Text by Brooke Beyer with reporting from Haajrah Gilani. Images by Natalie Kerr. Video by Haajrah Gilani, Natalie Kerr and Brooke Beyer.
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The week 21-year-old Temple University student Sam Collington was shot and killed on Park Avenue in 2021, the Philadelphia Police Department recorded 42 shootings affecting 39 victims.
By the end of 2021, the department had recorded nearly 4,200 shootings.
Collington’s death, just blocks away from campus, was widely reported and covered by news outlets from the Temple News to People Magazine. Temple University leadership offered their condolences. In a school-wide email, Temple president Jason Wingard promised to “bring the full force of our academic and policy expertise to bear on this problem.”
Since then, Temple University Police have issued 35 warnings to students of shootings around Temple’s campus.
Temple University has taken steps to address student safety. Primarily, changes have been directed inwards – increasing the number of patrolling security and Temple police officers, upgrading lighting and cameras, and encouraging students to use Temple’s shuttle service and Walking Escort Program.
These internal measures seek to protect Temple students from crime as it happens. They aim to insulate students from the surrounding communities.
But Temple does not exist in a vacuum. About 34% of the community surrounding Temple University lives below the poverty line and around 58% of the homes are family-occupied. Around 54% of households have an income of less than $20,000 per year.
Still reeling from Collington’s death a year later, with crime still a present threat, President Wingard established a Task Force on Violence Reduction Strategies, “which will be used to keep key constituents, including parents and North Philadelphia residents, engaged in enhancing safety,” according to the school’s proposed 2022-23 budget.
The school also requested $5 million in appropriations from the state of Pennsylvania for community improvement efforts and partnered with former Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey to audit the school’s security measures.
Relying on law enforcement efforts, as Temple has done in the short term, can only do so much. Former Deputy Commissioner of the Philadelphia Police Department Joe Sullivan recognizes this. He says that law enforcement programs aimed at crime prevention, particularly for the youth, are underfunded.
“Things like cognitive behavioral therapy are evidence-based and shown to be effective,” Sullivan said. “Folks are traumatized like we can’t imagine. We need some level of deterrence.”
This is where organizations like Penrose Recreation Center on 12th St. at Susquehanna Ave. step in. They offer services like trauma therapy for children in the North Philadelphia area to teach them to understand, recognize, and cope with trauma.
Like Penrose, North10 Philadelphia also provides a safe and encouraging environment for children in the Hunting Park area.
Located in the Lenfest Center on N. 10th St., North10 holds its flagship Out-of-School Time program for children in kindergarten through 12th grade.
“Organizationally, we continue to focus on kids. We have to focus on kids or it won’t have the long-term impact we want to have,” Chief Program Officer Christopher Gale said.
Gale and Director of Children and Youth Programs Denise Matza designed North10’s positive youth development model for child growth not only to educate children but to offer a place where children can express themselves.
“If there’s nowhere else in the neighborhood where they’re just allowed to be a kid, we want this to be that place,” Gale said.
The organization’s goal is to teach children, to find their interests, and cultivate them. They do so in a way that engages them and keeps them coming back. While things like school homework and reading are important parts of children’s day-to-day at North10, academics are not the only skills the organization encourages.
To serve all of the youths, they offer a variety of programming and activities. Youths are exposed to things like chess, art forms, nutrition education, and writing. It allows the children to explore what they enjoy and discover their individual talents. It is about setting up children for the future.
“Every single thing we do, we’re teaching them something. But it was fun and they had no idea they were learning,” Matza said.
According to Gale and Matza, the youths love their time at North10. While programming changes, the children are provided with the stability they may not receive otherwise. They come in every weekday right after school and stay for four hours.
“Our kids would show up seven days a week if we could,” Matza said. “Sometimes we’re chasing them out the door.”
But one of the most important stabilizing forces is the North10 staff.
“As soon as they come in, if they don’t see their counselor, they want to know ‘Is Ms. Harris not here today?’ They get very upset,” Matza said. “We tell them, ‘No she’s here, just not in the room yet; she’ll be right back!’ It’s great. That’s huge. That’s what they look for. They look for our staff to be there, so consistency is important.”
When asked what the community wants most from local organizations, Marla Davis Bellamy, Director of Philadelphia CeaseFire, said, “They want consistency.”
Recreation centers, too, strive for continued engagement. They offer supplemental education to local schools and a place where youths can truly live the experience of being a child, free from the pressures they find in their community.
“It’s a safe place. We create a family-oriented and safe atmosphere,” said Ana Brinson, coordinator of the literacy program at Penrose Recreation Center.
Gale echoed these sentiments.
“Frankly,” he said, “there’s plenty of research that shows that Black and Brown kids tend to have to grow up quicker than their white peers. In neighborhoods like ours, there aren’t a lot of spaces for kids to really just be kids. So, we’re changing that.”
Philadelphia CeaseFire, an organization working to reduce violence in the 22nd police district, has relied on these spaces to continue its own work. Their team, comprised of members of the community itself, looks for youths who frequent these recreation centers to work with.
The team has partnered with centers like Martin Luther King, Cecil B. Moore, and Lonnie Young recreation centers. They attend events like community basketball games to interact with the youths who attend.
“They’re offering activities we can get some of our young people engaged in,” Bellamy said. “The goal was to start that conversation.”
That conversation involves identifying what the youths need and how the organization can help. In the long term, that means educational opportunities. In the short term, the immediate need is food. Often, food is the driving force behind theft and robbery.
“Feeding is huge. People take that for granted,” Bellamy said. “Kids try to pump gas and when we go to talk to them, we find out it’s because they’re hungry. They don’t think they’re going to be fed when they get home. Therefore, they do something illegal because they want something to eat.”
