NEW ORLEANS -- July 4, 2012, was Independence Day as usual for New Orleans native Chanda Burks. As she'd done almost without exception in recent years, Burks and her three sons, Jared, 17, Vaughn, 11, and Cameron, 7, left their quiet New Orleans neighborhood, Tall Timbers, and headed to the bustling Ernest N. Morial Convention Center downtown. The family would spend the holiday weekend engaging in three days of seminars, interactive workshops and shopping brought to town by the Essence Music Festival.
This year, Burks went to the same venue, but with a different purpose: To grieve with other moms and plead with the public to put an end to the violence that took the life of her 17-year-old son.
"This year is the first year that Jared would have been going to the concerts with me," Burks told The Huffington Post. Her son was shot and killed during an encounter in the early morning hours of Sept. 15, 2012, she said.
Sunday, Burks joined New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, the Rev. Al Sharpton and hundreds of other festival attendees, including other mothers who have lost children to gun violence, for a prayer vigil entitled "Love, Loss and Life."
Essence Acting Managing Editor Vanessa K. Bush described the vigil as an extension of the magazine's "Guns Down" series, a print and social media initiative aimed at leading conversations on how to stop violence plaguing America's cities. The event also served as a celebration of the lives of those lost to gun violence in New Orleans, she said.
On hand to pay tribute were gospel artist Lexi and New Orleans pastor Debra Morton. A local brass band led a procession of mothers into the Essence Empowerment Experience's main stage to the tune of "I'll Fly Away."
For Burks, the vigil also served as an extension of her own efforts to curb the cycle of violence she's seen plague New Orleans for years.
Burks said she moved to Tall Timbers because in her former neighborhood, "there was a lot going on, and I just didn’t want to have to deal with shootings." Her new neighborhood knew nothing of violent crime, she added.
"We had our own security within our subdivision, our security team drives around on a regular basis ... we have a monthly newsletter that comes out to let you know if there’s been any vandalism or burglaries. I really kind of took it for granted ... that where we lived, we were safe and there was nothing to worry about."
Burks said her story serves as evidence that violence isn't about any one particular state, but rather a state of mind.
"I work with young kids, and a lot of the young men are getting groups together and forming their own kind of brotherhoods -- but they’re doing it in the wrong manner. They’re doing it because they’re not getting what they need from their family," she said. "That’s a big part of what’s going on. We have so many young parents who are partially raising their kids, and these kids are trying to find love and cohesiveness other places. Until our community gets together and realizes that until we take ownership within our families, we’re going to have a problem."
New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu told HuffPost he believes that the problem doesn't rest squarely on the issue of guns. "The fact is there are millions of people who own guns that are not killing young men in our cities. The same is true of those without jobs and dealing with poverty," Landrieu wrote in an email. "The conversation is not about gun violence, but instead about the culture of violence that persists in our communities."
As part of his NOLA FOR LIFE anti-violence strategy, Landrieu's administration has reportedly doubled the number of summer jobs for youth in the city, created job training and placement services through partnerships with local businesses and universities, and instituted programs like a "midnight basketball" league to help keep young men off of the street.
"So many times when we're talking about gun policy, it can get very mired down in the politics and the policy part of it," Bush said of why Essence planned the vigil for Sunday. "What you don't really get to see is the human impact that violence is having, the very real and raw impact of that."
Watch more of Burks' story in the video above, and scroll through images from "Love, Loss and Life" in the slideshow below.