It's dreary and cold on this late afternoon outside the housing project that's home to the Liberty Street Community Center in Northeast-Central Durham. But inside the concrete-block meeting room, it's all color and warmth.
A banner covered with red, blue, yellow and green handprints is spread across one wall. At a nearby table, a dozen kids are making a new one, dipping their palms in paint and pressing them down on a bolt of white cotton.
The prints are more than just decoration. They represent a promise "to use our hands for peace and love," as the banner says.
Moving around the room in a blur of blue denim is Marcia Owen, outreach coordinator for The Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham. Over the past eight years, the coalition's "Hands Without Guns" project has collected more than 8,000 handprints on enough cotton to wrap four football fields. (They have wrapped several local churches, parks, school playgrounds and a public health clinic).
In another context, the calls for peace and love might sound "corny," as Owen says. But in this community, where so many kids have lost friends and family members to gun violence, they have a deeper echo.
For Owen, who is the coalition's sole staff member (she worked for years as a volunteer), the hands project is the essence of the group's approach to violence prevention. At root, gun violence is about children and neighborhoods, she says. Most of all, it's about injustice.
Last year, 27 people were killed and 160 were injured by guns in Durham, according to Durham police. The majority were young, African-American men. "There is a divide in Durham and it's all about the violence," says Owen, a Bull City native who is raising two sons, 11 and 19. "I mean, it's horrible. In these communities where it happens, people have to stay hyper-alert. And that is so unfair and unjust."
Justice is one of Owen's abiding passions (the other is art), one she credits to her parents. Growing up in Duke Forest in the 1960s, she longed to join the Hope Valley Country Club until her mother gently informed her that blacks and Jews weren't allowed. Her parents--a Duke engineering professor and a stay-at-home mom--supported integration, were active in their United Methodist church, and showered love on Owen and her brother, Dave.
As an undergraduate at Duke, Owen studied engineering, then history and philosophy. She got involved in the movement for divesting in South Africa and met her husband, Robert Truesdale--a senior research scientist at Research Triangle Institute--while leafletting on campus. After graduating in 1978, she moved to New York to work with Soho Natural Soda, a pioneering women-owned business.
Despite her early activism, it wasn't until Owen became a mother and moved back to Durham in the late 1980s that she began to truly live her faith. Motherhood revived Owen's spirituality and showed her the urgency of stopping gun violence. "There's like this secret society of mothers," she says, her hazel eyes widening. "As a mother, nothing matters more than your child's safety."
But instead of focusing solely on protecting her own children, Owen began looking at how gun deaths were concentrated in low-income neighborhoods. She saw how newspaper reports of shootings were buried in the back pages--especially if they involved young African Americans.
"It all kind of crystallized for me when I was on an AIDS support team with my church and we were visiting some kids in McDougal Terrace," Owen says. "The other volunteers were scared to go over there because they were worried about stray bullets. And I thought, but there are children there."
That led Owen to volunteer with North Carolinians Against Gun Violence and a committee that was meeting at Watts Street Baptist Church to talk about local shootings.
When the religious coalition was formed in 1992, Owen took on the task of organizing prayer vigils after every homicide. To date, the group has staged more than 220 of them--the most recent one on Nov. 19--and has become a model for ones in Raleigh.
Newer projects include a post-prison ministry and educational partnerships with groups like Parents of Murdered Children and the federal Weed and Seed program. Owen is also credited with encouraging the Durham police to launch Project Safe Neighborhoods, which targets illegal gun dealers and tries to convince young people to avoid using weapons.
In May, Owen and Tamera Coyne-Beasley, a professor at the University of North Carolina's Injury Prevention Center, unveiled a study that found Durham's 15 gun deaths per 100,000 residents surpassed state and national rates. Half the homicides were in East Durham and 60 percent of victims were black.
The religious coalition wants to reduce such violence by 50 percent--a challenge Owen is up for. "Gun violence is complex," she says. "Every part needs to be addressed. Our elected officials get it. The District Attorney is right there with us, the police are there with us. All it's going to take is for everybody else to get involved."
The cost of ignoring the problem is too high, she says. "By not addressing this, finding those children and giving them resources to deal with their grief, they will end up taking up guns. And the violence will go on and get worse and worse."
As the after-school program winds down, Owen is busy handing out paper towels, extra paint and hugs.
"You've just made a pledge to use your hands to help people," she says to a boy with a silver hoop in one ear. "Do you know anyone who's been hurt by a gun?"
"My cousin got shot," he replies, his eyes downcast.
"I'm so sorry," says Owen, her arms moving instinctively around his shoulders. "Do you have anyone to talk to about it?"
Owen learns that the boy's cousin was 17-year-old David Lamont Cox, gunned down in late August after being released from jail on a concealed weapons charge--his first arrest. The person charged with his killing is an 18-year-old from the same neighborhood.
After he makes his print, the boy adds a simple message: "Thank you."
Owen pauses to absorb the moment. As the kids head for the door, she calls out, "Bye guys. Do y'all have brochures to give to your family?
"One by one we can be safe," she reminds them, as the small figures disappear onto the darkening streets outside.