Young adults will offer youths clothes, shoes, or food in exchange for illegal activities. These young adults fill the role of provider for the youth, and soon, Philadelphia youths are reliant on theft. These activities can escalate.
North10 recognizes this, as well. They also work to tackle food insecurity in the neighborhood, offering a free pantry open to anyone in the community. Twice a week, they open their doors to a fully-stocked room designed like a modern grocery store. It’s a dignified place for those seeking assistance, Gale said.
Their youths, too, receive a snack and a hot dinner every day in the Out-of-School Time program.
However, fulfilling immediate needs is only the beginning.
Like North10, Philadelphia CeaseFire provides a comprehensive approach to community engagement. The organization’s model involves hands-on community work.
Each team member at Philadelphia CeaseFire, called credible messengers, takes on people in the community who are prone to criminality. These are people the messengers know personally. They work with these individuals to determine what that person needs and then guide them to resources that will allow them to achieve what they want.
This is a long-term process. The credible messengers act as caseworkers, checking in with their community members regularly, and guiding them to new resources along the way.
When children age out of North10’s programming, the organization continues to support them.
“The awesome thing about North10 is that we don’t just stop,” Matza said. “You don’t turn 18 and you’re on your own. We don’t do that. We will offer programs that will help them become successful adults. We offer career development and whatever it is they need, we can do that.”
Collaboration is fundamental to these organizations’ operations. Local partnerships allow CeaseFire access to education and career development. A partnership with the Center for Urban Bioethics allowed North10 to launch its food insecurity efforts. Different organizations offer different expertise.
“We’re living in a time when we need to work together,” Bellamy said. ”I don’t care who you are, what color you are, what the dynamics are. We have to work together. Until we get to that point, it’s going to be challenging.”
Collaboration requires more than community organizations to work together. The community must be an integral part of this process.
For North10, that means working with the youths to develop their own programming. Regular assessments with their youths gauge how they are responding to the programming and what they are missing.
“Our purpose as an organization is really to come alongside our neighbors and improve the neighborhood with them,” Gale said.
For Philadelphia CeaseFire, collaboration manifests in many ways. Not only do they hire people from the community to work as credible messengers, but they also convene members of the community to vote on new hires.
The organization has developed such strong community relationships that people in the neighborhood will call CeaseFire to intervene when they see potentially criminal behavior.
It is a combination of earned trust and open communication that has allowed local organizations to operate. This has been successful – children report they love their time at North10 and they regularly frequent recreation centers on their own to look for help. An audit of Philadelphia CeaseFire showed that intervention decreased shootings by 30%.
But communication is missing from Temple’s relationship with the community.
There are few ways for residents to engage with Temple University. For many, their interactions are limited to sometimes ambivalent relationships with transient Temple students living in the neighborhood. But according to local organizations, these students can be a community asset.
North10’s Gale notes that the assistance of Temple students would be very useful. Whether that is communication students promoting the organization or public health majors assisting with event planning, students hold untapped expertise. Not only can this boost local organizations, but it can also provide students with the necessary field experience.
“People need to have access,” Bellamy said. “When we’re talking about neighborhood students, neighborhood organizations, to me, access should be a given.”
When she was in law school, Bellamy noted that her school had a facility where students would help members of the community start nonprofits and receive tax-exempt status. Something like this, comprised of business school students or faculty, would be highly valuable according to Bellamy.
“Whether that’s a facility or what,” Bellamy said. “People want to start businesses. Access to faculty and students is huge.”
Critical to these efforts, however, is leadership. While local organizations do their best to mentor children, solve food insecurity, and prevent violence, each individual organization is trying to offer the most holistic approach. But, “Coming up with your own little solution is challenging, to say the least,” Bellamy notes.
When it comes to protecting North Philadelphia and reducing crime, everyone has a different approach. Everyone has a different solution.
“The problem when you have this dialogue is everyone is on a different side of the street in regards to the solution,” Bellamy said. “Some people think more policing. Everybody’s all over the place. But we’re much stronger when we’re together. When you talk about moving the needle, you got to have leadership.”
This is where Temple University can step in. The school can be an organizing force, a medium for gathering community voices to develop a system in which everyone works together to offer the most comprehensive approach to community development. “It’s about a meeting of the minds,” Bellamy said.
In doing so, they can identify the gaps and provide funding or resources to ensure the efforts of local organizations are sustainable.
“People [from local organizations] have been in and out because of funding. People can’t sustain the work because of lack of funding. The community wants people they can trust and they can count on,” Bellamy said.
But ultimately, as it stands now, trust between the school and North Philadelphia residents is broken.
“Whether we’re the conduit to the neighborhood or they go directly to the neighborhood, Temple really needs to institutionally find a way to follow up on the promises the institution has made to the neighborhood,” Gale said.
A year has passed since Collington’s death and the university continues to examine ways to combat the violence epidemic in Philadelphia. While they do, however, organizations on the ground continue to work to solve the problem themselves.
President Wingard’s Task Force on Violence Reduction Strategies is an important step toward inclusive leadership. But it is just the first step.
The infrastructure laid by local organizations is sound. Acknowledging this is somewhere to start, according to Gale. However, these organizations can only do so much with the resources they have.
Temple University, a multi-billion dollar institution, can be an essential part of this system. “The infrastructure is there,” Gale said.
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Great piece. I do hope Temple could provide structure and resources for these types of local organizations to streamline efforts and share best practices. Temple is probably the only consistency North Philadelphia has had over the last ten years! Time to step up!