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September 2, 2014

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From Newtown to Las Vegas and beyond: Creating safety nets to prevent tragedies

Last year, I was brought in to help the people of Newtown, Conn., after 20 first-graders and six adults were gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary. For weeks, I guided the community through painful discussions to determine the fate of the school. At each meeting, I heard parents, business people and others voice their anguish about the tragedy — one of the deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history.

I was in Las Vegas just days before another attack shook the country: A couple who harbored anti-government beliefs executed two police officers at a pizza restaurant in a Las Vegas strip mall and shot dead another man as he tried to stop the attackers when they entered a nearby Wal-Mart.

Once again, I was gripped by the gut-wrenching emotion from my experience in Newtown. Another needless tragedy.

Since the beginning of this year, there have been 116 shootings in which more than one person was shot. Two days after the incident in Las Vegas, a 14-year-old was gunned down by a fellow student at a high school in Troutdale, Ore., just east of Portland. Also this month, a first-year student at Seattle Pacific University was shot dead by a 26-year-old man who stormed the campus, later telling the police he had a “hatred for the world in general.”

What can we do in response to such killings? How can we put an end to them?

While in Las Vegas, I helped lead an intensive training for community leaders from the area and across the country about how to address pressing challenges and make communities more resilient. Sadly, we can’t stop every mass shooting; some tragic events will be beyond our individual and collective control. But we can start working together differently to decrease the number of tragedies in our midst.

The fix needs to start at the local level. While national action is required, our country’s political process is far too polarized on many of the issues involved in this debate to make progress now. Too many special interest groups cynically use such debates as occasions to jockey for position and gin up funds from supporters; too many political leaders are too entrenched in ideological battles and their own self-interests to move the country forward.

By starting at the local level we can puncture the existing national narrative that progress is not possible and instead create a new sense of momentum that we can indeed move in a productive direction.

To do that requires the following steps. We must:

• Pry open the necessary space in communities to have an honest conversation about what makes a safe community where people thrive and youth and others have a sense of possibility for their lives. That discussion must be rooted in our shared aspirations about what we as a community are for — and engage people across the community, including youth and those who feel alienated.

• Work on how communities can identify early warning signs of individuals in trouble. In Las Vegas, for example, the shooters told a neighbor they planned to carry out “the next Columbine.” In the Santa Barbara-area shooting, the killer’s mother alerted the police about her son a month before his rampage after she saw troubling YouTube videos he had posted. We must find ways for communities to get better at detecting such signals and finding sensible ways to act on them.

• Bring to the table community-based organizations, groups and citizens who can potentially play a role in reducing the risk of another attack and create opportunities for individuals — particularly those who feel marginalized — to move their lives forward. Right now, many support organizations have become so specialized that they focus on individual pieces of a larger puzzle. We must piece together a community network that can work with a common sense of purpose.

• Develop action plans. While such plans must focus on how to reduce the number of deadly attacks, they must also concentrate on maximizing a sense of possibility for youth and others in our communities. Part of mitigating the number of shootings is making sure all people see they have opportunities for better lives and can get help if they need it.

This won’t be easy, because organizations too easily get mired in turf battles, claiming credit and seeking funding. But bringing together disparate groups is imperative and can be accomplished with the help of good people with the right intentions who work within these organizations.

It’s a simple but important concept: Communities become stronger and more resilient when people sit down with each other and start doing the work it takes to build trust, create needed safety nets and offer a sense of real possibilities for the future.

We can’t eliminate all of life’s uncertainties; neither is there a magic answer for avoiding tragedy. But we can work together to figure out how to move forward as best we can.

On the day of the Las Vegas shooting, a pastor who had participated in our training there told me he planned to begin bringing people in the community for group dialogue to begin the process of learning together and determining their aspirations. “The tragedy our community just experienced is creating a need for much conversation,” he said. “We desire to bring healing, hope and comfort.”

Rich Harwood is founder and president of the Harwood Institute for Public innovation, a national nonprofit organization based in Bethesda, Md. Follow him on Twitter @RichHarwood or connect with him on Facebook at RichHarwood.

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