Consider the lifespan of a gun. Created in a factory, then used for good or for evil. But what becomes of a gun after it is no longer used? An Oakland non-profit has the solution. Lead to Life transforms guns into shovels used to plant trees in areas impacted by violence.
Brontë Velez and Kyle Lemle, the founders of Lead to Life, hope to unite restorative and environmental justice, restore ecological foundations of sacred places, and facilitate respect within communities.
Lead to Life’s founders have been personally affected by gun violence. In 2014, Velez lost a loved one. The person charged with the murder was just 14-years-old. Liz Kennedy, communications director at Lead to Life, summarized the impact of this tragic event: “Brontë was grieving the loss of two lives: the loss of her close friend, and also the loss of another life, a young child in prison.” This experience was a primary source of inspiration for Velez to become involved in gun violence prevention. Kennedy describes Lead to Life’s mission as, “a way to turn weapons of violence into life-affirming tools.”
The process of turning a weapon into a shovel begins with collecting guns. The guns are donated by the general public, community organizations, or police departments. Next, blacksmiths melt them down and turn them into shovels. Lead to Life works with 10 metal artists on the fabrication process. The phrase, “As we decompose violence, may the earth once again be free,” is written on every shovel. Then people use the shovels during ceremonial tree plantings, which offer a “physically regenerative space for communities to memorialize loved ones, and lands, lost to violence,” according to the organization’s website.
Currently, Oakland is one of only two places where Lead to Life has held events. Three of four core team members hail from Oakland, and the city’s history was an essential part of the decision to hold events there. “Lead to Life is working at the intersection of environmental violence and state violence, and both of those things are very prevalent in Oakland,” Kennedy said. “But it’s also a place of really inspiring activism against these issues, so we really wanted to build on that legacy of the Black Panthers, the indigenous activists, and honor their work.”
On January 21, Lead to Life held a “Guns-to-Shovels” ceremony at Oscar Grant Plaza. The event, held to honor Oscar Grant and other young people in the Bay Area brutalized by police, was attended by environmentalists and family members of children lost to gun violence. The most tangible effects of Lead to Life include creating a safe space for grieving and helping to make the air cleaner by challenging deforestation.
In April, Lead to Life will host a series of tree plantings in the Bay Area. Volunteers are crucial for the group and the team wants to work with more youth. “Our youth are the ones who are inheriting this climate crisis, this environmental racism that is hurting our communities, but young people are also inheriting the confidence to create solutions,” Kennedy said.