By Matt Martinez Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service Published May 30, 2021 at 11:01 AM

The first time Reggie Moore was held up at gunpoint, he was just one block away from a place where every child should feel safe: his grandmother’s house in Chicago.

He had nothing to give the two robbers.  

“His friend literally had to talk his other friend out of shooting me,” Moore said. “Seeing that desperation in someone’s eyes, willing to kill a 12-year-old. I’ve seen that level of pain early.” 

For some, it would have been an experience to try to forget. But for Moore, it’s a memory that informs the work he does on a daily basis.

“It’s not the people that are broken; it’s the conditions that are broken,” Moore said.  

Moore headed Milwaukee’s Office of Violence Prevention for five years before moving earlier this month to his new role at the Medical College of Wisconsin, where he is the director of violence prevention policy and engagement for the Comprehensive Injury Center.  

During Moore’s tenure in the Milwaukee Health Department, the Office of Violence Prevention expanded from two staff members to nine and its budget grew from $500,000 to $2.1 million. He also facilitated the development of Milwaukee’s first community-driven comprehensive violence prevention plan, known as the Blueprint for Peace, while expanding trauma services for youth and families exposed to violence, in partnership with Milwaukee County. He also launched 414 LIFE, a community-based violence interruption approach to reduce gun violence in partnership with local hospitals and nonprofit agencies.

For Moore, 44, his new role is just another step in what has become a lifelong journey. 

Reggie Moore
Moore addresses a crowd during a Mothers Against Gun Violence rally in 2019. During his tenure at the Office of Violence Prevention, the office went from having two staff members to nine and its budget grew from $500,000 to $2.1 million.

An early calling

Moore’s parents moved to Milwaukee from the Woodlawn neighborhood in Chicago shortly before he was born. 

Growing up, his mother instilled a sense of community in him. Along with his father and brother, Moore said their apartment became a popular stop. His mother, who worked in child care and human services, opened their home to those who needed food, shelter or safety. 

He remembers being so close with his neighbors that he could walk into someone’s apartment and grab a soda from the fridge. 

He also recalls when things changed: in the mid-1980s. The crack epidemic.

“When you create a market of immediate resources based on addiction among a population that was already struggling, deprived and locked out of opportunity … it should not be a surprise to any policymaker on the planet that that would drive people to survive even at the expense of each other. And that’s what the crack cocaine epidemic did,” Moore said.

But even in those desperate times, there was good to be found. Moore didn’t even have to leave home to find it. His family’s home in the Waico Apartments near Lapham Park and Hillside became a safe haven for friends and neighbors, a result of his mother’s faith in action.

“Although my mother prayed on her knees, she prayed a lot louder with her feet,” Moore said.

As he matured, Moore began asking questions about the world around him. He wondered why his community looked and felt the way it did, why some schools had more resources than others, why he was treated differently because he was Black.  

“The main question was: ‘Who allowed this to happen?’ Moore said. “Who’s benefitting from it staying this way? And then, what can we do to fight back?”   

These thoughts eventually led him to ask a simple question: What can I do to help?   

Investing in youth

Moore’s commitment to young people originally began when he was 16. He was hired by the North Central YMCA to teach art classes for kids. 

This led him to pursue a career in teaching in 1995 at Cardinal Stritch University. But an opportunity to organize youth outside the classroom ultimately set him on his path. 

He credits Paul Schmitz, then the national chief executive officer of Public Allies and the founder of Public Allies Milwaukee, with introducing him to national movements for youth advocacy, organizing and engagement in 1996. As Moore put it, Schmitz saw something in him at 19 years old that he couldn’t quite see in himself.

Schmitz met both Moore and his future wife, Sharlen, just after they had won an award for community service. He describes both of them as champions for violence prevention. 

“They have devoted themselves to a calling and are willing to do anything to meet it,” Schmitz said.

A few years later, Moore founded Urban Underground with Sharlen, who still serves as executive director of the youth organization that helps to develop young leaders in the city.

Schmitz said when Urban Underground was formed, the demand for an engagement group among young people was huge. At the time, Reggie and Sharlen engaged participants regardless of budget. They made sacrifices to launch and sustain the work, he said.

Schmitz also described Moore as a mentor, saying the results speak for themselves: State Rep. David Bowen and Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley are both Urban Underground alums, among many other community leaders.

Dr. Howard Fuller, a lifelong public servant and civil rights activist who served as the superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools, said Moore helped teach him what youth development really meant.

Moore went the extra mile to make sure “voices were heard, and ideas were acted upon,” Fuller said.

“People like to talk about young people, but they don’t like to talk to young people,” Fuller said. “They like to talk about what young people need, but they don’t like young people to tell them what they need.”

Moore’s time working in youth development would go on to inform his violence prevention efforts. He stressed the importance of forging meaningful relationships with the next generation as a way of improving their lives.

“I feel like young people are dying from a lack of connection far sooner than they’re dying from any other form of violence,” Moore said.

Moore said that a community’s fear of young people and insistence that they are “to be seen, not heard” contribute to youth feeling disaffected and often making bad choices.

“Every kid deserves to grow up in a world where they’re valued because they’re here,” Moore said. “If we live in a world where we value kids, we’ll live in a world where we value life.” 

