Text and images by Natalie Kerr.
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There’s a neighborhood in West Philadelphia called “The Black Bottom.”
It’s the lower end of West Philadelphia, hence the name, from 33rd Street and 40th to Lancaster Avenue and Curie Boulevard. The population has historically been predominantly Black, though gentrification has now largely forced out Black residents.
The area that remains is a tough place to live. Cement and asphalt choke out trees, and McDonalds and liquor stores vastly outpace supermarkets and parks. To Paul T. Jackson, it’s a “raging ghetto.” But it’s also his childhood home.
Youth programs like writing and poetry workshops, recreation centers and after school programs where Jackson spent time with peers and trusted adults shaped his life dramatically, pulling him towards his creativity and talent for mentoring, and away from destructive paths like drugs or street gangs.
Now he works at Frontline Dads, a program on Broad Street near Dauphin that serves youth living in difficult circumstances. They nurture children’s passions in a safe and supportive environment.
“We got two choices in society,” Jackson said. “We can continue to support and build organizations like this, or we can allow the decay to happen and everybody who suffers as youth are traumatized. What happens when they grow to become young men, young women, and they tear out other people or at least become reserved?”
Youth programs are pivotal intervention points for children who are vulnerable to cycles of violence and crime. But these organizations struggle to make headway against the systemic poverty and racism plaguing communities and are stymied by the lack of coordination with other local programs.
But, organizers are adamant that nothing is impossible. The kids they work with are smart, driven, creative and resilient, and when given spaces that accommodate them, they flourish.
Life for kids in Philadelphia
In the early 2000s, Barbara Ferman, a political science professor at Temple University, started the University Community Collaborative to use Temple’s research to benefit the surrounding community.
Ferman wants to make sure that young people, especially those of color, are heard. So she called the first program “VOICES”, and gave youth tools to become outspoken advocates for issues affecting them and their communities.
“We cannot listen to young people, because they’re young, and especially Black and brown, because we have all these stereotypes about their abilities,” Ferman said. “They want their voice to be heard. Throughout all of our programs, we provide a space for them to speak, and not just token speaking, because we do listen to them.”
Phoenix Glover, a sophomore at The Workshop School in West Philadelphia and a participant in POPPYN, a UCC program teaching high school students media skills, is struggling to adapt to sudden changes at her school.
Each morning students walk through metal detectors manned by security guards and have their phones confiscated until the end of the day, Glover said. The change is a response to students bringing weapons to school, but the new rules make Glover feel less safe, because without her phone she can’t contact help or her parents in an emergency.
Glover’s frustrated that no one consulted or warned the students before making changes, which are time consuming and intense.
“They didn’t tell us that this was happening,” Glover said. “They sent an email a day before, knowing that the students don’t really check their emails as much.”
Schools are important social welfare agencies; they provide space for voting, celebrations, medical care and feeding children healthy meals, said Jonathan Zimmerman, a history of education professor at the University of Pennsylvania.
But school has changed dramatically as buildings evolved from one-room school houses, to looking factory-esque, to now resembling hospitals, Zimmerman said. Schools are also now fulfilling more roles without necessarily seeing increased resources.
“We’re asking them to do everything from, attend to people’s health and their diet, to teach them about the evils of racism, and most of all, to prepare them for a workforce that’s changing radically,” Zimmerman said.
Programs like sex, drug and alcohol education and gun safety drills are meant to solve social ills, but other public institutions are better equipped to confront issues youth are facing, Zimmerman said.
This is especially true when children aren’t going to school regularly, because of work, insufficient transportation, caring for a sick relative or homelessness, Zimmerman added.
“School simply can’t do all the things we expect it to do,” Zimmerman said. “We think of it, many of us, as terrible, as inefficient, because we’ve overloaded the expectations.”
Children can also receive mental health care from school counselors, but for kids from trauma backgrounds, this likely is not adequate.
