As a community organizer and activist, I regularly facilitate forums and listening sessions to share ideas, gain insight, and encourage public exchange. Citizen participation in projects can help identify and solve problems. I recently held one of my listening sessions as a way to bring people together to share what’s on their minds when it comes to gun violence.
On this most recent call, there were several teens present. My heart and passion is saving our youth. While it took some time for them to open up, here is what they ultimately shared. Yes, they want jobs and more resources. But more than that, they want us — adults in our city — to listen to them. To stop making assumptions about them.
For example, most adults I meet will say, Oh these young people are crazy! But these aren’t crazy kids: Most of them are scared kids, insecure. They’re not out to hurt you. They want to feel safe, and they want to feel secure. In the culture around them, that adds up to carrying a gun — to feel protected, and to seem untouchable to others. Many young people will tell me they’d rather be caught with a gun than without one.
How can we expect the young people in our city to change if we, as adults, are stuck in our ways too?
Too many adults are afraid to interact with young people, afraid to say something to them. But we have to try to suppress that fear, because if we encourage young people with positivity, a lot of times they will listen. Young people need to be an essential component of any community partnership exercise. They should never be seen as a burden, but as our most precious asset.
As adults, we have to speak boldly and forthrightly. We can’t be afraid to take on a journey of community change. How can we expect the young people in our city to change if we, as adults, are stuck in our ways too?
Our city’s young people bring so many unique contributions to our city. They have fresh perspectives, are great collaborators, know how to stretch dollars, are passionate about critical issues like the environment and sustainability, attract the attention of the media, are impatient for change, and know best and better than adults ever will what other young people think and want.
I believe the key change adults in this city need to make for our young people if we want to change the violence in our city is for all of us to come out of our siloes — and come together.
I don’t just mean this metaphorically. I am saying this as an open call for everyone who cares about gun violence to come together: You can email me. [email protected].
I run two nonprofit organizations, Delaware Valley Peace Commission and Family and Community Engagement Action Team (FACE-A-TEAM), and both have a mission to collaboratively develop and implement initiatives for educational, cultural, social, emotional, physical, spiritual, political, economic development and empowerment of members of our society.
There are several keys to coming together to make meaningful change for our city’s young people.
1. We need intra-city collaboration like never before. We gotta have the arts community at the table. We gotta have the business community at the table. We gotta have the faith-based community at the table, the violence prevention agencies, the educational agencies. Colleges and universities.
We gotta have the financial institutions at the table, the foundations and charitable organizations. We gotta get the gangs and the street groups at the table. We gotta have government policy makers at the table. Youth. Healthcare. Social media influencers. Juvenile justice and law enforcement, mental health providers, rehabilitative, restorative justice programs. Senior citizens, service agencies, street outreach teams.
2. We need to model our methods on best business practices.
Start with listening sessions in every single block of the city to find out what unmet needs actually underlie people’s decision to carry a gun, and how gun violence is affecting young people and their families. Find ways to meet those needs.
Set clear goals for young people to keep them accountable, and to hold ourselves accountable. And, critically, we need oversight of interventions — constant improvement of the ones that seem to be working, and elimination of the ones that don’t.
For example, we’ve seen the success of Mural Arts Philadelphia — why not expand that model to more areas of art to reach young people? We’ve seen progress in STEAM and tech job training programs — why not expand that to other fields, like DJing and fashion?
There are wonderful in-person safe havens for young people like YEAH Philly. Every neighborhood should have places like those, along with conflict resolution centers.
There is real potential in school-based programs like Relationships First, which the School District of Philadelphia has committed to with increased funding. RF is a comprehensive restorative justice approach designed to transform relationships in schools and improve outcomes for students. Why not expand RF to also include conflict-resolution and problem-solving, social skills and communication?
We know there are wonderful in-person safe havens for young people like YEAH Philly. Every neighborhood should have places like those, along with conflict resolution centers. Every area of the city should have a mentoring program. If I live in South Philly, I shouldn’t have to go to North Philly to go to a mentoring program. I should be able to go to a mentoring program right in my neighborhood.
3. We need to go beyond calling on institutional “stakeholders” and call on every single individual to do something.
Not everyone is cut out for being on the front lines, going out into the streets and talking to young people. But we all have talent! Are you good with communication? You can put together newsletters or flyers. Are you good at speaking? Maybe you can speak to other community members. Do you have writing skills? You could be a great asset in writing narratives or program outlines or writing messages to youth.
Everyone is fit to do something. Everybody has a role to play.
Maybe you’re a great artist who can make persuasive posters or social media posts to mobilize your neighbors. Maybe you’re a great networker who has connections to jobs and policymakers. Maybe you’re a great cook who can bring people together over something as simple as cookies.
Every single person in this city has something to offer that can make a difference in the lives of young people. Maybe you have access to media that can spread the word — a new report found that 69 percent of Phialdelphians are still getting their news on TV: Why not pool together resources to create a roundtable-style talk show with a focus on violence interventions and community building?
4. We need more resources for the parents of young people in our city.
I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I know one of the things is, we definitely gotta provide is skills training for parents and guardians. We need a curriculum, offered in communities and online, and peer support groups. If we want adults to stand up, we need to support them along the way.
We must teach parents and all adults who work with young people the concept of partnership as a relationship built on mutual respect, cooperation and responsibility that seeks to reach specific goals. Both young people and adults should understand the reasons, goals and intended outcomes for establishing the partnership. We have to share decision-making responsibilities, and share credit.
Young people vary widely in their level of development and readiness to assume responsibility, and adults vary widely in their ability and degree of commitment to work with young people. So we must allow time for partnerships to develop and evolve, and provide skill development.
Critical to working with young people, we have to avoid any expression of “adultism” — any behavior, action, language or limitations placed on young people’s rights and participation that does not afford them the respect as a partner.
5. In our schools, our homes, and our communities, we have to teach our young people about civics.
We have to encourage young people to look at history, to see that most movements were started by young people who became change agents within their communities, and in our societies.
It’s important for young people to see strong positive role models, individuals within their community working and engaging in community activities. As citizens, we have a responsibility to participate in developing the foundations within our communities, and we have to teach our kids about civic engagement. So many young people don’t realize how policies are made, so of course they feel like nothing’s gonna change. If they’re not being taught those things, they don’t understand those things.
We have to try to encourage our young people to see themselves as the change agents the world urgently needs today. They can do it — and we can help them.
The Citizen welcomes guest commentary from community members who stipulate to the best of their ability that it is fact-based and non-defamatory.This piece is supported by the Credible Messenger Reporting Project, an initiative of the Philadelphia Center for Gun Violence Reporting.
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