In the United States, the second leading cause of death for black girls under the age of 20 is homicide. No other female group in this country has such a high risk of being killed. In 2020, when homicide rates exploded across the country, at least four black females on average were killed a day. In a just world, this would be considered a grave epidemic warranting a national reckoning. But in our culture, it has been ignored.
Sylvia Bennett-Stone, the Director of the Voices of Black Mothers United initiative (VBMU), has been hard at work over the past year amplifying the voices of black mothers who have lost their children to gang violence. Sylvia lost her own 19-year-old daughter in 2004 when she was sitting in her car at a gas station in Fairfield, Ala., and caught in gang crossfire. One bullet shot through her car window and pierced her torso before entering her friend’s heart. Sylvia’s daughter was killed instantly, and her friend later died at the hospital.
Her killer (who had two prior murder charges) was caught and admitted responsibility, but was bizarrely acquitted because the weapon could not be located.
Sylvia is still angry at the lack of media coverage over her daughter’s slaying.
“No one knew her name. No one knew the name of Krystal Joy Bennett,” she said. “If she was shot by a cop, the whole world would know. Every day we are losing kids and no one knows. That’s the case of so many kids, tens and thousands of kids.
“I think people as a whole have become desensitized to black-on-black crime,” added Sylvia, who is 60 and has one surviving child, an older son. “Violence in black neighborhoods is becoming too normal. As it relates to the media, it doesn’t get ratings.”
A large part of the public ignorance towards inner-city violence, according to Sylvia, is the lack of solutions. Politicians, activists and community members stuck in decades of cyclical neighborhood crime have also become desensitized to their environment.
“They don’t understand or know what to do. What’s the best way to deal with that than to ignore it? You have communities that when someone gets shot and killed they come out and do a vigil or march, but that’s not a solution. Of course, you’re giving your respect to the deceased, but it’s not a solution.”
Fortunately, Sylvia’s organization is proactively seeking to reform crime-ridden communities from the ground up. Her efforts include empowering black mothers to routinely check on vulnerable youth in their neighborhoods, taking families of victims on spiritual retreats, and de-stigmatizing mental health problems in black communities.
One of the mothers of VBMU has a youth center — named Mary Nelson Youth Center — in Syracuse, NY, providing a number of services to community members.
“This youth center does haircuts, food, household items, homework, employment opportunities, book bags, counseling — all of the above,” she said.
“Anything that takes away some of the problems that [are] creating this vicious anger, this center provides.”
Sylvia’s organization is now developing a youth center in Atlanta and her goal is to build these “safe spaces” in communities across the country. Speaking to one family at a time, she hopes to restore peace and harmony in communities across the nation.
Such grassroots work doesn’t come easy, as Sylvia has made clear. The culture of crime in many communities runs generations deep, and is instilled at a young age. In one case, Sylvia recounts going into classrooms to educate young children about the dangers of gang violence, only to be educated herself.
“I have video of where I’ve gone to schools talking to kindergartners and first- [and] second graders about the dangers of guns. These kids can tell you more about a 9 millimeter than I knew.
“They know exactly where the parents keep the guns,” she added. “They’re not afraid of it at all.”
However, the mom believes that working at the root level is the only way to make progress. Government policies, changes in law enforcement strategies, and other “external” initiatives can only achieve so much. Real change can only happen internally.
The only policy stance her organization emphatically backs is maintaining a police presence in black neighborhoods. Contrary to the views of national movements such as Black Lives Matter, Sylvia believes policing is integral to providing community safety.
“We do not believe in defunding the police. In fact, we were likely the first grassroots organization that stepped up and said, ‘We don’t support the defund the police movement.’”
Though the media often paints a very different picture, Sylvia says defunding the police is a wildly unpopular position among people living in high-crime neighborhoods.
“When you speak with people in the communities, 80% of them don’t believe in defunding the police at all.
“Yes, we want accountability. However, we have to be accountable as well for our own community and our own safety as well, and that is joining with the police to bring about that. We have to start within the home, within the individuals in that home. We do that out of love . . . It’s changing from within. It’s not a broad stroke.”