Trauma can stem from intense and sudden events, like a car crash, from living in communities affected by violence and poverty or inherited through previous generations enduring racism, said Lauren DellaCava, senior director of Complex Care Management for Community Behavioral Health at the Philadelphia Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services.
CBH works with the Philadelphia School District on evidence-based therapy, trauma-informed care and educating teachers and parents about child behavior and responses, DellaCava said.
“If you have a child who has self-regulation issues and they’re in a really chaotic classroom, it’s going to be really hard for them to regulate,” DellaCava said. “Best practice is working with the caregivers as well so that child is set up for success.”
Kids can also experience traumatic events at school, with annual school shootings and active shooter drills becoming more frequent.
Since January, there have already been 616 mass shootings in the United States and more than 1500 kids aged 0-17 killed by guns, according to the Gun Violence Archive. Philadelphia has reported more than 2,000 gun violence victims in 2022, with young Black men as the most affected.
Ruth Abaya, attending physician at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and the program manager for the Philadelphia Department of Public Health’s Injury Prevention Program, has seen young patients with severe panic and anxiety after mass shootings at other schools.
“They know they’re living in a world where somewhere else, someone who looks like them and is their age got shot at school,” Abaya said. “How are they supposed to feel about going to school? How is their little mind supposed to process that?”
Gun violence is impacting after-school activities too.
Recent shootings affected Overbrook High School in West Philadelphia, with four students injured on Nov. 23 shortly after dismissal, and Roxborough High School on Sept. 27 when 4 students suffered injuries and a fifth was shot and killed after a football practice.
Naeemah Morton is in 11th grade at Carver High School on 16th Street and Norris, and goes to football games with her friends at schools like Bonner Prendergast High School in Upper Darby.
Several games ended early because of fights or claims that someone had a gun, Morton said. She’s pretty sure those claims were false, but didn’t stay to find out.
“This is how Philly is now, everyone’s on alert,” Morton said. “I just know, when I see one person run, I run too.”
Hope for the future
Many young participants don’t expect to live past the age of 25 because of the gun violence they witness on a regular basis, said Aaron Wells, executive director of North Philly Project, an organization supporting North Philadelphia youth and families.
“That is such a dire outlook when you’re 14, 15 years old,” Wells said. “When you start to ask questions, ‘What do you dream about? What are the things you want to succeed? What do you think is best for the community?’ they’ll tell you things like, ‘for older people to talk to us, to see us’.”
Kids living in underserved neighborhoods can feel like no one cares about them or their community, and will likely act in ways that reflect that outlook, Ferman said. Community investments in infrastructure and maintenance indicate to people that they have value.
For Jackson, growing up in a neighborhood where he constantly heard gunshots, lost loved ones to violence and witnessed violence and death taught him that community needs get ignored, even by those who are supposed to help, like the police.
It’s difficult for kids in those environments to trust people and accept support, so Frontline Dads workers are trained to understand psychological barriers and make kids feel part of a caring community, said Rob Lynch, a staff member and former participant at Frontline Dads. Part of that is reinforcing to youth that their lives have purpose, even if their past was difficult.
“Just because you get wrapped up in that nonsense or whatever you want to call it, it doesn’t mean that’s the end of your life because you made the wrong decision,” Lynch said.
Kamryn Contee, a volunteer at Frontline Dads, encourages kids to express their emotions through journaling, painting and one-on-one conversations, she said.
Having a feminine presence softens the toughness of male-dominated spaces and shows that it’s okay to be vulnerable, Contee added.
Young Black men are constantly told to hide their emotions and therefore struggle to respond healthily to challenging situations, said Tina Collins, the founder and director of the Show Me The Way Foundation, a fine arts and recreation youth organization.
“It’s okay to be angry, we all experience all those emotions,” Collins said. “But if you don’t know how to vocalize and determine and identify those emotions, then your first reaction of course is going to be spontaneous.”
