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3 people share their experiences with gun-violence in D.C.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to hear now from three people who have been profoundly affected by a public health crisis this country is facing. This is a crisis that some parts of the country have been facing for years, one which seems to be getting worse in some places and one for which there is no vaccine. We're talking about gun violence.

First, some background. The FBI reported recently that the number of homicides and non-negligent manslaughter has climbed nearly 30% last year. Since then, the number has dropped slightly in some places. But the number of killings remains high in others, especially compared to what it was before the COVID pandemic turned people's lives upside down.

Our three guests have each experienced this in different ways here in Washington, D.C. Last year, the number of murders in the nation's capital was the highest it's been in 16 years. And 2021 is on track to exceed that. This is who we called to learn more about the impact of this.

Ryane Nickens is the founder and president of The TraRon Center in Southeast Washington, D.C., which provides families and children exposed to gun violence a place for healing and support. The center is named for Nickens' sister Tracy and brother Ronnie, who were both lost to gun violence in the 1990s. Ryane Nickens, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

RYANE NICKENS: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Also joining us, Cathy Feingold, who lost her husband, Jeremy Black, this past summer when he was hit by a stray bullet while the two were taking a walk with friends after dinner in downtown Washington. Less than a week after his death, she decided to start a fund in his honor to benefit The TraRon Center. Cathy Feingold, welcome to you, and thank you so much for being here as well.

CATHY FEINGOLD: Thank you.

MARTIN: We also called Jackie Bensen. She is a reporter with the local news station NBC4 Washington. She's been covering crime and breaking news in this city for close to 30 years. Jackie Bensen, thank you so much for being with us to offer your insights.

JACKIE BENSEN: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Ryane Nickens, I just have to start by saying I'm so sorry for the loss of your brother and sister, which has to have been devastating. Would you mind telling us your story? And then could you tell us why you wanted to start a place like The TraRon Center?

NICKENS: Sure. So first, I lost my Uncle David. My Uncle David was 19 when he was walking from my grandma's house to my aunt's house, a walk he had taken many, many times before. And it was, what a lot of people like to say, the wrong place at the wrong time. And I think that's a bunch of bull because there is no right place and no right time to be shot and killed and tooken (ph) away from the people you love.

And so my uncle was killed in 1989 on 22nd Street in Southeast D.C. And a couple of years later, before we had an opportunity to even begin to heal, one night, on December the 3, 1993, our next-door neighbor and my sister, who was eight months pregnant, got into an argument. And a gun was introduced. And he shot and killed my sister Tracy, shot my brother Ronnie, my sister - another sister, and he shot my mom.

MARTIN: Oh, my goodness.

NICKENS: My mom threw herself on him to stop him from shooting her children. And that evening, I was home asleep. It happened outside of our house. And I was asleep. And my sister's friend had to wake me up to tell me what happened. And it took her five minutes to wake me up and for all the chaos in the background to kick in, to my 14-year-old brain to understand that the family I went to sleep - before I took my nap that evening was fractured.

And so, you know, before healing, my parents sent me to therapy, became suicidal and depressed as a result of it, went through most of my teenage and young adult years severely depressed. Most folks thought I was OK because I excelled in school and was able to go on to college. And then in 1996, just a couple of years after my family was attacked, my brother Ronnie was killed.

And so The TraRon Center started while I was a student at Howard University - Howard University's School of Divinity working on my master's. The thought of it started there, creating a space that the 11-year-old me needed when my uncle was killed, that the 14-year-old me needed. And so creating that space for children to say - elementary and middle school children to say that I'm not OK, and here's why.

MARTIN: Wow. Thank you for that. Wow. I - and I don't even know what to say. I'm sorry doesn't even capture all the things that I'm thinking and feeling right now. Thank you for talking with us about this. Cathy Feingold, again, I'm so sorry for the loss of your husband. Would you mind telling us what happened?

FEINGOLD: Sure. We were out for dinner. And this was just a few months ago. It was a post-COVID kind of celebration - get out, go to an actual restaurant. And it was a lovely summer evening in D.C. And we chose to - you know, we were at 14th Street, where there are lots of bars and restaurants in Washington, D.C. We chose to go with our good friends and went for a walk afterwards, just two blocks. And because it was just a few days before the Fourth of July, we suddenly heard what we thought were fireworks because gun violence was not familiar to me. That sound was not something that I expected coming out of dinner. And my husband was walking just a little bit ahead with a friend. And I was behind with my girlfriend. And he got caught in the gunfire.

MARTIN: That just must have been so - I can't even wrap my head around it - just so shocking. Like, just like with - Ryane was saying, there was yesterday, and then there was the next day. And they were completely different.

FEINGOLD: Absolutely. I mean, it's - you know, I think the - what connects us is the shock of it all. The fact - I think I've said before - that evening, I met people for whom it wasn't the first time, people that held me, people from that street, that I was deeply aware that there were people that had experienced this way too often in the streets of Washington, D.C. This is the story - far too many stories - in our city and around the country.

