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For eight years, Randy Molina engaged youth attracted to gangs and living amid guns and violence in the city’s poorest neighborhoods.

Now, as the first-ever violence prevention coordinator for Public Health Madison and Dane County, Molina is charged with leading a new public health approach to addressing violence, building a broad community coalition and creating a plan to stop the harm.

The initiative treats violence as a public health emergency and relies on data, science and the voices of those most affected to cure it. The challenge of unaddressed trauma in children, youth and guns, and calls for developing a public health approach to stopping the violence were the subject of a recent series in the Wisconsin State Journal, “Gun violence in Madison — Cycles of trauma.”

As the city and county sought solutions to troubling increases in shootings and homicides, policymakers last fall approved reallocating two full-time positions in Public Health — a violence prevention coordinator and data analyst — for the effort, with $10,000 in seed money.

Molina, 32, a native of metro Los Angeles fluent in Spanish, started work in late July. Jerrett Jones, 31, a doctoral candidate in sociology at UW-Madison and data analyst for Public Health since June 2017, began helping with initial efforts on the initiative last August and was chosen as its data analyst last November.

“Violence crosses municipal borders,” Public Health director Janel Heinrich said. “Developing strategies and coordinated responses that aren’t bound by geopolitical boundaries takes time and people power. We’re really excited to have Jerret and Randy in these positions to support this work.”

Molina said, “I want others to think about what it means to be truly healthy and safe in our communities. We want to get to the root causes of violence while also addressing immediate needs of the community.”

Molina brings a unique background to the position, which requires working with diverse populations, nonprofits, the faith and business communities and government agencies.

Born and raised in Southgate, California, a suburb of Los Angeles, Molina is the youngest of three sons. His parents migrated to the United States from Mexico before he was born and are now U.S. citizens retired in New Mexico. A standout student-athlete, he studied political science at Stanford University, where he was a captain and first team Pac-10 All Conference first baseman for the Cardinal baseball team that made the college World Series in 2008.

Molina thought he’d pursue a law degree, but instead chased his dream to play professional baseball. He spent a year in the Seattle Mariners organization, assigned to the rookie league.

Then, he played for the Southern Illinois Miners of the Independent Baseball Organization and began a master’s degree program in education administration at Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tennessee. He served as a graduate assistant coach for that school’s baseball team in 2009-10, and, finding that coaching appealed to him, became an assistant coach with the Madison Mallards for the summer of 2010. He has been in Madison ever since and intends to complete his master’s degree.

In January 2011, Molina was hired by the Dane County Department of Human Services Neighborhood Intervention Program, where he served as a program leader and member of the gang intervention response team for eight years, gaining insight into challenges facing poor youth and families.

“It took a year or so to see the problems” before a realization of, “Wow, there’s a gang problem here,” he said. The root causes, he found, are poverty, unaddressed trauma and struggles finding employment, coupled with a desire for status often achieved through violence. Easy access to weapons and boasting and spats on social media are driving recent upticks in shootings and homicides, he said.

In his outreach to youth, Molina said he drew upon experiences growing up in Los Angeles and the advice of mentors: Listen and care rather than lecture, and try to keep youth engaged in school and out of the criminal justice system.

“It’s relationship building,” he said. “It’s all about trust.”

Although many youth struggle and make mistakes, Molina also sees traits for success — intelligence, ingenuity, charm and charisma in many of the youth he meets — and believes Madison and the county are small enough and can deliver the services to make a difference in individual lives.

“In a big city, a lot of these kids get lost,” he said. “In Madison, there are second and third chances. You never give up on them.”

Jones, a Chicago native, has bachelor’s degrees in political science and economics from UW-Madison and a master’s in public administration from the university’s La Follette School of Public Affairs. He’s trained as a sociological researcher and also a demographer who has examined the social consequences of incarceration, which affects many disadvantaged families.

A public health approach, he said, is appealing for its focus on root causes of violence and helping families make healthier choices and feel invested in their neighborhoods by improving access to child care, education, transportation and food.

No time to waste

Molina is starting his new job with the rare challenge — and opportunity — to create something with no predecessor.

“It’s challenging but also freeing in that I can help shape the position for the future,” he said. “I have already begun to look at the work being done in other parts of the country and Wisconsin. Milwaukee has been doing violence prevention work already, but I’m also looking at Los Angeles and Minneapolis. I want to pull from those models with the understanding that Madison and Dane County are unique and I need to tailor them to our needs.”

One of Molina’s initial tasks has been to help Jones coordinate the new Community Safety Intervention Team (CSIT), a group with representatives from the mayor’s office, Madison police, city and county agencies, Madison schools, nonprofits and others, created in response to increasing reports of gunfire and homicides in 2016 and 2017.

“My hope is that our CSIT protocols will be the framework for responding to critical incidents in communities,” Molina said. “However, I only want that to be one tool in the area of violence prevention. I want the future to be a real push toward community collaboration and coalition.”

Data will be critical, Jones said.

“Data allows us to show the patterns of violence and injury, who is most impacted by it, and where violence occurs,” he said. “We also need data to evaluate the effectiveness of violence prevention efforts to spread what is working to needed areas in our community.”

The initial budget for the public health initiative provides for the two positions and seed money. It’s unclear how much more funding the city and county will provide in the 2019 budget.

“Whether there is an office in the future or not, we all will collaborate and work toward the common goal of preventing violence in our communities,” Molina said. “I’m excited to be in this role and doing this work because people are out there being affected by violence every day and we need to get going.”

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Dean Mosiman covers Madison city government for the Wisconsin State Journal.