Shneaqua Purvis grew up to the sound of gunfire. As kids in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, in the 1980s and ’90s, she and her sisters would all duck their heads and crawl under the kitchen table when the shooting started. Their first-floor apartment was next to an alley so crime-ridden it was dubbed “Death Lane” by residents of Tompkins Houses, the public housing complex where they lived.
A few days after Christmas, in 2002, Purvis walked the six familiar Brooklyn blocks between her apartment and Tompkins, toting lamb chops in one arm and her 5-month-old daughter, Shaniya, in the other. She’d moved out of her family home a few years earlier, but she frequently returned to cook for her mother and four younger sisters. Her favorite was Maisha, a sports fanatic who, at 28, was two years her junior.
On that sunny afternoon, Purvis arrived at her old home and handed her baby off to Maisha, who retreated into her room to watch a football game with Purvis’s then-husband. Purvis thought she was used to the sound of shooting, but a shot rang out that sounded like nothing she had ever heard before. It was louder, like a firecracker, she said. Closer. She stood up from her crouched position under the table, screamed for her baby, and went to her sister’s room, where Maisha was last holding Shaniya.
That’s where Purvis saw her husband lying on the floor shielding their daughter. He stood up and handed her the baby; blood was smeared across his face. Purvis looked over at her sister: “It’s over,” she said, prompting Maisha to get up. But she didn’t move. Purvis shook her sister until she saw the blood coming from her head.
Purvis’s memory of the day is fragmented. She remembers the sound of screaming — some of it her own, some of it from others. She has flashes of the inside of the ambulance, and of the sterile smell of the hospital waiting room. By 7:30 that evening, 28-year-old Maisha Hubbard was pronounced dead at Woodhull Hospital, three hours after being struck by a stray bullet that had broken through the street-facing window in her room.
Purvis, now 51, recalled that within 10 minutes of the shooting, other Tompkins residents had identified 18-year-old Kenneth Albritton as the shooter. Police led a search, but a few days after the new year, Albritton turned himself in. He was charged with manslaughter and criminal possession of a weapon, and sentenced to the maximum penalty: 15 years in prison. At his sentencing, Purvis read a statement alluding to their childhood together in Tompkins: “You were always a problem. I just didn’t think you’d be my problem.” (Albritton denied multiple requests for comment.)
Throughout the 1990s, as Albritton and Purvis grew up playing cards together and bringing food to each other’s families on holidays, their neighborhood was notorious for its violent crime. In 1993, when Purvis was 21, Bedford-Stuyvesant’s 81st precinct had the third highest number of shootings citywide, according to city data. Much of this violence was concentrated in or around Tompkins Houses. According to the Mayor’s Office, the development ranks among the top 15 projects that have accounted for 20 percent of violent crime in New York’s public housing system, which is the nation’s largest.
Purvis knew of Albritton’s reputation as a hothead in those days. As the eldest of five sisters and numerous foster siblings, she cautioned them to stay away from Albritton, who was 13 years younger and whom residents referred to as “Loco.”
“‘He’s gonna kill somebody. You need to stay away from him,'” she told them.
After her sister was killed, Purvis thought Albritton’s prison sentence would facilitate her healing, but she was wrong. For more than a decade after her sister was killed, anger became Purvis’s defining feature, dominating how she felt, what she reacted to, and how others reacted to her.
“My mom’s experienced death after death after death,” said 21-year-old Shaniya. “For a long time, she was angry. She was always aggressive.”
In an attempt to channel her grief, in 2014 Purvis joined Save Our Streets, a nonprofit that partners with community members who know street and gang life, and use their credibility to mediate conflicts before they turn violent. But it wasn’t until her work as a violence interrupter intersected with group therapy, facilitated by the organization, that Purvis learned how to convert her pain into purpose. By joining other New Yorkers who had lost their loved ones to gun violence, she realized that her anger “was actually passion. I just didn’t know how to display it.” She was inspired to pursue crime intervention as a full-time career.
As Shaniya grew up, she began to fully understand the line of work her mother was increasingly involved with, and her admiration turned to worry. Purvis was fearless, and she never backed down from an argument. “She’s always running her mouth, and I was afraid it was going to be her downfall,” said Shaniya, whose first memories include volunteering at a halfway house with her mother. “But instead, people gravitated towards it.”
As a violence interrupter, Purvis worked to prevent shootings and also responded to them; she’s cleaned blood off the walls of crime scenes, provided grief-stricken families with emotional support, and organized non-violence rallies around Brooklyn after a homicide.
As she became a well-known violence interrupter in the community, working to ensure that “no family has to go through what she did,” Purvis’s reputation grew. “There are so many good things to say about the work she does,” said state Senator Jabari Brisport, a Bed-Stuy native who met Purvis at one of her rallies, years before he started his career in politics. “Cops chase after the crime, but what [Purvis] does can stop these things before it happens.”
Purvis realized the scope of her own ability. In 2019, she founded Both Sides of The Violence, a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting victims and perpetrators of gun violence. She gained further credibility on the streets, and the respect of the people she worked with, but the trauma of losing her sister kept nagging at her. Then, in 2020, she remembers a familiar premonition creeping up as she worked with one teenager, B., who “was out of control,” she said, referring to him by the first initial of his first name. “I felt like he was gonna kill somebody.”
B. was a hothead, just like Kenneth Albritton was as a kid. But this time, Purvis didn’t stay away from the person she feared — she mentored him, instead. She helped him get a state I.D. card, and find a job. She encouraged him to go back to school, and kept him as busy as possible, so he’d have no time to be in the streets. Slowly, by “changing this young man’s mindset” — and her own — Purvis began to understand that perpetrators of violence are often also victims. Many of the people she was working with had previously been exposed to or subjected to other forms of abuse, and she began to see a path to preventing people like her sister from becoming victims, and people like her neighbor — her sister’s killer — from becoming perpetrators.