MARTIN: Jackie Bensen, as you cover these kinds of events in D.C. and you have for years, could you just talk a little bit about what you've seen about how this affects people? And I also want to ask you, you know, you were here in the 1990s, when, you know, crime and homicide was at its peak. And how does this compare to that time in your experience?

BENSEN: Well, I've been going back over my memory and looking at pictures. And I believe I covered both Tracy and Ronnie's murders. And now, you know, the statistics you cited at the beginning of the interview, it seems like it's arching up again. And I am meeting people who are experiencing this same trauma that people were affected by then. And I am so grateful to hear that Ryane has a plan, using all her skill and talent, the degree, to do something about this that comes from a place of love. And I am so impressed by Cathy's reaching in and wanting to, as I said, just breathe wind under her wings, to fly with this because I do believe that the only way to solve this new spike of trauma, this new, you know, just so much sadness coming up is the love. And it has to be administered to children first. They are suffering.

MARTIN: And I recognize that you put the focus in your work on the people whose stories you're telling. But, Jackie, do you mind if I ask you, how does this affect you doing these stories over and over and over again?

BENSEN: I try to bring something to the table to help. That's the tradition that I was raised in. When something bad happens to someone, you try and help. And if after, Cathy and Ryane sat with me and just - you know, to sit with people who have had those losses, when you feel it, it is incredibly humbling and - that they allowed me to talk about this dream, this goal, the center how it exists now, I feel, is a use of my skills that were given to me by my creator. And I'm going to keep going as long as I can.

MARTIN: And what about that, Ryane? What about that sense of then and now? Does it - do you feel like you're having to relive this all over again?

NICKENS: I think it's been with me and it's been steady because so much focus has been, like, there is a real uptick in gun violence. But when we look at the numbers and the data over the last, I'll say, 30 years, it has been steady. It has been over 100 homicides in D.C. since my uncle was killed, with the exception of 2012. It has been consistent. It has been, you know, that thorn in the side of our country and of our city. And so it's been ever-present. And right now, there have been moments with certain - with one of the demographics. So the demographics that, you know, there is the uptick in gun violence is children and women and where it's happening and white people. Those are the upticks.

MARTIN: Cathy, what about you? I can imagine that - just the swirl of emotions that you experienced after your husband died. Could you just describe a little bit about what that's like?

FEINGOLD: So it's - you know, it's a whole range of emotion, of shock, you know, deep sadness, the constant thorn that Ryane describes and that this is - I like to describe it, you know, there is a hole in the tapestry of my life, of my son's life that will never go away. And so, you know, to deal with that hole, what we need to do is what we're trying to do with The TraRon Center, is continue to weave, you know, hope into the lives of more children, into our communities and, you know, try to have fewer holes in people's life tapestries. No one should have to experience the pain that we have all had to go through due to gun violence.

MARTIN: Ryane and Cathy, the fact is that some people who have been through what you've both been through, they would just want to get under the covers and not come out. And I just wanted to ask, you know, what's keeping you going? Cathy, you want to start? What's keeping you going? And, Ryane, I'll give you the last word.

FEINGOLD: Sure. My two teenage sons, my commitment to knowing that the way to get justice when one feels like there's been an injustice in your life is to continue to find new ways to bring light back into our communities. I think what most people don't understand is that deep love and grief are kind of two sides of the same coin. And so I think we're - we - as you're probably hearing from all of us on the call today, you hold them together. And so that's how I keep myself going forward, knowing that, you know, deep in my grief, there is also love and some hope that we will make change.

MARTIN: Ryane, what about you? What's keeping you going?

NICKENS: I have my - it's my faith and my family and love, right? It all worked together. And there are the days where I want to hide under the covers. But it's also on those days that I remember my own grief and the fact that I don't want another person to experience this. And healing is a continual thing. So it brings me joy to take the journey of healing with others and to see them in their better places and not self-medicating their pain or hiding their pain, but to just see it and to work on being better.

MARTIN: That was Ryane Nickens, president and founder of The TraRon Center. That's a place for families and children who have been affected by gun violence to have a place to get support and healing. Ryane has lost multiple members of her family to gun violence. We also heard from Cathy Feingold, who lost her husband, Jeremy Black, to a stray bullet last summer in downtown Washington, D.C. She's reached out to Ryane and is helping to support her work. We also heard from Jackie Bensen, a reporter at the Washington, D.C., TV station, NBC4, who has been reporting in the district for close to 30 years.

Jackie Bensen, thank you so much for joining us. Ryane Nickens, thank you so much for joining us. Cathy Feingold, thank you so much for joining us. It's just been an honor to speak with all of you.

NICKENS: Thank you.

FEINGOLD: Thank you so much.

BENSEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.