Kids’ conflict resolution skills atrophied during the COVID-19 pandemic when they couldn’t go to school and learn interpersonal skills, said Aisha Winfield, program director at the Blues Babe Foundation, a nonprofit that shares a space with Frontline Dads to provide after-school and summer programming.
Kids who experience trauma often don’t highly value their own lives or their peers’ lives, and don’t understand why violence isn’t a legitimate way to resolve conflicts, Winfield said.
Adults need to be better listeners and role models for working through difficult situations and the emotions that accompany them, otherwise kids will never learn healthy conflict resolution, Collins said.
Positive role models expose children and teens to opportunities and reinforce that they are capable, said Lekeisha Eubanks-Evans, senior director of employment and workforce programs at the North Philadelphia department of Project HOME, an organization fighting poverty and homelessness.
Having role models who are also Black, indigenous or people of color helps children identify themselves with success, Eubanks-Evans said. People from nontraditional backgrounds, like those who didn’t attend college, went to trade school or got a job through a union, show students the options available to them.
“When you ask kids when they’re five or six years old, ‘what do you want to be?’ You hear like the same five answers, a nurse, a doctor, a lawyer…” Eubanks-Evans said. “These are the things that they know, they haven’t been exposed to anything else.”
Winfield holds professional and creative workshops for kids at the foundation so they can find their passions and learn to value their lives.
But often, the best thing people can do is to listen, Winfield said.
“Being a really good listener and giving them the space – whether it’s to ramble, talk about their dreams, their ideas, how their school day was, just being able to listen,” Winfield said. “As a parent, I know that you’re working and on the go a lot of times, so it takes a village, and it’s a community effort.”
A Sickness in the System
Programs at North Philly Project vary, from family health and nutrition, to STEM and reading comprehension, to youth mentorship. But in every need there’s a commonality: generational poverty.
“We see the issues, all categories, whether it’s education, whether it’s crime, social injustice, whether it’s criminal justice, health disparities, wherever it is, whatever it is, we saw as an underlying factor, generational poverty,” Wells said.
The U.S. Census recorded a decreased percentage of people in poverty in Philadelphia every year for the last decade.
But this statistic alone is misleading because in Philadelphia poverty is highly concentrated in neighborhoods that experience systemic disinvestment, said Caterina Roman, a criminal justice professor at Temple.
“You look at the whole city, we’re decreasing on poverty, but as soon as you go neighborhood by neighborhood, neighborhoods are getting more segregated and going into deeper poverty,” Roman said.
Less than 15 percent of the population living in Zip Codes 19128 and 19118 – the Roxborough and Chestnut Hill neighborhoods, respectively – lives under the poverty line, whereas the poverty rate can exceed 45 percent in 19121, the Zip Code encompassing part of Temple’s campus, according to Pew Charitable Trusts’ 2021 State of the City report.
Increasing financial stability, access to healthy food and quality education preempts violence by reducing the problems that people use violence to solve, Jackson said. Violence prevention often starts much later, with individuals affected by gun violence or exhibiting concerning behaviors, rather than supporting overall community development.
North Philly Project exposes people to new ideas and opportunities so that they aren’t drawn to violence in the first place, Wells said. If violence is all that is modeled to them, they will feel increased motivation to use a gun.
“Prevention for us doesn’t start with the gun, it starts with the motivation to pick up the gun,” Wells said. “What am I emulating, what am I seeing, what is being displayed to me? How can I show you something different than what you saw on the street corner, or what you heard in the basement or what you saw in the schoolyard?”
Helping people with basic needs, like buying food or diapers, ending harmful relationships and finding a safe place to stay, is a central focus at the city’s Office of Violence Prevention, said Executive Director Shondell Revell.
This earns OVP workers community trust, identifies fundamental community problems and reduces people’s likelihood of turning to violence or crime to make ends meet, Revell said.
