Social Change via the Living Room
Mike de la Rocha, founder of The Living Rooms Across America Tour, talks about the art of cross-sector convening and storytelling to tackle gun violence in the United States.
Preventing Gun Violence: In-Depth Series
This special series of interviews explores the issue of gun violence in the United States, and highlights some of the most innovative entrepreneurs and cross-sector initiatives tackling the problem.
Inspired by the home meetings of the United Farm Workers in the 1960s and 1970s, musician, writer, and cultural activist Mike de la Rocha launched The Living Rooms Across America Tour. This multi-city tour convened elected officials, cultural influencers, business leaders, artists, and others in the homes of local leaders for open conversations on gun violence issues. In 2012, de la Rocha visited 10 cities in 10 states leading up to the presidential election; in 2013, he partnered with Chicago Ideas Week and visited 5 cities. The grassroots initiative—chronicled by filmmaker Dream Hampton in a documentary anticipated to release in 2014—used the power of story and music to help break down barriers, and change politics and attitudes.
Rachael Chong & Melissa Fleming: What were some of the outcomes of the tour?
Everywhere we went, we would highlight two community residents that were ending gun violence in their community. In New York, we went to interview Erica Ford in Jamaica, Queens, where for 340 days she and her team I Love My LIFE had stopped violence—not a single shot, not a single murder happened. When I met her, the team was talking a 20-something male down from retaliating and killing someone who had just shot his best friend in the face. And while I was watching this, the landlord came in and said, “Erica, you haven’t paid rent in a couple of months. At the end of the day, this is a business.” That spawned a fundraising campaign, and we raised $150,000 for her in 30 days.
Also in New York, the cultural influencers, successful business leaders, and former Mayor Bloomberg staff members that participated in the Living Rooms conversation met 2-3 times afterward to create a public safety plan, which they presented to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s transition team.
The tour’s been remarkable in bridging gaps, raising awareness, and educating people about how we all have a role to play and how we can solve this issue if we all play our part.
What role does music play in each gathering?
My music is very heartfelt. It creates a sense of calm and brings people together.
The Office of Mayor Rahm Emanuel hosted our event in Chicago. He wanted to focus on young people and how you better engage young people in solutions to reducing gun violence. And I knew that if I wanted young people to talk, and take that risk to be honest, that I had to do the same. So I told myself, I’m going to play a song I just wrote, because I want to model the risk-taking that I wanted them to do. Music allows people to be themselves, allows them to be vulnerable; it creates a level playing field and unites people.
And I also made sure to perform with a local artist in each city. I wanted to interact with and perform with well-known artists, up-and-coming artists, or emerging artists to have them see this format as a viable vehicle for bringing people together, raising awareness, and taking action on a particular issue.
How did group dynamics impact these conversations?
Each city was unique. The tour actually brought all these different people together who do not usually interact. We had to make sure to have someone in the political field—in Chicago, we had the Mayor’s Office, his chief public safety deputy, a number of upper-level staffers—as well as a grassroots leader who had a history of success, youth, business leaders, attorney’s and cultural influencers.
Nia Batts, Director of Strategic Partnerships for Viacom, was in the New York living room conversation and performance. Afterward, she invited Dream Hampton and me to present in front of executives from Viacom in Miami. I gave a context of the tour and the gun violence issue, Dream talked about the documentary and showed two clips, and then I played one song. Before I started, I asked, “How many of you know someone that’s been impacted by gun violence?” Probably 40 percent of the room raised their hand, and everyone was looking around to colleagues, thinking, “What?” Miami proved that this model could even touch Fortune 500 companies.
Mississippi was predominantly attended by law enforcement—we had the Sheriff, the DA, two judges, the Chief of Police, lawyers—and young people, and it even worked for them. The Sheriff of the largest county in the state of Mississippi was the most progressive person talking in the room. He felt comfortable and safe in that environment, and was genuine. We’ve now tested the model with different populations and groups, individually and together, and the right “curation” makes it happen.
What is next on the agenda for the tour?
What I’ve learned is that I need to anchor myself to an organization that can help with the event planning and follow up. In California, the tour is working with Californians for Safety and Justice, which is going to implement a strategy of hosting intimate discussions with various community leaders and members. Chicago Ideas Week wants to figure out how to impact more people throughout Chicago. So, we’re going to tackle one of the biggest states, California, and then one of our centerpieces, Chicago, and then revisit the cities to finish our documentary.
Has your perspective on gun violence changed?
Our perspective shifted after New York from how does gun violence affect our communities to how can communities and individuals heal from violence. When we talk about gun violence and give statistics, it doesn’t hit you as much unless you’ve personally been affected by it. But we all want to know how to heal from trauma.
And I’ve been trying to find language that everyone can grasp and that points to where we’re going, not just the problem. When I say gun violence, people say, “Good luck.” If I say let’s have a conversation about how we can support urban peacemakers, for example, people say, “What’s an urban peacemaker?” It’s leading to some possibility rather than something I can’t do anything about it.
In the end, I hope to inspire people to reach out to others who they think they don’t have anything in common with and have honest conversations, based on their experiences and not simply focused on politics or ideology. There’s this common thread, a common humanity, and if you give people the space to find it, it brings them together.
The next post in this series will feature epidemiologist and infectious disease control specialist Dr. Gary Slutkin, founder of Cure Violence.