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Students seek to humanize face of violence

Monday, March 21, 2016

As the camera hones in on the face of a distraught young mother, the pain of losing her teenage son to gun violence is palpable. She is Everyparent. It is that sense of universality that 11 Mercyhurst University social work majors have sought to achieve with their production of a documentary film titled "Let it Begin with Me: Putting an End to Youth Violence in Erie,” which will premiere Saturday, April 2, at Collegiate Academy.

The production began in September after the students returned from summer break and were confronted with stories of escalating violence in the city they consider home, if only temporarily. Despite living on a safe and beautiful campus overlooking the city, they couldn’t discount their neighbors, nor would their social work education let them.

“We got the sense that the violence was easily dismissed by community members who weren’t directly affected by it,” said senior social work major Michelle Ahrens, herself an Erie native. “For example, violence in Erie is often perceived as a lower eastside problem. If you live in the suburbs, why should you care? This misconception perpetuates a detachment from the issue of violence within our city.”

Too, with the 24-7 news cycle, it’s easy to become desensitized to shootings and other horrors and react only when they enter your space. So, how do you make people care enough to step up and do something to make a difference?

“We decided to humanize the issue of violence in the Erie community by creating a medium to share the personal stories of those affected by gun violence and give a voice to various community members and leaders who are working to promote a better Erie,” Ahrens said.

The students interviewed more than a dozen people, including the mothers of teenage shooting victims, a group of the victims’ friends, and community leaders, among them City Councilman Curtis Jones, YMCA Teen Program Director and radio personality Marcus Atkinson, Sister Marlene Bertke of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie and Gary Horton, director, Quality of Life Learning Center.

“Besides putting a face on the issue of violence in our community, we hope our film can help bring people together in understanding,” Ahrens said. “In other words, even if someone lives in Milcreek, or on the Mercyhurst campus, we want them to be able to feel a passion and support for the whole Erie community they live in, rather than dismissing this issue of violence as someone else's problem.”

Besides Ahrens, Mercyhurst students who worked on the film include: Maggie Switzer, Danielle Dros, Sarah Klobuchar, Nikki Charboneau, Eva Solomon, Riley Norton, Denise Hager, Adrian Washington, Kerry Dieter-Roward, Lindsay Matczak and Brent Clapper (a communications student who assisted with editing).

The documentary, which is about 75 minutes in length, will be shown free of charge at Collegiate Academy on Saturday, April 2, at 7 p.m. For more information, call 814-440-2660.