One Family's Trials Spur a Commitment To Community Safety

He doesn't talk easily about it. But not too long after the third killing - this time in his family's apartment one afternoon in 1990 - Michael McDonald finally cut through the weight of the violence he had lived through and was "pushed into action."

Two of his older brothers had been murdered several years earlier - one in a robbery attempt, the other inside prison walls. Another brother committed suicide. His mother had been wounded by a stray bullet in the neighborhood, and his sister was pushed off a roof and permanently injured.

And now this, a shooting in his family's apartment in South Boston's Old Colony project where many large, Irish-American families live in poverty and under a code of silence.

Police accused Michael's little brother, Steven, of pulling the trigger of a .357 Magnum that struck down 13-year-old Tommy Vance. The two boys had been best friends, playing recklessly with a loaded gun.

Steven was convicted of murder. Later a state court overturned the conviction because of discrepancies in the evidence.

But in the immediate aftermath, Michael McDonald changed from numb to clear. "I stepped back and looked at what violence did to my family of 11 kids," he says, softly. "As a survivor, I knew I had to do something to stop it."

Instead of succumbing to revenge or despair, he decided to work at bringing people together, to help communities break free of violence and handguns. And to help other survivors of violence.

The result, some six years later, is that McDonald, now program director of Citizens for Safety, a grass-roots community organization, is one of Boston's most effective community workers. "I would do this work if I was paid or not," he says.

His most outstanding public effort so far is a gun buyback program that has removed 2,600 handguns from Boston's streets in the last three years.

In addition, Citizens for Safety and McDonald are involved in three neighborhood projects: a basketball Peace League that also has job readiness and conflict resolution built into it, a peace curriculum in 10 schools using workshops to teach violence prevention, and a Hands Without Guns public service TV project organized by youths, which depicts teens at work in communities.

"Citizens for Safety has grown into a kind of coalition-convener that brings citywide resources to projects," says Harlan Jones, the group's executive director. All the organization's funds come from private foundations.

"Michael is probably the most committed individual I've ever met," says Bob Sege, a pediatrician at Tufts University School of Medicine in Medford, Mass., and a board member of Citizens for Safety.

In March this year, McDonald was one of six Boston activists awarded $20,000 each from the Philanthropic Initiative, a nonprofit organization that sends anonymous "spotters" in the community to find unsung heroes.

"He's a rare collaborator," says Joan Sweeney, Director of Public Safety Consulting for the Boston Management Consortium. "He can hold his own with lots of different kinds of people without slamming other peoples' perspectives. There is no way that anyone working with him over time would ever question his commitment to solving the problems."

"Michael came into our office as a volunteer," says Katy Minzer, former director of Citizens for Safety, "and very quickly he became a central part of the organization because he was so effective with everybody."

McDonald, at the time a senior at the University of Massachusetts, realized that the violence in South Boston was of almost the same kind that rolled through the predominately black and Hispanic neighborhoods of Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan in the 1980s and early '90s. "The end result was the same, too," he says. "People don't realize there is a huge underclass in South Boston that is left out of the mainstream."

McDonald threw himself into the community and also connected with other survivors in the neighborhoods. "The first few years I worked around the clock on projects," he says, "and talked with survivors at night." Even as a young man, his family tragedy gave him extraordinary empathy with others struggling to understand the loss of their children and family members.

As the result of a suggestion from a community group, McDonald helped launch the gun buyback program in l993, offering to pay $50 for each gun. A hot-line was established to answer questions and assure the public that no arrests would result, and a press conference was held to announce the hot-line.

Without the specific approval of the police or the district attorney, McDonald expected the effort to produce modest results.

"We were flooded with thousands of dollars from people all over the state," he says, "even a check from Gov. William Weld's wife." Corporate and private donations amounted to $65,000, and the police and district attorney threw their support behind the project.

McDonald sees the act of turning in guns as decisive, an acknowledgment that people want guns out of their lives.

While other Citizens for Safety efforts focus on antigun legislation or supporting tracking of weapons by the police, McDonald wants communities to work so well that guns aren't considered viable.

"It's important to work on all these fronts," he says, "but the desire to have guns, to think they make a person safe, is important to address."

At the buyback sites, Citizens for Safety introduces citizens to alternatives to guns, such as neighborhood watches or community policing.

"I think part of what saved me from all the violence was my mother telling me to have a bigger outlook on life, both spiritually and geographically, to get out of the projects," McDonald says. "For a lot of people that's their only life."

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