For Robin McGregor, Mother’s Day is an annual reminder of her devastating loss. So McGregor will join hundreds of other mothers and family members on Sunday in a walk for peace, her tenth since the fatal shooting of her son Clarence in 2014.

“It brings up a lot, not having my son there to celebrate with me. He hadn’t even begun to live, at 24, he had a whole life ahead of him,” McGregor said. “No wife, no kids, he will never have any of that. It was a life just taken too soon, for no reason.”

Now in its 27th year, the annual event organized by the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute begins in Dorchester, honoring families affected by murder, trauma and loss. McGregor said she’s seen the numbers of participants grow each year, unified in the hope that more can be done to prevent future tragedies.

“It’s heartbreaking to see,” McGregor said. “There's so many mothers, some old and some very young who have lost young children to violence.”

An uptick in fatal shootings and a series of violent incidents involving young children have renewed the need to increase anti-violence work in Boston. City and state leaders have announced plans to bring community leaders, Black ministers, nonprofit groups and police departments together to address the problems. Veteran activists who led the charge during a crisis of homicides and violent crime 30 years ago have joined with new faces committed to transformation, but some longtime activists remain skeptical that city leaders will be able to unify groups to create real change.

“The churches aren't talking to the schools, the schools aren't talking to the police. The police aren't talking to the sheriff’s department. The sheriff’s department is not talking to the human service and social service agencies,” said Louis Elisa, former president of the Boston branch of the NAACP. “We have resources identified, we just don't have the commitment to work together to make it happen.”

Homicides are up this year, with 15 in Boston so far compared to 10 a year ago at this time, according to the Boston Police Department. Boston’s homicide rate held around several dozen deaths annually in recent years, but has remained below the peaks of the late ’80s when the city saw more than one hundred homicides yearly.

Many residents of the city’s most affected neighborhoods said they feel like they are still under siege. Roughly 80% of shootings since 2018 have been concentrated in four neighborhoods: Dorchester, Roxbury, Mattapan and Jamaica Plain, according to data from a Boston Police dashboard. Nearly four in five victims were Black.

“The rhetoric is that the numbers are down, but you can't tell a person who's heard gunshots outside of their house that the numbers are down,” said Christopher Worrell, a state representative whose district includes parts of Dorchester and Roxbury. “You can’t measure anything being better when someone’s loved one dies by gun violence. It should be zero. One is too much.”

Clorissa McGregor, 35, signs her brother Clarence's name on a wall honoring victims of community violence during a workshop in Roxbury, April 27, 2023.
Tori Bedford GBH News

A recent spike in youth violence left communities particularly shaken. Thirteen-year-old Tyler Lawrence was shot and killed while visiting his grandparents in Mattapan in January. Two separate violent incidents at the Jeremiah E. Burke High School in Dorchester rattled families last fall when one student was stabbed and another shot. On the heels of that, two teenagers were shot in Roxbury, including 14-year-old Rasante Osorio, who died from his wounds.

“It’s traumatizing, and growing up with it, it’s a difficult thing,” Worrell said.

Worrell is intimately aware of how violence can haunt a childhood. He was nine years old when his 16-year-old cousin was shot and killed outside his house in Dorchester over a pair of sneakers, he said. A few years later, Worrell’s uncle was murdered. Last year, Worrell’s friend Max Hylton was killed after being shot twice at his barber shop on Washington Street in Dorchester.

“My son’s first encounter with gun violence was at his barber shop,” Worrell said. “Every Friday, Saturday we used to go to the barber shop. How do you tell a seven-year-old that their barber has been shot and killed?”

Worrell’s brother Brian, a Boston city councilor, broke down in tears during a council meeting last fall while recounting Hylton’s death.

“We are tired of feeling unsafe at our parks and just simply walking through our neighborhoods. We are tired of burying friends and loved ones due to gun violence,” he said. “More than anything, we are tired of inaction.”

During the City Council meeting, Brian Worrell called for more investment in social services, increasing efforts to reboot relationships between city and community leaders and more support services to families who have lost loved ones to gun violence. Worrell said he’s working on a plan to combat gun violence across his Dorchester district and more broadly.

“For too long, we’ve relied on only a handful of tools available to us to deal with gun violence. This will only get us so far," he said. “We must support our community members already doing the hard work, and we must do it now.”

Government officials said they want to see change.

"You can't measure anything being better when someone's loved one dies by gun violence. It should be zero. One is too much."
Christopher Worrell, state representative for parts of Dorchester and Roxbury

Last week, Boston Mayor Michelle Wu announced a $100,000 investment in “Save R Streets” grants to prevent an uptick in violence over the summer. Isaac Yablo, the City’s Senior Advisor for Community Safety, will award the grants to community organizations.

And last month, Wu announced a goal to reduce homicides by 20% in Boston in the next three years.

That goal emerged from the city’s involvement in a new cohort program from the University of Maryland’s Violence Reduction Center.

“We will not tolerate any neighborhood feeling like residents have to live in fear of violence or experience loss that ripples down generation after generation,” Wu said in her announcement. “We have the resources, we have the expertise, we need to just put it all together.”

A state judiciary committee focused on gun violence has a stop planned at Prince Hall in Roxbury later this month. Lawmakers also have filed legislation to form a special commission concerning gun violence prevention and funding for intervention.

