Debra Gillispie founded Mothers Against Gun Violence shortly after her only son, Kirk Bickham Jr., was shot and killed, along with two friends. The shooter was a felon who, according to the law, should not have had a gun – he bought the weapon at a gun show that did not require a background check.
She has lobbied for changes to state firearm laws but also leveraged that community activism into the media. Gillispie co-hosts a show on Riverwest Radio as well as a streaming television program to amplify her anti-gun message and lift up the stories of others who have lost loved ones. “People should be able to share their own truth,” says Gillispie, 59. “It’s empowering and demonstrates their resilience.”
Part of her message is to “change the narrative” around how these gun violence deaths are viewed. “Because he was Black, it was assumed that Kirk’s death was gang- or drug-related – not that he was celebrating college graduation and a new corporate job.”
Debra Gillispie is one of the 2021 recipients of a Betty Award. Each year, Milwaukee Magazine presents these awards as a tribute to the late Betty Quadracci, the magazine’s former publisher who founded Quad with her husband Harry. Read more about this year’s honorees here.