Camiella Williams bought her first gun in the fifth grade. She mourned her first dead friend in high school. Now, she is fighting to save other Chicago kids, however long the odds.
The first time I meet Camiella Williams, she pulls out her smartphone and calls up a Facebook album she created called “Lost but not forgotten.” It’s filled with pictures of mostly young African-American men, and serves as a kind of memorial wall to some of the people she’s known who’ve been gunned down on the streets of Chicago. “Martece,” she says, pausing at a photo of a young man in a neon green shirt and a baseball cap. “He got killed on 81st and Ashland, in the dollar store.” The caption on the photo notes that Martece’s little sister was killed 6 months later, in 2008. Williams, 28, has lost 23 close friends and relatives to gun violence in the past 12 years.
We’re sitting on a bright orange couch in the student union of Governor’s State University, a small state school in a suburb just south of Chicago. It’s November, and students rushing by on their way to final exams stop to say hello. Williams has a round face and a gap-toothed smile, and her rectangular eyeglasses lend her an air of studiousness. She’s set to complete her bachelor’s degree in criminology the following week, then begin a master’s program in January.
William’s interest in criminology springs from a childhood spent in poor areas of Chicago’s South Side — Englewood, Auburn Gresham, Chicago Lawn — where gun violence is common. In the last five years alone these neighborhoods have collectively seen more than 2,000 shootings, according to the Chicago Police Department.
Scrolling through her Facebook album, Williams points to a photo of a grinning teenage boy with short dreadlocks. “This is my friend Johnathan,” she says, a weariness in her voice. “He was killed at a nightclub in 2008. He was shot in the head by the security guard.”
Another photo, another young man, this one singing into a studio microphone. “Tony was like my big brother. He was an artist.” Tony was shot in the face outside an apartment complex in 2008 and died at the hospital a few hours later.
More faces float by: A middle-aged man. A few adolescent girls. A young man named Deonte, fatally shot during a spate of shootings over July 4th weekend in 2009.
“Imagine,” Williams says. “They’re your friends on Facebook one minute, and then they’re gone the next.”
This story originally appeared on The Trace. Read the rest of Camiella's story.