2013 will no doubt be remembered in part for the nationwide discussion of the issue of gun violence, including the school shooting in Newtown, the legislative hearings in Congress and state capitols, and the trial of George Zimmerman. Nina Vinik (BA, Honors Economics, 1983), the Program Director for the Gun Violence Prevention Program at the Joyce Foundation in Chicago, made an important contribution to this discussion with her article, “What if George Zimmerman had not had a gun?” published in the Chicago Sun-Times on July 14, 2013.  

“At the Joyce Foundation we have long had a focus on gun violence prevention, making  grants to support research, public education and coalitions to strengthen our public policies to reduce gun deaths and injuries. Gun violence takes many forms, including mass shootings like Aurora or Newtown, urban gun violence, and the tragic shooting of Trayvon Martin in Florida,” said Vinik. “The death of Trayvon Martin was an example of how our lax gun laws sometimes have deadly consequences. I thought that was an important point to make in the public debate surrounding the trial of George Zimmerman.”

How did someone who majored in Economics, writing her thesis on the economic viability of reverse annuity mortgages as a way for elderly people to remain in their houses, come to be the director of a gun violence prevention program? It’s not as far a leap as one might think. “Economics was a discipline that helped me learn to think analytically. It’s what I most enjoyed about the major and what led me to law school,” reflected Vinik. “Writing a thesis allowed me to focus on an issue that combined economics and social policy and use all of those analytical skills.”

Vinik was also involved in Project Community as an undergraduate. “The [project] I chose was working for the Center for Forensic Psychiatry, a locked facility for the criminally insane. Working there gave me a window into the criminal justice system,” Vinik explained. “It was such a good experience that I went on to be a student leader, and even recruited a bunch of friends to participate. They still joke about me driving the UM van out to Ypsilanti!” Joking aside, it was her Honors thesis and her experience with Project Community that influenced her path after her years at Michigan. “The analytical approach through Honors Econ and the community service project were formative and shaped the direction I ultimately took.”

After law school at the University of Chicago, Vinik was in private practice for a short time at Jenner & Block in Chicago, where she focused on litigation.  After that she went into the non-profit sector. Vinik was the Legal Director of the ACLU of Florida, litigating civil rights and civil liberties cases. From there, she returned to her hometown of Chicago and was Director of the Fair Housing Project at the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.  Vinik represented plaintiffs in cases involving housing discrimination, mortgage lending discrimination, and mortgage fraud when she noticed how much gun violence impacted the areas of Chicago where her clients lived. Vinik read the news every day, noticing that shootings were happening in the same neighborhoods time and time again and she thought, “What good does it do to keep my clients in their homes if they’re afraid to sit on the front porch or have their kids walk to school because of stray gunfire?” So, she transitioned to the issue of gun violence prevention with a focus on public policy reform. “Litigation is one way to make social change. Public policy is another important tool,” Vinik shared. Colleagues with the California-based organization Legal Community Against Violence (LCAV), now called the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, were looking to expand to Illinois. Vinik eventually served as the Legal Director before joining the Joyce Foundation.

At the Joyce Foundation, Vinik is responsible for the Gun Violence Prevention program, which makes grants to support evidence-based policies and practices that can reduce gun deaths and injuries. “Day to day, I evaluate proposals, keep abreast of the latest developments in research and policy, and work with grantees and other coalition partners, including law enforcement, survivors of gun violence, policy makers and advocates,” Vinik detailed. It can be difficult, but it’s where her passions lie. “Gun violence prevention is far and away the most challenging issue I’ve ever worked on, and I’ve worked on a lot of challenging issues. But it’s really important to me to make progress where we can.” Vinik’s advice to current undergraduates is to work toward finding that passion. “Pick something outside of your comfort zone,” advised Vinik. “That’s what the Michigan experience was for me. UM is a place where you can figure out where your passions are. The opportunities are unlimited.”