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Stories about kids, guns and how to stop the violence. Precious Lives, created by 371 Productions, is a 2-year, 100-part weekly radio series about gun violence and young people in the Milwaukee area. The series applies a public health lens to each story to help listeners understand the full scope of the problem: who are the victims and the shooters; how are the weapons obtained; and what can we change about the environment that contributes to violence in Milwaukee?

#056 Precious Lives: One Milwaukee Man's Mission To Keep His Son Safe

Emily Forman
Teen program supervisor James Austin leads teens at Neighborhood House, including his son 14-year-old JaShawn, through a discussion about gun violence.

Through our Precious Lives reporting, we meet many families mourning a loved one killed by a gun. Often this isn’t the only time they’ve been affected by gun violence. What we hear illuminates what scholars tell us — the vast majority of homicides occur within a very small network of people.

So if you’re in that network, how can you escape? How can you keep your kids safe?

One dad in Milwaukee is trying to shield his son from the kinds of tragedies he experienced when he was young.

James Austin was 14 the first time he lost a relative to gun violence. His two-year-old cousin was shot. Then, another cousin, who had just signed a contract to play professional basketball in Germany, was killed. James says the shooter was jealous.

James also almost lost his sister to gun violence. Luckily, she survived.

Credit Emily Forman
Neighborhood House

Today, James drives his 14-year-old son, JaShawn, to school pretty much every day. He also keeps a close eye on him at Neighborhood House, where James runs teen programming and JaShawn participates.

"I worry about him a lot, because he's me," James says. "...When I'm faced with opposition, I meet it head-on."

Fights today, he says, escalate into something much more violent than when he was young, and often end in a shooting.

“I understand that in this society, you got to know your child," James adds. "[JaShawn's] a follower, you know? I got to not let him be led by the wrong people. Because when you know the streets, you can pick out the characters, when you got that street knowledge. My son doesn’t have that street knowledge.”

James say he has made his son his best friend. If JaShawn is going to the park, James will be right there too.

JaShawn likes spending time with his dad. They play paintball, laser tag and ride go-carts together. He likes that his dad cheers louder than any parent at his football games. "I put my trust in him. I don't trust a lot of people but if he says it, I believe it," JaShawn says. "I feel like he has been there, done that."

While James stays glued to JaShawn's side, he hasn't managed to shelter him completely.

Last December, 18-year-old Joshua Words was shot and killed a few blocks from Neighborhood House. Josh worked there, and he and JaShawn bonded through basketball. "They said he got shot in the alley or something like that," JaShawn says. "I was kind of frustrated and sad, like, tears came to my eyes."

Everyone at Neighborhood House recognizes James as tireless - when it comes to parenting and improving the community. Still, James worries he's not doing enough.

JaShawn's advice on how to avoid gun violence in Milwaukee: "Close your circle." "Keep your friends limited, make sure they're the ones doing good in school, that they want to do something in life," he says.

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