She Lost 33 Friends to Gun Violence: How One Woman Is Trying to Save Lives

Camiella Williams became an activist after struggling with the trauma of losing so many people close to her

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Photo: Whitten Sabbatini

She was an elementary student the first time gun violence ended the life of someone she knew, a second grade teacher at her Chicago school. After that, the losses kept coming.

A cousin. Former neighbors. A police officer she regarded as a surrogate grandfather. This past Sept. 5, a 19-year-old she’d been mentoring was fatally shot after dropping off his younger brother at a basketball practice — the 33rd person close to Camiella Williams whose life has been lost to bullets.

So far.

“I went through rage, depression. I still can’t sleep,” Williams, 31, tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue, describing the pain that spurred her to become an anti-gun violence advocate. “They had a place in this world. What could they have become?”

It’s a question she had to answer for herself, as well, given the dangerous path she was once on.

• For more on Camiella Willilams’ transformation into an activist fighting gun violence, subscribe now to PEOPLE or pick up this week’s issue, on newsstands now.As a sixth grader she bought a loaded 9mm gun with $25 saved from her allowance — “for protection,” she says. She later acquired two more guns, and as a gang member she sold drugs in high school. But she was rattled by the back-to-back shootings of two girls, ages 10 and 14, in her old neighborhood while she was pregnant with the first of her two sons, who are now ages 12 and 9 months.

“They’re killing babies,” she remembers thinking. A subsequent street confrontation that threatened to turn violent as she was walking with her newborn confirmed her resolve to change.

“I had to make a decision,” she says. “Do I continue to be involved in the streets and do nothing with my life? Or do I try to do something?”

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Williams enrolled in community college, embarking on activism to protect children and communities of color. In 2017 — having earned a bachelor’s degree in criminology — she was elected to the Prairie State College board of trustees; she’s since earned a master’s in political and justice studies, and plans to enter law school.

Now a full-time community organizer with Live Free Chicago, a nonprofit that works with faith-based communities to create economic and political change, Williams raises funds for an office of violence prevention to help those who need counseling and support, while trying to defuse neighborhood clashes and vendettas that feed the cycle of violence.

Lucy McBath, a spokeswoman for Everytown for Gun Safety in America (and newly elected member of Congress from Georgia) who lost her 17-year-old son Jordan to a shooting in 2012, met Williams in 2013 at a Washington, D.C., event on stand-your-ground legislation. Williams was there carrying the photos of several people she’d lost to gun violence, recalls McBath.

“She probably has more courage than any activist I’ve ever had the pleasure to know,” McBath says of Williams. “She’s in the trenches, she’s talking to people in the streets, she’s talking to the people in a lot of communities where a lot of activists don’t want to go. They’re too afraid. But she says all the time, ‘This is my community, they’re my people, and who else is going to advocate for them if I don’t?'”

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