In the 15 years since Aim4Peace first launched in Kansas City, the violence prevention program has grown in fits and starts, operating hospital-based and street outreach programs aimed at preventing retaliation and defusing ongoing violence in some of the hardest-hit neighborhoods in Missouri’s largest city.

But it hasn’t been an easy road, said Rashid Junaid, Aim4Peace’s program manager. Speaking to a crowd of anti-violence workers, nonprofit leaders, and officials from the Justice Department gathered at a hotel in the shadow of the Gateway Arch in St. Louis on February 15, Junaid detailed the program’s core struggle: funding.

At its peak in 2014, Aim4Peace employed 18 workers. By 2019, budget cuts left it with just five staffers and forced Aim4Peace to disband its outreach team; only the hospital-based program continued. As the staff dwindled, homicides in its operating area jumped from five, in 2014, to 25 in 2019. In 2021, the city allocated just $440,000 to Aim4Peace. The state-controlled city police received more than $230 million.

The funding problem isn’t unique to Aim4Peace — community-based violence intervention programs have long struggled to get resources. But at the gathering in St. Louis, Junaid and other CVI program leaders celebrated a change in the tide.

Last year, Aim4Peace received a $2 million grant from the DOJ’s Community-Based Violence Intervention and Prevention Initiative. Junaid’s group is one of more than 50 community-based violence prevention programs, city agencies, and larger nonprofits that received $100 million in grants from the Bureau of Justice Assistance as part of the initiative. Though violence prevention programs have long qualified for other federal grants, the new initiative is the first to solely focus on CVI programs.

“What we see is a movement at a time when our country is finally acknowledging that your work matters, you matter, what you do matters,” said Eddie Bocanegra, a senior adviser for CVI at the Office of Justice Programs, who worked for more than 15 years in violence prevention in Chicago.

Aside from funding specific programs, the DOJ grants are part of the Biden administration’s broader goal of building out infrastructure to support CVI, evaluating program effectiveness, training workers and managers on best practices, and creating long-term stability to institutionalize the programs as permanent fixtures of the public safety system.

The convening in St. Louis, the first of its kind, was emblematic of that federal investment. There were workshops on supporting on-the-ground violence intervention workers and building community partnerships, panels on what works in community violence intervention, and talks on how to implement programs in rural areas and tribal communities. Leaders from the highest levels of the Justice Department, including Attorney General Merrick Garland, spoke to more than 400 attendees.

At times, there was tension — expressed and implied — over how to balance the DOJ’s primary and historical role in law enforcement with support for community-based programs. But that tension was mitigated by near-universal agreement that public safety requires more than just police. 

Aim4Peace is using its DOJ cash to reinstate the neighborhood outreach team scrapped by the budget cuts, but Junaid said the investment is already having broader effects. A proposal to provide a portion of city tax revenue from recreational marijuana sales to aid violence prevention efforts, including Aim4Peace, came in January. And another, introduced just two weeks ago, would provide an additional $6 million per year over five years. With support from the mayor and a majority of the City Council, that measure appears poised to pass.

“They were talking about getting rid of [Aim4Peace],” Junaid said. “Now they’re asking us how much money we need.” 

As the final day of the St. Louis event came to a close, the DOJ’s Bocanegra asked attendees if they had any final reflections. Lamont Nanton, a violence interrupter with the Miami-based Circle of Brotherhood, stood up to speak directly to Justice Department officials. The Circle of Brotherhood had received a $2 million grant to expand its CVI work. But for Nanton, it was about more than just the money.

“You did not sugarcoat or sweep under the rug the different inequities that face our communities, primarily Black and brown communities,” Nanton said. “Because a lot of times the government wants to skip and hop and jump over that topic. But we dealt with it — head on. And nobody had to bring it up. You guys [the DOJ] brought it up.”

Of course, the DOJ is also asking for something in return from the grantees: It’s encouraging them to work with researchers to conduct evaluations of their programs and providing additional funds to help support those studies. The investments could help build out the limited research available on what violence intervention programs work and how. The results, if positive, could also help shore up support for longer-term funding.

The Justice Department is expected to announce another $100 million round of grants for CVI as soon as the next few weeks. The second round, like the first, comes from funding in the Safer Communities Act and a separate budget bill. 

Fifty million dollars annually from the Safer Communities Act is guaranteed for at least four more years, but the future of additional federal investments is uncertain. That means the total amount available in future grant cycles could be cut in half if Republicans, who now control the House, don’t agree to additional funding.

Attendees at the St. Louis meeting acknowledged that uncertainty but said the event, and the grants that precipitated it, are a good sign.

“It doesn’t feel like we’re working in a silo anymore,” Nanton said. “It gave me hope to know that this work is going to continue for many years.”