“You can’t write policy if you don’t understand the situation or the problem,” Revell said. “You have to have that micro work, you have to have the boots on the ground, you have to have a day-to-day grind, you have to be able to go into a community and actually walk the street.”
There aren’t enough pathways to good paying jobs, Eubanks-Evans said. Kids are struggling to get quality education for college acceptance or to pass apprenticeship exams for unions and trade schools, or to earn more than the minimum wage.
Youth often start side hustles – legal and illegal – to supplement their income, Williams said. Their entrepreneurial skills are not being nurtured or directed towards positive outlets.
“Sometimes it’s out of necessity, sometimes it’s out of trends and following other people,” Williams said. “Nonetheless, if we can take that skill, that ingenuity, that drive, and put it in a positive place, hopefully it can benefit everybody.”
Approaches to crime must be holistic and focused on public health, which addresses factors leading to violence rather than focusing on crime and policing alone, Revell said.
It also means acknowledging the specific risk factors and opportunity structures at each stage of life, because the same intervention that worked for one individual won’t necessarily work for another, Roman said.
Violence prevention and exposure to paths besides violence needs to happen early in a person’s life, Roman said. Kids become disillusioned and frustrated, making them vulnerable to destructive decisions like joining a street gang to find belonging, protection and validation.
“We have to be thinking about preventing the younger children from getting to that point that they’ve already turned to these groups, because once they’re in them and hanging out with antisocial peers, the kids that are maybe more prone to violence or have used violence, it’s really tough to get kids out,” Roman said.
Someone’s motive can help identify effective violence interventions, but should be combined with addressing community-wide drivers leading people to crime, otherwise, cycles will be repeated, Abaya said.
Those systemic problems are in part why increased incarceration doesn’t necessarily reduce violence, Abaya added.
“There are absolutely circumstances where someone has done something extremely harmful to someone else, and there needs to be criminal justice responses to that,” Abaya said. “But we also need to recognize that others will come up in their place if the soil is the same.”
People don’t suddenly decide to commit crime, they are gradually integrated into a lifestyle of violence and are often victims before they are perpetrators, said Marla Davis Bellamy, director of Philadelphia CeaseFire, a public health violence intervention program based out of Temple’s Lewis Katz School of Medicine.
“Basically, we’re talking about the same population,” Davis Bellamy said. “It behooves us to not only look at the shooters, but also the victims, because typically they too are caught up in the lifestyle. But we don’t see it early on, we don’t respond early enough.”
Many perpetrators are contacted by systems meant to disrupt violence before they commit a crime, but systemic barriers can reduce efficacy, Abaya said.
Even if people are recruited to programs, they may not accept because of work restraints or distrust in the system, or if they do join, they may not complete the program or have proper support once they do, Abaya said.
“If we want to not be telling the same story about violence, 20 years from now, we have to do the hard work of discussing that we need to transform the environment,” Abaya said. “[That’s] like the hardest thing to do, right? But it’s the essential thing.”
Change narratives to change outcomes
Context about root causes and solutions for gun violence is critically absent from conversations about crime, especially in media, said Jessica Beard, associate professor of surgery at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine, trauma surgeon at Temple University Hospital and director of research for the Philadelphia Center for Gun Violence Reporting.
When people view reporting that paints a shooting as a single event, known as episodic crime reports, they are more likely to blame victims for violence, but when people view reporting that has context, they are more likely to blame social structures, Beard said.
Beard led a March 2022 study with 26 trauma unit patients to learn their perspectives towards how media covered their shooting and their attitude toward overall media coverage of gun violence. The survey, completed in conjunction with The Philadelphia Center for Gun Violence Reporting, Penn’s School of Nursing, Temple’s School of Medicine and Lehigh Journalism and Communications, found largely negative attitudes because of inadequate context provided about victims beyond the injuries they suffered.
“These episodic crime narratives can feel dehumanizing when you’re the victim of gun violence, we also found that none of those patients that we interviewed had ever been approached by a journalist for an interview,” Beard said.