“I wondered, if Kenneth had somebody like me at the time, would he have done what he did?”
That same year, she saw Albritton again for the first time in 14 years, back at Tompkins Houses, during the annual Father’s Day barbeque. Purvis knew of his return to the projects, but seeing him still came as a shock. Just as surprising to her was what she did next: She walked over to her sister’s killer and wished him a happy Father’s Day. They were the first words she’d spoken to him since she read him her letter on the day of his sentencing. He thanked her, and she walked away.
“He hightailed it out of there,” Purvis said. She enjoyed the rest of the cookout, feeling like a weight had been lifted from her shoulders, relief that lingered with her over the next few days. “I was no longer the mean, angry person I was,” she said recently, sitting cross-legged on a sofa in her office in Bed-Stuy.
Still, when a childhood friend reached out after the barbeque to say Albritton wanted to have a formal conversation with her, Purvis said she wasn’t ready. She anguished at the sight of him.
“I still wasn’t healed,” she said. “I was still hurt, you know, and I had to get used to the fact that I’m looking at him again.”
A few days later, as Purvis sat in front of the apartment window where her sister was shot dead, she saw Albritton and motioned for him to come over. It had suddenly dawned on her that if she was serious about the work she was doing, she’d have to walk the walk. “I can’t tell gang members to forgive somebody, or not to shoot somebody or retaliate, if those are my thoughts. I want my story to reflect my own work. I can’t just talk about it. I need to be about it.”
As Albritton approached her, Purvis remembers feeling sick. “You ready to talk now?” she asked him. He nodded, and they spoke for the next three and a half hours.
“I just want to say I’m sorry,” Purvis remembers he began. And then he told her what he endured in prison, but she didn’t feel sorry for him. It was when he told her about experiences he had in childhood, she recalled, that she felt a sense of guilt. “He was telling me about his childhood traumas,” said Purvis. “We grew up together, and I missed that.”
Albritton told her that the abuse he suffered, and the assumptions from adults — including her — that he would end up dead or in jail, made him feel destined to be a criminal. She asked him what would’ve happened if she had tried to help him, and he said it would’ve changed his life. “I realized we created him,” Purvis said. “So in that conversation, I wound up apologizing to him.”
Although New York City’s seen a significant decline in gun violence and homicide since Purvis’s childhood in Tompkins, two-thirds of the city’s shootings still occur in Brooklyn and the Bronx, specifically in neighborhoods where most residents are Black or Latinx. In 2021, Black men aged 18 to 24 were 88 times more likely to be shot in New York City than white men, echoing the disproportionate impact of gun violence on people of color nationwide.
“We created him with this system in place,” Purvis said of Albritton. Now, from both sides of gun violence, she could confront the lack of resources in communities like her own. One of her latest events was “bringing back the old school games” for all the teenagers in the neighborhood: double Dutch, freeze tag, obstacle courses and more, to continue building trust between Bed-Stuy residents and the police. It was held at St. Andrews park, where just two years ago Purvis was honored as a “Community Hero” with a larger-than-life-size portrait hanging on a chain-link fence for more than a year.
Purvis’s program “honed skills I didn’t even know I had,” said an active gang member, who was granted anonymity because of his street affiliation. Through Project Restore Bed-Stuy, which enrolls gang-affiliated young men into a one-year program that offers them employment, education, and workshops to improve their life skills, he was able to complete an internship with Columbia University, which hired him full-time as an outreach coordinator.
On the last Sunday in July, protesters marched through the streets, holding signs that read “No More Guns” and “Use Your Brain, Violence Is Insane.” It’s a day Purvis has been working towards for months — the 2nd Annual Anti-Gun Violence Rally in Brooklyn — and she leads the procession of dozens into Bed-Stuy’s Herbert Von King Park. There’s food, music, and, most importantly, resources.
Under the tent with the “Both Sides of The Violence” logo, there’s a metal folding chair with “Coco,” Purvis’s nickname, written in black marker. It’s her station, but she never sits down. She’s in her element; the silver hoops she’s wearing in her ears swing back and forth as she dances through the crowd, hugging family, friends, and neighbors. Her bright orange sneakers match her shirt, which reads “Urban Youth Ending Gun Violence.”
A few hours into the event, Shaniya stands before a crowd and whistles for their attention, clutching a megaphone in her hands. She’s small, but her voice echoes throughout the park: “I’m out here because, when I was 5 months old, my aunt passed away holding me in her arms in her home. My family is the most hurt, but hurt people hurt people. Perpetrators are victims, too.”
When she dropped the megaphone, Shaniya was met with applause — and a hug from Coco, who beamed at her daughter.
As the event dwindles, Purvis and Shaniya gather a group of teenagers she mentors. She wants to plan their next meeting before they leave the event. Recently, she’s been considering a new initiative, one that would let young men channel anger into something productive: a boxing match for local teenagers. It’s an idea dreamt up by Albritton, who Purvis hopes to collaborate with in bringing the event to life. Though not everyone understands her willingness to work with her sister’s shooter, Purvis said that together they’ll have a better understanding of how to approach and empathize with kids labeled as “bad news.”
And as he transitions back into life as a free man, she said she is dedicated to helping him if he ever needs it — the same way she’d be there for any of her mentees. It doesn’t matter if anyone else understands it. “Hopefully,” she said, “somebody can learn from that.”