For more than two decades, Elena Bolds has worked to keep young people far away from the gun violence that has afflicted her home town of Richmond, California, for decades.
She has organized gunfire safety drills for kids, turned her home into a snack store and safe haven for neighborhood youth, and sung at dozens of funerals for young people. As an official neighborhood change agent for the Office of Neighborhood Safety, she chaperoned trips to local jails so young men could hear from incarcerated people and drove program participants to their court dates to ensure they would show up.
"When I started working for ONS I was a poodle, but when I left, I was a rottweiler because I learned some hard lessons really fast. I learned that I was stronger than I thought I was," Bolds, a spirited, outgoing 56-year-old, said.
Today, Bolds is one of a small but growing group of women in a visible leadership position in local gun violence prevention, a field long dominated by men.
Programs that seek to reach young people who live in low-income communities and are most at risk of engaging in gun violence or being incarcerated have existed since at least the 1980s when the crack epidemic and accompanying high levels of gun violence were destabilizing Black communities. In recent years, they have increasingly been recognized as successful strategies to drive down daily gun violence, gaining support on the local and national level.
Because Black and Latino boys and young men are at the greatest risk of dying from a gunshot wound, the staffing of many of these programs reflect this disparity - with male gun violence prevention workers far outnumbering women. The proportion of men in itself isn't a bad thing, both male and female leaders in such organizations say, but it can make it more difficult for women to find their place in the field.
"There's a balance that you need to do this work," said Bolds. "A lot of women want to do this kind of work, but they don't know where to start or they may not have the support."
As community violence prevention groups have gained prominence and expanded their reach and workforce, more women are being hired to work with youth, advocate to lawmakers and connect with gun violence survivors. All of this is making for stronger and more balanced organizations, leaders across organizations say.
Tina Padilla, program director for Community Warriors for Peace, a gang diversion and violence intervention organization based in north-east Los Angeles, said that when she started working in the field in the mid-2000s, there were very few roles for women.
"Sometimes the men just wanted us to be in the office, and they would do the street thing. But that's not how it works," Padilla said. "I was brought into this work by a strong woman who told me, "You've got to stand your ground, speak your mind, say what you need to say, but do it professionally.""
Padilla got her start working for Summer Night Lights, a Los Angeles county program that keeps parks and recreation centers open at night and offers youth development and violence prevention programming. She began as a volunteer, then temporary employee before becoming a case manager, connecting clients to mental health services, housing and employment.
Today she runs a staff of violence interrupters who work in the same community she grew up in. "I still live and work in my community. That's why it's very important to me to make sure that I save as many lives as I can," she said.
Claudia Bracho, too, said she's increasingly seeing women come into the prevention field, filling hard-earned positions. When she first entered the gang and gun violence diversion domain in the late-1990s she remembers being one of about four women doing this work in Los Angeles. Two of them worked with organizations that steer young people away from gangs and the others supported families who had lost someone to gun violence.
Now, when she facilitates trainings for violence interrupters at the Urban Peace Institute (UPI), a non-profit that holds training for people who work in local gun violence prevention groups across the US, the rooms are half-filled with women.
"I feel like it took me a long time to get here. Not because I wasn't ready, but because I wasn't let in," Bracho said. "Now I see other women coming up quicker and that's what I want."
As gun violence prevention organizations broaden their ranks, "we have to broaden people's understanding of what's effective", said Fernando Rejón, the executive director at UPI. "The field remains "hyper-masculine", he said, but adds he has seen women, including Bracho and Padilla, thrive in street level intervention outreach, chasing down grants and philanthropic funding, working with schools and ensuring that programs are operated efficiently.
"The machismo of men can break through at the most inopportune times," echoed Pastor Michael McBride, director of Live Free campaign, a social justice and gun violence prevention non-profit.
Because young Black and Latino men are overrepresented among homicide victims, programs need their staff to look like - and be able to connect with - those who are at greatest risk, McBride continued. But without women in agenda-setting and frontline roles, the unique ways gun violence impacts women and girls are at risk of being overlooked, "having women in leadership is not just warranted it's required", he continued.
At different points in her time in violence prevention, Bolds has had to be a program manager, event planner and shoulder for those who lose loved ones to violence to cry and lean on.
Today most of her time is spent working with her youngest neighbors for whom she organizes talent shows and events she dubs "peace parties" - activities that allow the kids to have fun and hear Bold's message of non-violence. "I know how to get kids together. It is a gift God gave to me, and I will use it until I leave this place. I want women to know that, you know, I'm your sister in the struggle and I'm available to teach because we need more females on the front line."
Watch the Guardian's short documentary on women in the violence prevention field at the top of this story