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Using Storytelling to Build Empathy for People Affected by Gun Violence

Daniel Hautzinger
India Hart is a college-bound high school senior featured in FIRSTHAND: Gun Violence. Photo: Zakkiyyah Najeebah for WTTW
India Hart is a college-bound high school senior struggling with PTSD after seeing her father shot and losing an uncle and a friend to gun violence. Photo: Zakkiyyah Najeebah for WTTW

“I really believe in the power of storytelling,” says Dan Protess, the director and producer of the new WTTW digital series FIRSTHAND: Gun Violence, which launches Tuesday, November 12. The series examines gun violence in Chicago by telling the stories of five people affected by it, showing how their lives have been upended by having a son incarcerated, being shot, or losing a loved one. In addition to the five stories, the project features five talks from experts on issues surrounding gun violence, reported stories about similar issues, a discussion guide, and community screenings and discussions.

We spoke to Protess about making the series, why he decided to approach gun violence through storytelling, and the hope that he now has after completing this project.   

What is your goal with this project?

Gun violence is an issue that has plagued our city for many years. My concern has always been that when the media covers this issue, it’s almost similar to the way that sports is covered: you open up the newspaper and there’s this tally of the number of people killed or shot the night before. We rarely get to know the human beings who are impacted by that violence, or the human beings who perpetrated that violence, and what led them to pull the trigger.

We have an empathy gap in our city, where we just feel like this violence is happening to other people somewhere else in the city, and I think the power of storytelling is that it can breed empathy. I really hope that that’s what the series does, that it allows our viewers to see a bit of themselves in individuals who are in crisis. I think once they empathize, then they will feel more obliged to act, whether it’s through holding our public officials accountable, or opening up their wallets to help fund violence prevention programs.

Julie Anderson in FIRSTHAND: Gun Violence. Photo: Zakkiyyah Najeebah for WTTWJulie Anderson has created a support group for families who have incarcerated family members. Her own son received a life sentence when he was 15. Photo: Zakkiyyah Najeebah for WTTW

Did your desire to breed empathy inform how you approached telling these stories?

Absolutely. India’s story in particular comes to mind. We see in her a life that looks very similar to lives that many people in America lead: she goes to high school, she goes to prom, she graduates from high school, she heads off to college. But all of this familiarity is happening against the backdrop of extreme violence around her. She sees her father shot right in front of her. Her uncle is shot and killed. Her good friend is shot and killed a couple of blocks away from her school. And that then allows us to sit for a moment in her shoes, and think about what that must feel like.

The other device that helps build empathy is that two of our five characters are mothers, and the other three characters visit with their mothers. That’s certainly familiar to the audience, and I think serves to humanize all five of these people.  

Another through-line in the series is the psychological trauma experienced by people affected by gun violence. Why did you decide to include that as a theme?

Among people who study and try to prevent gun violence, trauma is the buzzword right now: how are people traumatized by violence, and/or how does trauma in their life potentially lead them to take impulsive, violent action. I wanted to make sure that I explored what trauma meant, and to get at what it meant in the daily lives of all five of these people.

Again, I come back to India. She very specifically spelled out what her experience of trauma is like. In school, she sits against the wall so she can see someone coming in the door. When she's out at restaurants and stores, she's always looking for the exit so that she knows how to get out of the building if there is some sort of a shooting or another emergency. And what was so moving to me about her story was the way in which her family recognized that this was affecting her, and they rallied around her to get her the support that she needs.

Jsaron Jones in FIRSTHAND: Gun Violence. Photo: Zakkiyyah Najeebah for WTTWJsaron Jones feels compelled to carry a gun for his own safety, having been shot. Photo: Zakkiyyah Najeebah for WTTW

How did you find each of the subjects for this?

When I started researching this project, I met with community groups across the city and started sitting in on support groups. I went to several of the sites for READI, which is a violence prevention program. I talked to friends, and friends of friends, and friends of friends of friends, and probably met 50 or 60 individuals in the hope that four or five of them would make good subjects for a documentary, meaning each would give a very different perspective on gun violence, but also that there was a lot of depth in their story.

For instance, I think about Jsaron’s story. He had been shot and was healing from his gunshot wound, but that made him fear for his life, and he felt compelled to carry a gun. Carrying a gun puts him at risk of being apprehended by law enforcement. He was facing a gun charge, and his gun charge was really complex and worth probing.

You were at the scene of a shooting soon after it took place. Can you describe the mood, and what that was like?

I went out with a crisis responder from Chicago Survivors – they go to crime scenes to console the families of the victims. I met the crisis responder in an alley on the Southwest side, where someone had just been shot and killed. He was a John Doe – they didn't know his identity – so there was no family there.

I had never seen anything like that. The body was lying in the alley, just alone. The only human beings were this body and probably about ten or fifteen police officers who were investigating at the scene. What really struck me was how businesslike they were in their work. Clearly, this is something that these homicide detectives have done hundreds of times. One of the detectives was smoking a cigar, they were filling out paperwork on top of the garbage cans in the alley, and it was like nothing had happened. It was almost as if this dead body were not even a person. And it didn't really hit me until a couple of days later, when they identified the person and published his name in the newspaper; then it really struck me that, “Wow, that was a person, with a family, who was lying there by himself.” That’s just a horrible end to someone’s life.

Noemi Martinez in FIRSTHAND: Gun Violence. Photo: Zakkiyyah Najeebah for WTTWNoemi Martinez lost her son to gun violence and now supports other mothers like herself. Photo: Zakkiyyah Najeebah for WTTW

Was there anything you found eye-opening in producing this project?

On a more positive note, regardless of what we might be discussing about extreme violence in some corners of our city, even on the most violent block in Chicago, the vast majority of the people on that block are hardworking, honest, good people who are just trying to make a living and raise a family just like everyone else.

The violence is being perpetrated by an extremely, extremely small percentage of people. You talk to residents of a place like Englewood, and they love it, it’s a vibrant community. People stay there for a reason, because of the strong sense of community there.

Are there any lessons you came away with in producing this project?

The project in many ways left me feeling very hopeful, and restored my sense of faith in humanity. The five people who I followed have all experienced grief and tragedy in their lives, but they're all success stories in one way or another. They have been able to move past that and to form community.

Violence is a symptom of a breakdown in community, and all five of these people are playing some small part in restoring community, whether it's creating a community of families who’ve lost loved ones, or creating a support group for families who’ve lost their sons to incarceration, or creating a community around holding peace circles, or for cognitive behavioral therapy. It seems like that is the solution, to rebuild a community where it is fraying. It’s easier said than done, but there are some really dedicated, smart people working on the front lines of violence prevention in Chicago, and I think that if we can continue to support them, we’re going to see the violence numbers continue to drop.