Media coverage of subway crime has made Ameia Bess, a senior at Mastery Charter School Pickett Campus in Germantown and POPPYN participant, feel unsafe when she travels to Philadelphia Community College for dual enrollment classes. Especially as a woman, she travels quickly and doesn’t interact with other passengers.
“All the stories you hear on the news, I’ve never been affected by it personally, but when you hear about someone that was the same age as you, it kind of makes you think, ‘okay, that could have been me if I was there at this time’,” Bess said. “It puts me on edge.”
Stormy Kelsey, the POPPYN program coordinator, worries that the media uses fear mongering to increase ratings and focuses disproportionately on negative events, they said.
POPPYN was created in 2011 as a response to negative coverage of Black youth in Philadelphia and on national news networks that depicted them as violent criminals needing police intervention, Kelsey said.
“They said ‘you know what, that’s not representative of all of us, and where are the news cameras when we’re doing good things in our community?’” Kelsey said.
Though POPPYN covers serious issues like youth homelessness, it is still a positive outlet for youth to create authentic narratives about their experiences and the things they struggle with or are worried about, Kelsey said.
Changing media coverage and who controls narratives is central to making people feel safe, understood and celebrated, Wells said. This is a critical starting point to creating safer, happier and healthier communities.
“Can’t we show the beautiful street instead of always showing the street is torn down and with the holes and the trash on it?” Wells said. “Because that’s not the whole story. We begin to emphasize our strengths versus our deficits, it begins to change the atmosphere.”
Greater Than the Sum of Its Parts
When Collins first became block captain on 32nd Street and Newkirk, her neighbors weren’t happy. She was new to the neighborhood and hadn’t earned her stripes yet.
People were initially wary of her ideas, like starting a paid youth clean-up group called “Newkirk Junior Street Keepers” and organizing block parties with music, waterslides and DJs. But her persistence paid off.
“People started talking to each other, we started interacting,” Collins said. “It literally has been transformed into a village.”
Everyday Collins feels the impact of what cooperation can do, and she knows that if block captains combined forces in the same way, they could make a huge difference in their community.
Collins feels limited by the geographical boundaries of her block and disappointed that block captains don’t communicate. She is creating a virtual meeting schedule for block captains to discuss residents’ needs and their projects to unify and support each other, she said.
This is a problem affecting organizations at every level in Philadelphia. Violence prevention work is institutionally siloed into departments and individual organizations, making it difficult to connect people to appropriate resources and creating a sense of competition for funding.
When leaders at Project HOME connect with other organizations, they sometimes feel a sense of mistrust from fears that if other programs share their ideas, Project HOME will receive the funding they need or lure participants away, Eubanks-Evans said.
But Project HOME can’t provide every resource a person needs, so networking with other local organizations is vital for families to access the right services, Eubanks-Evans said.
“We just need to do a lot more of trusting our partners in this area and this community of resources and utilizing each other in that way,” Eubanks-Evans added. “There is this huge mistrust. Everybody’s going for the same funding and just afraid that somebody’s gonna steal their funding or steal their students.”
This problem is exacerbated by the fact that funding for violence prevention and community programs tends to come all at once after high-profile events, like a mass shooting, then peters off as focus shifts elsewhere, Winfield said.
A comprehensive network of Philadelphia organizations that both leaders and participants can access would streamline communication, increase support and reduce how overworked people are, Eubanks-Evans said.
A unified resource network would also increase recognition of trauma or concerning behaviors early enough to be addressed before a person becomes involved in violence, DellaCava said. People usually need multiple resources to fully address the problems they are facing, and relegating them to only one resource will be inadequate.
“We cannot provide behavioral health services and then all of a sudden, that means that this person has sustainable employment and this person is reunited with their child and this person has the appropriate education,” DellaCava said. “All of those things require the services systems to work together.”