And Suffolk County District Attorney Kevin Hayden has held meetings with Black faith leaders and community members to address concerns about violence. Nonprofits focused on violence prevention can apply to his office for $10,000 grants funded by money seized in narcotics prosecutions.

“It’s about prevention and intervention, and then the last resort is enforcement,” said True-See Allah, Hayden’s director of community engagement. “We haven’t done all the things: street work, outreach to the hotspots, intervention behind the wall and prevention initiatives. If we can do all of those things well, at the same time, we can move the dial in a major way.”

Some longtime activists say they've heard these pledges before — resulting in little action.

In the early 1990s, community members and advocates joined forces against a crisis of homicides and shootings in Boston. An alliance of Black ministers and community leaders formed the TenPoint Coalition in 1992 under the leadership of a group of local pastors to put pressure on elected officials to make violence prevention a higher priority.

The following year, community activist Stanley Pollack began the Center for Teen Empowerment in Roxbury to employ low-income youth from communities of color. Operation Ceasefire, a nationally-funded strategy to identify gang hotspots and focus on a few known offenders, tried to help address the crisis, based on a plan from Harvard criminology professor David Kennedy.

Nonprofits worked with police, city, state and federal agencies and criminal justice experts. The result: a 63% drop in the city’s youth homicide rate that became known as the “Boston Miracle.”

But by 2005, the city began to face an uptick in violence, subsequently widening the city’s racial gap in solving homicides. Between 2007 and 2018, Boston police made an arrest in nearly 90% of homicides with white victims but only 42% of homicides with Black victims, according to a Washington Post analysis of homicide arrest data.

Today, violence — and violence prevention — looks different in Boston than it did in the ’80s and ’90s, activists said. Conflicts erupt from disputes on social media and a larger network of illegal and untraceable firearms, including “ ghost guns,” which can be manufactured from kits bought online, pose new challenges.

Elisa, the former president of the Boston branch of the NAACP, said the root of the problem remains largely the same.

“A lot of it comes from anger, a lot comes from loss, a lot comes from economic poverty and social poverty,” he said. “We can fix it. We have the resources to fix it and the capability of working together, other than in silos, to make it happen.”

Bruce Wall, a senior pastor at the Global Ministries Christian Church in Dorchester and founding member of the TenPoint Coalition, said he has struggled for years to establish a state of emergency around homicides in Boston. It’s the same plan he implemented as a founding member of the TenPoint Coalition back in the ’90s — a group that fell into its own separate factions in the following years, while also leading to a national movement.

Once Boston became successful in the fight against violent crime, TenPoint saw what Wall describes as “failure of the past that cannot be overlooked or repeated.” In a 2013 plan to address violence across the city, Wall wrote that allied leaders of the strategy were putting their focus towards the national movement, “rather than remaining steadfastly committed to sustaining the impressive results achieved.” He said, “In conclusion, there were no leaders at home overseeing the people and programs that worked to maintain the once celebrated peace in the City.”

Reverend Ray Hammond
BOSTON, MA - SEPTEMBER 26: Members of the TenPoint Coalition make statements at the West Roxbury commuter train station in Boston, where assistant attorney general Paul McLaughlin was recently killed, on Sep. 26, 1995. From left are reverends Samuel C. Wood, Jeffrey L. Brown, Ray A. Hammond and Eugene F. Rivers. (Photo by Pat Greenhouse/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
Boston Globe/Boston Globe via Getty Images Boston Globe

In 2013, Boston TenPoint and the Black Ministerial Alliance merged to become BMA TenPoint.

“They exist in name,” said Wall, who left TenPoint one year after its founding. “But I couldn’t tell you what they’re doing.”

Rev. Wayne Daley, a BMA TenPoint member, said the group is still active. As momentum builds for anti-violence groups across the city, the group is undergoing a push to renew its community efforts.

“We’re getting back to the neighborhood walks and the partnerships, trying to get back in the schools, doing more home visits with the school police unit, just doing things that were effective back then,” said Daley, who also works with the Louis D. Brown Institute for Peace. “We’re getting all the faith organizations more involved so they’re not sitting back and waiting for the DA’s office or the city of Boston or the BPD to do it.”

Wall has proposed recommendations, including a special mayoral commission on homicide, improved mental health resources in schools, and a study of crime in neighborhoods hit hardest by violence, resulting in a new 10-year plan to keep homicide rates low.

“But nobody wants to put the money into doing something like that,” he said. “So my attitude is, none of you are serious about addressing the issue.”

From behind his microphone in a church basement, Wall broadcasts on Boston Praise Radio, calling for change. (GBH journalists have participated in the radio program.) Wall insisted recently that he’d prefer to pass the mantle on to a new generation, but someone needs to step up.

“Don't dismiss the older folk that are still here who have seen this in cycles,” said Wall, who is now 74. “And we, as the older folks, should not say that the young folks in our town don't know what to do. We've got to find a way to come together.”

In the midst of unending grief, Robin McGregor said she still has hope. Every year as she walks with her community of fellow survivors on Mother’s Day, she said she discovers a deeper sense of togetherness despite the pain of her loss.

“It's knowing that it's not just you, there's a lot of other people going through the same thing that you're going through,” she said. “It doesn’t change what happened, but it’s a healing process knowing that, ‘OK, I’m not alone.’”