By Casey Murray | OBSERVER Staff Writer

Les Simmons, senior pastor at the South Sacramento Christian Center and director of the Simmons Center, joined President Joe Biden this week to sign the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act at the White House.

Two local violence prevention leaders joined President Joe Biden on Monday to sign the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, which seeks to strengthen certain gun laws and expand mental health resources for those impacted by gun violence.

Les Simmons, senior pastor at the South Sacramento Christian Center and director of the Simmons Center, and Julius Thibodeaux-Hasan, director of Movement 4 Life, were invited to attend the signing of the bill, which Congress passed last month.

“It was some of the biggest changes over the last 30 years around gun control,” Simmons said. “To represent our community in that space, with the hopes of both celebrating, which we did, but also securing resources from the Safe Communities Act to be really targeted towards community-led violence and interruption work here in Sacramento, it felt great. It was an honor.”

Simmons and Thibodeaux both partner with the Sierra Health Foundation, which helps distribute funding and support organizations in Northern California to reduce violence and promote racial equity in health.

The foundation said in a release that the two were invited in “recognition of their leadership and success in creating safe and healthy youth activities and alternatives to gun violence.”

“Their leadership in Sacramento gives our neighborhoods and community members the support, hope and connection they need to build community power and face complex issues like gun violence,” Chet P. Hewitt, president and CEO of Sierra Health Foundation and The Center, said in the release. “South Sacramento Christian Center and Movement 4 Life are incredible examples of why we prioritize funding and partnering with community-led organizations with the trust and established relationships to really make a difference.”

Simmons said that the bill is a victory, and one that took years of work to accomplish, but that it’s far from a complete solution. 

“I think this is a start. It’s not the ending,” he said. “We don’t stop here. We grow from here.”

While the bill may represent a valuable opportunity to fund local violence prevention, it also underscores the changing priorities of Sacramento’s city government amidst recent violence. 

 “After the downtown shooting, which left multiple people dead and wounded, the City of Sacramento changed directions from supporting community-led violence reduction strategies and youth pop-ups, which is a move in the wrong direction,” Simmons said in the release. “I’m hopeful that the Safe Communities Act is a sign that precious resources for community mental health, crisis intervention workers and violence interrupters are on the way to save lives.”

Before the pandemic, Sacramento had gone more than two years without any youth homicides, but that changed after the pandemic. Now, the city seems to be shifting funding away from violence prevention efforts. 1`

The city’s most recently posted proposed budget, since approved, allocated a significant funding boost of more than $14 million to the police department while the Office of Violence Prevention lost about $4,000.

“I think it’s about time we learn from our mistakes, and we move on from here unify together,” Simmons said. “I would encourage our city leaders to really think about that. I would encourage them to really dig deep into say ‘how can we partner and be better partners?’”

EDITOR’S NOTE: Casey Murray is a Report For America Corp Member and a Data Reporter for The Sacramento Observer.