Nothing in Emily Forman’s career had prepared her for the emotional toll of reporting on gun violence in an American city every week for two years. Before moving to Milwaukee to help produce a radio series called Precious Lives, she’d covered a small community in Alaska, where major concerns included fishing regulations and the welfare of brown bears. In Milwaukee, she set to navigating the ethical and social challenges that came with her reporting, aware that she was an outsider.

“I knew it was going to be very daunting to wrap my head around what mattered and to cover the terrain in a way that felt deep enough,” she said.

Emily Forman interviews Dr. John Densmore, a pediatric surgeon at Children's Hospital of Wisconsin, for an episode of Precious Lives.
Emily Forman interviews Dr. John Densmore, a pediatric surgeon at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin, for an episode of Precious Lives. (Photo: Mike De Sisti / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

Each Tuesday for the past two years, Precious Lives has released a new radio episode featuring individuals whose lives have been changed by gun violence. After the first few, Forman said, her interviewees “became a chorus of voices that are shouting, ‘This is real, this is happening, this is really normal Milwaukee life.’”

The project partnered with several media organizations — including the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and Milwaukee Public Radio — to capture the stories of people who aren’t regularly covered in the mainstream media. Earlier this week, the 101th episode came out, marking the project’s finale. The Trace caught up with Forman as she reflected on the project.

What were your expectations when you first started working on the radio series?

Milwaukee is a city of 600,000 people. My expectation was that learning my beat was going to take time, and I was going to need to work closely with people that knew way more about the community than I did. And that was true. So I just started being present in places: community events, block-watch meetings, church events. That felt like maybe that wasn’t so productive, because it takes time to build relationships, but now looking back, it was. I had to develop trust. And the way you gain trust is you show up.

What was the project about originally and how has that changed?

It was originally about memorializing young victims of gun violence. Who are these young people? What’s the hole that they’re leaving behind? Who loved them, what did they like to do? Those are the stories that I was telling. But we quickly realized that while documenting grief is important, it might make people tune out. There’s just an overall feeling of tiredness when you show up and say, ‘Let’s talk about gun violence.’ People don’t want to go there and just dwell on the sadness. If you’re just documenting the grief, then what are you giving back? So from there we tried to show where there are local solutions happening.

What are some of those solutions?

There’s one program called Safe Zones in the neighborhood of Garden Homes, where the city funds a group of people to patrol the area and act as violence interrupters. They’ve gotten conflict-resolution training, de-escalation training.

Running Rebels a community center for youth. They have a recording studio, they have a basketball team, there’s a rec center. They also have a program where if you’re a young person caught with a firearm and it’s a nonviolent offense, as an alternative to going into the system, Running Rebels pairs you up with a mentor. That person’s job is to know where you are and what you’re up to, and try to figure out what you’re interested in.

What were some common themes that kept coming up in your reporting?

After 10, 20, 30 stories you start to be bombarded by these obvious truths about gun violence. There’s the racial disparity. There are all these underlying root causes that have to do with geographic isolation, lack of economic opportunity. I wanted to try and bring those to life through character-driven storytelling in a way that was harder to ignore.

How did working on this series change the way you think about gun violence?

It became more personal for me. I’ve sat in people’s living rooms and looked them in the eyes with that level of intimacy. Now I have experiences that make me personally feel connected to gun violence, because I know the people affected. The root causes are important, but once you get into the details, you learn that it’s a diverse combination of things that makes up a life.

Has working on this project changed the way you see coverage of other types of gun violence, such as mass shootings?

When a mass shooting happens, it gets all this attention in a way that a shooting in Central City Milwaukee doesn’t get. If you tally up shootings over a year or a week or a month in the city, you begin to see a slower mass shooting in a small radius. Maybe someone didn’t spray a street corner with bullets in a shooting that resulted in six deaths, but you’ve still lost just as many people. And if you’re living in that area, you probably know the victims.

Tell me about a memorable character you met in the course of the project.

This past summer I followed Eric Moore, a basketball coach who had lost one of his players the previous summer — 13-year-old Giovonnie Cameron, who was shot and killed in his home. The coach had his own experience with losing his best friend when he was around 17 or 18 years old. Now he worries about the untreated trauma his players might be experiencing. They’d just lost their friend — are they getting help? What’s his role in delivering that help?

I think for the coach it’s just this very honest expression of emotion that ranges from happiness to sadness. He’ll cry freely in front of these young boys to show them an example of what it means to process emotion.

What did the project teach you about the way gun violence affects small social networks?

When I went to interview this 81-year-old barber shop owner, I walked in and the first person I saw was Coach Moore. This is after I’d followed his basketball team all summer. We get to talking, and the barber shop owner tells me a story about how a man was shot in front of his barber shop and paralyzed. Coach Moore says, ‘Yeah that’s my cousin, and I introduced you to him.’ And I had met the cousin.

Later that day, I go to a craft night at All Peoples Church. We’re talking about remembering loved ones who have passed, and Giovonnie Cameron’s name comes up — the kid who was shot and killed on Coach Moore’s team. And that’s just in one day.

Now that I’ve done 100 stories, I can see the web of connections that exists between people. I feel like at one point I’m totally exhausted, but on the other hand, I feel like I’m just ready to report the story now.

Did you find your stories following you home?

It felt less and less comfortable for me to just go home to a safe place. A lot of what I was reporting on wasn’t my reality, which made it harder to figure out those other parts of my life. I had a lot of conversations with my housemate, glued to our kitchen island, where I would process my reporting. I would come home and have so little energy left, I couldn’t do much more than exercise or eat and go to bed. I did that for a really long time, it was really important for me to carve out more space to be me. I guess there was a level of guilt about that.

How can reporters cover gun violence in a more humane, nuanced way?

I’m lucky. Space was carved out for me to dive deep. My assignment was to tell the story and tell it in 100 installments. I think there needs to be more space for that, and that can come through collaboration with other media outlets. [For Precious Lives] I worked very closely with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter Ashley Luthern, who covers breaking crime news.

What’s next for Precious Lives?

We’ve taken some of the Precious Lives interviews and characters and put their stories to a script. A University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee theater professor is helping to produce live performances that are happening around the city. It’s a way to go beyond the radio and make people more directly confront the topic.

Do you think Precious Lives has made an imprint on the city of Milwaukee?

It’s taken something that might be seemingly normal and given it an emphasis that maybe this shouldn’t be normal. Everyone who’s participated in our series, these are the people that need added support or need to be in conversations when you’re thinking about a comprehensive plan for violence prevention. Here are 100 experts that can all help in shaping a plan for making Milwaukee safer. But it shouldn’t just be their responsibility. They’ve been carrying the responsibility long enough.

[Photo: Precious Lives Facebook]