW, visit the City of Knoxville website.

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