Even schools are impacted. There are 13,000 local school districts in the U.S., creating massive inequalities in people’s access to high-quality education, Zimmerman said.
Ultimately, the people most harmed by this disconnect between resources are those in need, Davis Bellamy said.
“I firmly believe that we could probably save more lives, we could do things that would really impact change in terms of the city, if in fact, we work closely together and with one another,” Davis Bellamy said.
CeaseFire began remediating this issue in 2020 by starting a collaboration-based public health service called “The Philly Hub” to bring coordinated care from city agencies and social service organizations to people in crisis, according to a brief.
About 70 organizations, like schools, mental health counselors, substance abuse treatment centers and housing programs, meet every week to assess specific cases and determine the best interventions for each person or family, Davis Bellamy said. It ensures that support is holistic and targeted, and that people aren’t being left behind by the system.
“We’ve developed friendships and all of this out of this experience,” Davis Bellamy said. “I know now without a shadow of a doubt that this aid can be done. People can work together, it just makes life a lot easier, quicker, faster.”
Evans-Eubanks has learned to let things that are out of her control go.
Though the school system and the government complicate their work, beyond being advocates, they can’t change those systems. What they can do is use the strengths and resources they do have to help as many people as possible, Eubanks-Evans said.
“You just can’t focus on that way, it makes you feel defeated, and makes you feel like there’s nothing you can do to affect change, and that just is not true,” Eubanks-Evans said.
Kids can feel similarly when they struggle consistently in school or aren’t achieving goals as easily as peers with more support, Eubanks-Evans said. They need someone to validate their abilities and celebrate their successes, know that they are active participants in creating their program plan and that program leaders are fully committed to helping them achieve that plan.
This reduces the shame people feel asking for help and encourages open communication of their experiences and needs, Eubanks-evans said.
To Wells, it’s not about giving youth a voice, it’s about showing them they already have one. Kids have a lot to say, and when they aren’t heard, they may lash out to get the attention they need. But treating youth with respect and care empowers them to think about their future and the strengths that they have, Wells said.
This looks like giving them the information and opportunities they need to achieve their goals, which are often withheld from people of color, Wells added.
“We cannot wait for systems that have failed us to this point, as if next week they’re going to not fail us,” Wells said. “But if we could give information on not just where to go get help, where you can help, where you can plug in, that’s changing the mindset from deficit based to strength based. Everybody brings something to the table.”
Punitive systems fail to see people who are currently part of the problem as a way towards solutions, Revell said. Several people working at OVP used to be involved with crime but now spend time in their communities, where they have massive credibility, bringing others into the fold.
“You have to have individuals who are really indigenous to that community at the table, because they’re the ones that have the solution, they’re the ones that really understand what’s going on,” Revell said.
Especially in a city like Philadelphia where each neighborhood has a strong identity, approaches have to be tailored to those living there and what changes they want to see, Ferman said. Outreach workers need to resemble those communities – sending white people to tell Black and brown people how to live is offensive and ineffective.
Even in small ways, people can’t be presumptuous about the support other people need, Winfield added. She’ll leave out books or games for kids at the foundation, and instead they will draw with chalk for hours.
“As much as you try to plan and try to think about what they need, their creativity is incredible, and they can do more with some of the small things that we figure are kind of insignificant,” Winfield said.
Kelsey is grateful for the students who come to POPPYN twice a week, often traveling long distances after full days at school, they said. Their dedication reaffirms the need for spaces where youth can be vulnerable and share their stories.
There aren’t enough institutions that value and respect youth voices and recognize their ability to strengthen communities, Kelsey said. Taking a step back and letting young people show what they’re capable of is an important part of the culture at youth programs.
“Having that vulnerability and humility and knowing when you can say that you’re wrong or that you don’t know, you don’t have to always be the all-knowing person in the room, that shows a respect for young people,” Kelsey said. “It’s your story to tell and like letting them have ownership over their story – I think that’s pretty unique to youth programming specifically.”
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