tampabay.com

Shooting incident inspired activism

"Fear ended in me the day my son was shot,'' says Stephanie Brown, now a campaigner against violence.

By JON WILSON
Published August 13, 2006


ST. PETERSBURG - Stephanie Brown remembers how it was when her 15-year-old son was shot.

The fat around his stomach absorbed the shotgun pellets, Brown said, sparing Joseph Elias' life.

"But when he came home, he had 11 holes in him. The staples in his stomach came out. His stomach opened up like this," Brown said, spreading her hand, palm up.

"Fear ended in me the day my son was shot," she said.

The incident made her want to work to end violence, she said. It was one episode among many others that involved family, friends, guns and drugs. All have strengthened her resolve to act.

To speak out against violence, and to get others involved, she's organized a 10 a.m. -6 p.m. rally set for Saturday at Lake Maggiore Park, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street S and 38th Avenue.

St. Petersburg boxer Jeff Lacy is expected, as is Robin Rosenberg, a community services lawyer with Holland and Knight law firm.

Also on the agenda is Clarissa Hersey-James, an addiction and recovery specialist who worked for Community Action Stops Abuse and Parent Awareness and Responsibility's intervention program and who now operates Breaking Free by Faith Outreach Ministries on 18th Avenue S.

Brown and Hersey-James are among many residents working in relative anonymity trying to end a continuum of violence. Another is A.J. Ali, the CEO and founder of Young Entrepreneurs, a motivational program for African-American youth.

"We totally support (Brown)," Ali said.

They are part of a broader, higher-profile campaign in which mothers of slain young men have taken their pleas door to door. Residents have marched, carrying placard-sized photos of victims. Influential ministers have organized to provide spiritual power.

The individual, grass roots activists are trying to reach into the street culture and change its world view.

"It's an ongoing disease. It needs to be nipped in the bud. To nip it in the bud, you've got to stop talking and start acting," Brown said.

Brown, 48, lives in Wildwood Heights in a house her great-grandparents, Spencer and Mamie Baker, lived in. On a wall is a certificate honoring the Baker family as founders of Pleasant Grove Missionary Baptist Church.

Brown moved to the house about a year ago. According to county records, it was built in 1923 when its neighborhood was considered the country and nearby 22nd Street S was a dirt trail.

The dwelling seemed to come with a certain spirit, Brown said.

"Since I've been in this house, it's the strongest I've been in my life," she said. "This is how this house makes me feel."

Brown's tiny, front-porch office contains a computer, a calendar of court sessions she'll attend, two file cabinets donated by CASA and a fax machine.

They are the tools of her initiatives.

Brown operates a re-entry program for people coming out jail. She monitors the progress and well-being of inmates. She promotes what she calls the "No Guns No Way, Stop the Violence" philosophy that is at the heart of Saturday's rally.

Rosenberg said she will speak about her work with Brown as it involves the justice system.

The two have been working together about three years. "We have a good, respectful relationship," Rosenberg said.

Brown's projects come under the umbrella of her nonprofit, No Drugs No Prison Just Opportunity Community Services.

It's a shoestring operation. "I'm a newcomer. I'm green to the nonprofit world," Brown said, noting that she could use help applying for grants.

But it's more a personal quest than a money thing, she said.

Her son, now 28, is scheduled to be released from prison today. He has served about two years on drug-related charges.

She will be helping him re-enter the world, just as she has done with others. Finding a job is a priority.

"We'll be out there looking, like everybody else," Brown said.