Gun violence is a problem that every single person in America has to think about. Strides for Peace, a Chicago-based nonprofit, takes a unique approach to reduce gun violence: empower the community organizations that are committed to ending gun violence.
Community organizations relentlessly serve Chicago but don’t get the recognition and support they need. Strides provides them with community-driven funding, fundraising opportunities, resources, and administrative support.
Grateful spoke with Mary Stonor Saunders, Executive Director of Strides for Peace, to learn more about their mission and story. See their full interview below:
G: Can you tell us Strides for Peace’s origin story?
M: Maggie Baczkowski is our founder. At a moment Chicago gun violence was on the rise (2014), she felt she couldn't just stand by and do nothing. She didn’t have a nonprofit background, but she had great instincts and huge amounts of concern and care. She went around to community organizations and asked, “What do you need? What can I do to help?”
So many community organizations are on the frontlines of our greatest challenges. They don't have time to step back and try to build their capacity or connect to new audiences. Maggie started Strides to create these opportunities for existing community organizations that they can use to raise funds and awareness about their work.
One of our first initiatives was the Race against Gun Violence (RAGV). People from all sorts of different walks of life and athletic abilities come together. They run or walk and they pick a charity and they raise funds and awareness about that charity.
G: What sorts of charities?
M: Everything from after-school programming to gang intervention to college access. Everyone has a stake in reducing gun violence, whether it’s the schools, police, or city officials. We focus on how we can tap into those existing networks to get as much engagement as possible.
Chicago is very divided. These community organizations have so much to share but they never connect because we as a society don’t do enough to help them collaborate. We [Strides] create the ecosystem for collaboration and support to happen among the community of nonprofit organizations.
The race is an asset and resource for community organizations, as well as a platform to get the public involved. We don’t care where you are in your understanding of gun violence. We are very deliberately non-political. We want to meet people where they are. [Note: last year, the race was virtual.]
G: How exactly do these community organizations mitigate gun violence?
M: We look at gun violence as a highly complex issue that is filled with many lanes including social justice, economic disparity, and mental health and trauma. There are many factors that contribute to gun violence—it’s not just one thing.
We help organizations that focus on everything from arts and music to mental health counseling. One example is an organization that does a summer basketball league, bringing together young people who are unemployed and maybe would be engaging in gun violence if they aren’t occupied. But they come and play basketball together, and that creates a bridge for reconciliation and the future.
G: What makes this race really stand out?
M: The race is a catalyst for change and connection. We create an opportunity for people to connect to these community organizations, and for the organizations to connect with each other.
For example, say you’re walking or running in the race. We work with artists to create crosses and hearts for everyone killed in gun violence, whether it was a mass shooting like Columbine or a single shooting in Chicago. You see the crosses as well as people from over 350 zip codes walking and running in the race.
Now gun violence isn’t just a statistic to you. The race humanizes the lives that gun violence takes. After the race, there’s a celebration and dance party to celebrate the wonderful people in our city who saves lives every day.
G: What else does Strides do besides the race?
M: We address and fill investment gaps based on what community organizations say they need. We also focus on storytelling, field-building, capacity-building, and bridge-building.
Non-profits don’t always get the opportunities to collaborate with each other. We create the space and infrastructure to make these collaborations happen.
G: What do you like about collaborating with Grateful?
M: I really appreciate that Grateful has the same spirit we do in terms of providing platforms for people who care to get involved or learn about and support different organizations. I think we’re kindred spirits, honestly, and we’re all better together. That’s where Strides and Grateful’s core values really connect: we need each other.
G: Is there a message you’d like to give to someone reading this interview?
M: Globally we all face a lot of complex challenges. People who don’t live proximate to those challenges have a choice. They can turn off the TV or go on vacation, and a lot of times they turn away because the problems hurt and they don’t know how to help. And what we say is instead of turning away, turn towards those who choose hope like the community organizations.
You don’t have to have the full solution. But what you can do is take that step forward in your journey of understanding and engagement. Get comfortable with not being a hero and not having it all figured out. Do what you can and that’ll be more than enough. It’ll start the ripple of change and gratitude we need.
Strides for Peace is one organization that empowers many other organizations. One hundred percent of the donations to the Race Against Gun Violence goes to community organizations. Strides believes that community organizations have insight into what their communities need to end gun violence and create a world where we don’t have to live in fear. Whether it’s making a donation or walking in a race, even the smallest step can go a long way in reducing a massive problem like gun violence.
If you’re curious about Strides for Peace and the Race against Gun Violence, visit https://stridesforpeace.org/.