GREENSBORO, N.C. (WGHP) — Ingram Bell is a local authority on changing lives for the better.
But you could argue before she gets involved, many of these lives couldn’t get much worse.
Name a homicide in Greensboro within the last several years, and she can probably tell you something about it.
January 1, 2023: Natasha Walker is shot and killed in an area off West Wendover and Cridland Road.
“For Natasha to be gunned down, I’m angry. Tasha was a good person. She was so good,” Bell told me recently when describing a woman who was like a sister to her.
January 28, 2023: Kalup Maynard was shot on Lynhaven Drive on the city’s south side. He died later at the hospital.
“I went to school with his mother,” Bell said. “He was a nice young man. He was sweet. He was very caring. He loved his family. He loved his kids.”
July 1, 2019: King Smith was shot and killed in Sussman Park on the city’s south side. He was just 14.
“So he was a baby shot going home to his mom’s house,” Bell told me.
Smith’s picture is one of many on a set of shelves in Bell’s office. She calls it her “wall of remembrance.” Each picture is of a person whose life she wasn’t able to save. She’s able to see the wall from her desk. It serves as a reminder of why she does this type of work.
Bell is the program manager for the Gate City Coalition, a city, county and federally-funded non-profit whose staff members target high violent crime areas using what the coalition calls “violence interrupters” and caseworkers.
These people form connections with those most likely to commit crimes and set those individuals on different, hopefully better, paths. The coalition calls the people it works with, “participants.” Right now, there are 30 of them.
Some of the coalition’s staff members are former offenders.
Bell is a gun violence victim.
In 2011, she was shot in the head by a man she says was trying to retaliate against her then-boyfriend. In 2012, she suffered a brain aneurysm that was a direct result of that gunshot wound.
Because she was pregnant at the time, surgeons had to repair that aneurysm while she was fully conscious to keep from harming the child.
That child, a daughter, is now 10-years-old. Her picture hangs next to Bell’s desk.
Getting shot prompted her to get into this line of work.
Today, she and her staff work out of a modest office off Summit Avenue downtown. But most of their work happens on the streets.
“One of my employees now was a participant,” Bell said. “He went from being a participant to one of my violence interrupters. That’s my success.”
Bell keeps up with the numbers.
A UNC-Greensboro evaluation of the program found in the coalition’s two original and primary target areas (Smith/Hampton Homes and the MLK Drive Corridor) the number of aggravated assaults and homicides dropped from 84 in 2019 to just 32 in in 2021.
But Bell doesn’t judge her program’s success by those numbers. She looks beyond them.
“You can’t gauge a life you saved, right?”
But in the course of saving lives, Bell has noticed a troubling trend.
Years ago, the age range of the coalition’s participants was 18 to 24. Today, it’s 14 to 24.
“The younger kids are now outside feeling like they have to prove themselves, defend their family members. So the numbers have changed,” she told me.
They get the guns from multiple places— from car and pawn shop break-ins to just finding guns people have hidden in the woods.
In many cases, there is a gang influence. But surprisingly, it’s not always bad.
“Sometimes they don’t have a dad at home. Sometimes they don’t have brothers at home. And so they reach out to gangs to belong because gangs aren’t always bad,” Bell said.
But Bell says some gangs are involved in criminal activities, and her organization is working to reach those young people before it’s too late.
It’s doing it through direct contact and through community events like the “Trunk or Treat” event it organized last fall or the Carolyn Coleman Week of Peace celebration (named after the late Guilford County Commissioner) last summer.
“I don’t think (gun violence) will ever be stopped,” Bell told me. “But can the numbers decrease? Absolutely. Can you change somebody’s mind? Absolutely. Sometimes our community just needs an ear.”
The words of a true local authority.