Debra Gillispie’s son, Kirk Bickham Jr., had just graduated from college when he was shot and killed while out with two friends in September 2003. “I remember going down the stairs to grab some coffee the day after I got the call, and when my husband came in and said, ‘It’s going to be OK,’ my coffee cup crashed to the floor,” recalls Gillispie. “I realized it wasn’t a nightmare. My son was really gone.”
Determined to find justice for her son, Gillispie spent the next four years going after those she felt responsible for Bickham’s death. First, she went after the bar where Bickham was killed. Then, she turned her attention to gun sale legislation. (Bickham and his friends were killed by a felon who had bought the weapon at a gun show, events that notoriously do not require background checks.) Gillispie founded Mothers Against Gun Violence and lobbied for The Responsible Gun Ownership Bill, which would have required background checks for “private citizen” gun sales – those in which neither the buyer nor seller is a licensed dealer. “I thought once I told everyone that my son and his two friends were murdered, they would close the loophole for private citizen gun sales,” says Gillispie, “but that didn’t happen.” The resolution won support at the city and county level but didn’t go anywhere in the state Legislature.
While the work kept Gillispie busy, it also gave her reason to avoid her own grief. That changed in 2009. “I couldn’t hold it in anymore,” recalls Gillispie. “I became a drunk. I quit my job. I just hit my bottom because I hadn’t dealt with the loss. I had to step back and allow myself to feel what I needed to feel no matter how long it took.”
When her second marriage fell apart, Gillispie decided to become a long-haul truck driver. And it was on the road that she discovered a powerful way to cope. “I started collecting stories,” she explains. “Stories of survivors. Stories of people. It helped me get the healing I needed.”
Upon returning to the Midwest, Gillispie brought that experience to Riverwest Radio, where she started a weekly program featuring Milwaukeeans whose lives have been affected by gun violence. Gillispie met Jasmine Moore, a North Side resident whose ex-partner, and father to her 8-year-old son, was killed in a shooting in 2018, at an anti-violence event where they were both speaking. Moore became an activist after witnessing her son, Johan, struggle in the wake of his father’s death. “My son was angry because someone killed his dad,” explains Moore, who founded the group Johan Hopes to educate parents on how to help children cope with trauma. “He would speak out of turn, or yell in the classroom, or throw a book. Only when I started to educate myself did I learn that those were responses to trauma.”
Learning more about Johan’s trauma also taught Moore to confront her own. “My dad was shot when I was about Johan’s age,” recalls Moore. “He survived, but I had many family members who did not. I never received counseling or grief support. And now I’ve learned that trauma can be generational. If we’re all just trying to get by and survive, we won’t ever heal.”
LaPorche Kimber, whom Gillespie met through MAGV, also believes in the power of collective healing. Kimber, whose son, Maurice Grimes, was fatally shot in his car just a month after he turned 18 in 2019, uses art to connect with grieving neighbors. Last winter, Kimber and her daughter began creating collages, or what they call “Feel Better Boxes.” The idea was sparked by a tribute to Grimes that Kimber made after his death. The box, which now sits in a quiet corner of Kimber’s home, is filled with toy cars – Grimes loved cars and spent much of his time fixing them – photos and personal effects like Grimes’ baby shoes and drawings. “When you lose a child, your life changes forever,” says Kimber. “You’re going to have moments, days and even years. The memory boxes are something to look at in those hard moments.”
The approach is simple but effective. It’s a strategy that Gillispie, who is working with Kimber to expand her reach, has come to appreciate. “What I now know is that gun violence is an issue that affects all of us,” she says. “And it’s too easy for people to become numb. But that’s much less likely when you hear someone’s story and share your own, too.”