On September 29, 2003, a woman with a long history of threatening behavior and harassment lured two people to the Hennepin County Government Center through a frivolous legal action and shot them both. Rick Hendrickson barely survived and has a paralyzed vocal cord after being shot in the neck at point-blank range. The other victim was my aunt, Shelley Joseph-Kordell, who did not survive four bullets. Everything you need to know about the kind of person she was is the fact that she spent her final moments wrestling first responders – trying to get off the gurney and make sure Rick was okay.
The shooter was immediately apprehended. She’d obtained the gun through a private sale at a Minnesota Gun Show with no paperwork or background check required by state law. This type of gun sale is still completely legal in Minnesota and it’s absolutely urgent that that change.
In my family’s initial hopes to see meaning come from tragedy, we advocated for metal detectors with the Hennepin County Commissioners and were successful in getting them installed at the Government Center. I began to search for meaning myself following the trauma of the criminal trial. There’d been an armed deputy 20 feet away who was unable to prevent the shootings. Rick later told me that a bullet travels faster than the speed of sound so, by the time he heard the shot, he was already on the ground bleeding. I knew immediately that the presence of more guns was not the answer but, preventing them from getting into the hands of people, like the person who murdered Shelley, was the solution.
For over a decade, I’ve worked with many gun violence prevention organizations, including state and national groups. I began to notice a trend with the national groups that disturbed me. Gun violence survivors were elevated to celebrity status within the group, ranked by the infamy of their tragedy. I attended several “survivor trainings” locally and nationally. Survivors of gun violence were shown a PowerPoint presentation about how to share their stories in a way that was “most effective.” We were then broken up into small groups and given kitchen timers. We were told to tell the story of the worst day of our lives in less than three minutes. We were then asked to critique the other gun violence survivors within our small group – actually point out problems about how mothers chose to speak about their dead children. This is everything that licensed trauma-informed therapists tell you NOT to do with trauma survivors. I should’ve left then and am ashamed to say I didn’t.
About 10 months after my last “survivor training,” some of my fellow survivors and I discovered a disturbing partnership between the gun violence prevention group and the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP). They sponsored the FOP annual convention and had in years past, as well. The Fraternal Order of Police had endorsed Donald Trump for president, called a 12-year-old boy named Tamir Rice a “thug” after he was shot to death by police, and the FOP was having a panelist at that year’s convention – a white police officer who’d shot and killed an unarmed black man named Terence Crutcher. The national gun violence prevention group subsequently pulled sponsorship from that year’s convention but, did not speak out against the FOP nor rule out working with them in the future. When a handful of survivors and I began asking questions, we were blocked by the organization’s founder and banned from every related Facebook group in less than 24-hours. When I became vocal about my position that police gun violence is still gun violence, their lobbyist came after my family and career. I received the message loud and clear that dissenting voices are not tolerated and feedback is not appreciated. I began my own inclusive, trauma-informed gun reform organization, Survivors Lead.
Survivors Lead is a 501(c)(3)/501(c)(4) that is 100 percent led by trauma survivors. We take a municipality-based approach to curbing gun violence, focused on survivor-led efforts to end gun violence in our cities. We know that stricter gun laws are just the tip of the iceberg in reducing gun deaths. We work to address the scarcity, poverty, and disparities that exist in our communities. We advocate for wrap-around services for children, school-funded meals, free break and summer programming for at-risk youth, and many other policies at the municipal and state level.
We are survivors working with families to assist them in advocating for their murdered loved one in unsolved/active cases, providing survivor peer support throughout the trial process and beyond. When you’re shot or your loved one is murdered, there are absolutely no trauma-informed resources for you. If you’re lucky enough to know who perpetrated the shooting, you’ll be provided a county victim’s advocate for the duration of the trial and that’s it. Survivors Lead facilitates community – survivors walking alongside new survivors as they navigate difficult processes and bureaucracy. We provide meals for one another, emotional support, trial support, advocate in the community in unsolved cases, and step in to lift one another up where our lawmakers have failed us. We support survivors advocating for gun control in their own, authentic voices in a way that feels natural to them and they feel honors their loved one. We support survivors who believe the only way to get through to our elected officials is by showing the photos of what bullets did to their loved one’s body.
We support survivors who cannot yet begin to speak about what has been taken from them. We are a family with a terrible, unspoken and immediate connection that shouldn’t even exist.
Survivors Lead has members of law enforcement and survivors of police violence on our Board of Directors. We are working hard to develop training where police and survivors can sit in each other’s presence to better understand one another’s lived experience. Finally, we offer political training to assist survivors of gun violence, sexual violence, and domestic violence in running for public office.
I founded Survivors Lead because our lawmakers have failed. Gun violence prevention groups have failed. The moderate messaging suggesting that there can be a reasoned conversation and compromise with gun extremists has failed. And our children are dying horrible, preventable, violent deaths. Our living children are state mandated to rehearse their own deaths in their classrooms five times a year as if gun violence is a natural disaster or fire drill. It is traumatic. It is preventable. It is wrong.
I know we can meaningfully reduce gun violence that doesn’t look like survivors showing up year after year, begging for background checks in committee. Survivors will BE the committee. We are training survivors to run, and putting our lawmakers on notice. Survivors will be taking your seats.
Rachael Joseph is a mom, activist, political consultant, and gun violence survivor. She lives in Minneapolis with her husband and two children. To learn more about Survivors Lead, and the June 14 Launch Party and Fundraiser, visit survivorslead.com.