Guest Columnist

Fund SET Task Force, with an emphasis on innovation

A majority of local middle and high school students interviewed by members of the SET Task Force said they could quickly and easily purchase a handgun on the street for less than $100. This group of handguns were part of a display at a 2016 gun show at Hawkeye Downs in Cedar Rapids. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)
A majority of local middle and high school students interviewed by members of the SET Task Force said they could quickly and easily purchase a handgun on the street for less than $100. This group of handguns were part of a display at a 2016 gun show at Hawkeye Downs in Cedar Rapids. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)

I was honored to serve on the Safe, Equitable and Thriving (SET) Task Force, appointed by the city after a fatal shooting involving teenagers. We spent nearly two years engaged in studying, interviewing community members, and debate before arriving at a list of recommendations that span the areas of housing, economic opportunities, education, law enforcement, community outreach, and programming.

At the outset — before we were even formally appointed by the city — we discussed how to ensure that our final report would not just gather dust on a shelf or end up buried in a file cabinet. The incidents that led to the task force are too serious, not just for teens, but for all of us in shaping the kind of community we want to have, to do nothing.

Now is the time for action. I would urge Cedar Rapids officials to match (or exceed) the county’s contribution of $100,000 to further the SET recommendations.

One part of the proposal has received little attention but should receive the bulk of allocated funding. “Seed money” — funds for innovation — could be made available to entities through a competitive bid process. More money should go to seed money than to staffing. The rationale is simple: if we designate the majority of funding to hiring employee(s) to oversee the recommendations, it doesn’t leave adequate funding to act on the recommendations.

The Gazette Editorial Board is correct that not funding the recommendations is also not a viable option. Many of the recommendations require public-private partnerships, creative thinking, and expertise. No one is going to do this work for free.

Here’s an example: The task force interviewed 60 middle school and high school kids identified as living in at-risk environments. The majority said they could easily and quickly purchase a gun on the street for under $100. Kids indicated that kids who own guns have power and their admiration. In other words, these sixth-graders think guns are cool. Kids voiced the belief that bringing a gun to a gathering of kids would make them safer. This finding led us to say that we need to change youth attitudes regarding guns.

How would we change kids’ attitudes about gun ownership? Through marketing. Ad campaigns over the decades have successfully shifted even adult mindsets on issues like littering, drunken driving, smoking, or not wearing a seat belt. We can influence kids to not buy a gun on the street. The same kind of ad campaign is needed to help adults understand why it’s not a good idea to leave a gun in an unlocked car.

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But ad campaigns require money: money to design the ads and money for airtime. So we need to use most of the available funding to spur action on the recommendations.

Seed money will allow the county and city to issue a Request for Proposals (RFP). Anyone — whether a nonprofit organization, a for-profit business, a government entity, even an individual — can submit a proposal for how they would advance one of the task force’s recommendations. Each proposal will outline the project design, the entity’s ability to carry it out, how the project relates to a SET recommendation, a timeline and a budget. If $150,000 is available in a given year for seed money, multiple projects can be funded.

A group of grant readers (shepherded by a granting organization like the Community Foundation) then can review the RFPs and select the top handful of proposals. Those selected then make a pitch — Shark Tank style — in a public forum. Judges vote for their favorites, and funding is given to the winners. But community investors who like a pitch that doesn’t get funded might decide to independently offer private funding to a runner-up. This process ensures that the recommendations of the task force are owned by the community.

After a project’s completion, the entity submits a final grant report that demonstrates accomplishments and outcomes. A part-time person would ensure that projects are completed as proposed. This will only require $50,000 for salary and benefits, and the remaining $150,000 can directly fund projects that create systemic change. This hired person will champion the work being done and continue moving this community in the direction of equity and opportunity. Let’s use the majority of available dollars for action. It’s time to act.

• Jenny Schulz is executive director of the Kids First Law Center in Cedar Rapids.

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We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

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