The road to the Office of Violence Prevention

After serving as executive director at Urban Underground until 2007, Moore spent four years working at the American Legacy Initiative, an anti-tobacco nonprofit that would go on to become the Truth Initiative.

Moore would spend time in Washington, D.C., but he mainly worked remotely for the American Legacy Initiative until 2012. 

Then he started the Center for Youth Engagement, returning him to his youth advocacy roots. Moore would go on to help establish the National Youth Alliance for Boys and Men of Color and serve as national facilitator for the My Brother’s Keeper Youth Roundtable.

He also helped develop Beyond the Bell, an effort to improve quality and access to after-school programs in Milwaukee.

An opening to head the city’s Office of Violence Prevention presented itself in 2016, and Moore was hesitant to take it. The mayor’s office approached Moore about the job, following the retirement of the previous director and a year where homicides had risen by 70 percent.

Working in city government was “never on my bucket list,” Moore said. It took an outpour of encouragement from members of the community to convince him to take the job. 

Using his organizing roots, Moore built a team sourced from the community. He expanded the office’s staff from two people in 2016 to nine in 2021. He effectively tripled the budget for the department in those five years. He developed the Blueprint for Peace, a community-led document that has become highly regarded across the country. 

Former Health Commissioner Dr. Jeanette Kowalik, who oversaw some of Moore’s work at the department, said he inherited limited resources and worked to create an infrastructure for the office to grow and thrive.

“Reggie hustled to get funding where it needed to be,” Kowalik said. 

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said Moore helped motivate people to join the city’s anti-violence efforts.

“Anybody who’s watched him in action knows that he’s truly committed, that he cares and that he poured his heart and soul into the work that he’s in,” Barrett said.

On Thursday, May 20, Barrett announced that Arnitta Holliman would serve as the new director of the Office of Violence Prevention, or OVP. Holliman has worked in OVP as a program manager for the Resiliency in Communities After Stress and Trauma effort, a federally funded program that seeks to address the needs of high-risk young people and their families.

Serving the city

During his tenure with the city, Moore made it a point to hire people from the community with lived experience to be advocates in neighborhoods that were hurting. 

“As an organizer, I understood the vast moat that often existed between community and government, and it shouldn’t be that way,” Moore said. 

Among Moore’s biggest contributions, however, was his presence.

“My commitment was: I will be responsive, good news or bad,” Moore said. “Not only because that’s what leadership requires, but because that’s what our community needs. I think the lack of that contributes to a level of hopelessness that’s more deadly than a bullet.”

Among his most memorable experiences with the health department occurred during the unrest in Sherman Park. Moore said many viewed the fatal police shooting of Sylville Smith in 2016 as an isolated incident that sparked the ensuing events. Those on the ground knew better.

“This was cumulative rage and pain,” Moore said.

And the shooting was the final straw.

Police suspected Smith, 23, was involved in a drug transaction near Auer Avenue and officers chased him. Smith fled with a firearm and fell at a fence and dropped the gun. When he turned to toss the gun over a fence, officers opened fire.  

Four months into the job, Moore found himself standing between protestors and riot gear-clad police officers trying to keep a tough situation under control. As tensions escalated and the police regrouped, Moore found that, for a moment, the only city officials at the scene were from the Office of Violence Prevention. 

The experience clung to him, partly because of the lack of empathy he saw for Smith and his family. 

“These people would trade millions of dollars for their loved ones to still be alive,” Moore said. “There are people with so little humanity that even in our death, there is no honor. There is no compassion.”

In seeing the community band together to memorialize Smith, Moore said he wanted to witness more “love in action” in the community. Something that could be seen every day, not just a result of a tragedy. 

“Oftentimes in our community, we come together for funerals and we show love in crisis, and it pales in comparison to the love that’s missing every day and the compassion that’s lacking every day,” Moore said.

Reggie Moore
Moore began his new role with the Medical College of Wisconsin earlier this month.

When it comes to funerals, Moore has seen more than he cares to recall. So have those who served with him. It can be a hard load to carry. 

Moore recalled a case where one of the 414 LIFE staff, a “fearless individual” who had spent time in prison and committed his own acts of violence, returned to the office in shock.

A young man had been murdered at his grandmother’s house. She found the body. And the 414 LIFE staffer who never seemed to be afraid of anything began to cry.

Moore’s eyes began to glisten as he recalled the story.

“I don’t think men cry enough,” Moore said.

Moore has had to console countless families of children taken too soon by gun violence. Without fail, tears well up in his eyes every time he speaks about them.

“I think it’s difficult to appreciate the level of pressure, stress, pain, particularly if you are truly a public servant … truly for the service of the people,” Moore said.

The work goes on

On a recent Friday, Moore sits in an office that hasn’t been fully unpacked.

The Comprehensive Injury Center, Moore said, is going to be working on collecting data on gun violence and assaults from hospital systems around the area to get an accurate measure for where and why these things happen in the city. 

Leaders at the center, which has been around since 1998, want to stop hospital visits from gun violence before they happen by addressing root causes. 

In many ways, Moore will be continuing the work he started with the city.

The new position also gives Moore freedom to advocate for changes outside of the confines of city politics. Moore said he expects the work will allow him to focus on advocating for a public health approach to violence prevention at the state level.

“I have tried to dedicate my life to helping other people find and pursue their purpose and to leave this world better than I found it,” Moore said. “My motivation is not about position or title. It has always been about service.”