At North Philly community gun violence summit, going ‘beyond a conversation’

Parkway Northwest High School students Kaila Daniel, left and Makayla Adens, right, during a break out session at a community summit on gun violence. (Jonathan Wilson for WHYY)

Parkway Northwest High School students Kaila Daniel, left and Makayla Adens, right, during a break out session at a community summit on gun violence. (Jonathan Wilson for WHYY)

If you or someone you know has been affected by gun violence in Philadelphia, you can find grief support and resources here.

For Carlene Neal, there was one statistic that was the straw that made her feel she had to do something about gun violence.

A 2018 Quinnipiac poll found that 97% of American voters surveyed support universal background checks for gun buyers.

“Yet the will of the people has not been the determining factor in terms of outcomes,” Neal said.

Neal and Carol Parkinson-Hall organized Saturday’s all-day summit at Canaan Baptist Church in Germantown — “Gun Violence: Beyond a Conversation.”

A community summit on gun violence held at Canaan Baptist Church in Germantown brought together members of the public, activists, students and teachers. (Jonathan Wilson for WHYY)

Neal is on the board of trustees of Canaan and she’s also a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha’s local Omega Omega chapter. AKA is a Greek service organization for African American women.

In thinking about that statistic and the uptick in gun violence Philadelphia has experienced this year, Neal started thinking about ways to combine her church and her work on AKA’s social organizing committee.

Neal said it was a natural fit for AKA. As members of the organization’s Connection Committee, they’re often charged with addressing public policy and concerns in their community by working with legislators.

“We look at it as, you’re not just concerned about what happens in Germantown, you’re not just concerned about what happens in Northeast or any other section, you’re concerned about the whole city, you’re concerned about the whole nation, the whole country and the issue in particular,” Neal said.

In the morning, the summit offered residents of several Philly neighborhoods the chance to hold their elected officials accountable. Panel discussions included the role of the District Attorney’s Office in preventing gun violence and included Philly D.A. Larry Krasner. Another panel gave local state representatives and senators Movita Johnson Harrell, Donna Bullock, Isabella Fitzgerald, Art Haywood and Sharif Street the chance to talk about the gun violence prevention initiatives they have in the works.

Police collected more than a dozen guns at the Canaan Baptist Church in Germantown. (Jonathan Wilson for WHYY)

The event also included a gun buyback program with Philadelphia Police.

But for Neal, the goal of the summit was to go beyond holding lawmakers and city officials accountable.

She said dealing with community gun violence is everyone’s responsibility.

“I don’t think it’s helpful to point fingers. I don’t think it’s helpful to judge people’s circumstances,” Neal said. “But having mentors, and having somebody to love you and guide you, certainly gives you a chance at success and fulfillment in life.”

How do you make gun violence prevention everyone’s responsibility? Create a coalition, Neal said, and go “beyond a conversation.” AKA collected the names and emails of roughly 200 attendees, who were also asked if they wanted to join a coalition focused on addressing gun violence in Philadelphia. Neal said she and the other organizers will take what they learned during the summit and find ways to implement those ideas during a meetup in January 2020.

Focus on prevention

The afternoon section of the summit was focused on what can be done to prevent future shootings. Breakout sessions included the role of the church in gun violence prevention, how drugs and poverty impact crime, support services for victims, how to get a criminal record expunged and the impact of gun violence on youth.

After the workshops, everyone came back together to the church’s banquet hall to present their solutions to focus on come January.

Psychologist Colmon Holmes addresses how trauma induces low self-esteem in African American youth. (Jonathan Wilson for WHYY)

“I think a lot of times the energy drops after an event like this, but you have to be persistent when you say ‘beyond a conversation,’” Neal said. “The whole focus is for us today to listen, learn and prepare to move forward.”

In the youth and gun violence workshop, facilitator Dana King wanted to give the two students in attendance both racial and historical context to how gun laws are changed in America.

For King, it’s a question of who feels like they have power. In one exercise, King had the two students — Kaila Daniel and Makayla Adens of Parkway Northwest High School for Peace and Social Justice — compared the youth gun violence prevention activism by the local and national chapters of March for Our Lives to youth efforts in New York City such as Youth Over Guns.

“What do you think was powerful about what they did?” King asked the students. “What did they do beyond using social media to communicate their feelings about what occurred?”

The fact that the students went viral, that they mobilized and lobbied and went beyond social media made a big impact, Daniel and Adens said. But King said it is important to note that many of the students leading March for Our Lives were focused on ending mass school shootings that were occurring in predominantly white communities.

King wanted the students to understand the messages of the youth-led movements in New York — which are organized mostly by high school students of color. They read the testament of one student activist in particular, Alliyah Logan who talked about the mainstream media’s focus on infrequent mass shootings rather than everyday community gun violence.

“It’s like when you’re born, when you’re black, you’re automatically seen as a threat, you’re seen as someone who is not gonna make it past the age of 18 because of where you grew up,” said 18-year-old Makayla Adens, who’s the school treasurer at Parkway Northwest. “You’re automatically seen as you’re going to lose your life to gun violence. And I just feel that is just not right.”

Makayla Adens raises a question at a break out session during the community summit on gun violence in Germantown. (Jonathan Wilson for WHYY)

King wants to see Philly students like Adens and Daniel be inspired to mobilize like the New York and March for our Lives students. In their crafted plan presented to the summit attendees at the end of the day, students suggested holding meetings to form alliances with other local youth and gun control activists.

Additionally, they want to see more students become involved with mentoring programs such as Big Brothers Big Sisters and 100 Black Men. Peer mediation surrounding conflict resolution of situations that may lead to gun violence was also on their list.

Other solutions prevented during the wrap-up session included trying to get more preventative services instead of just measures that help people after they become victims.

Summit organizer Neal said details will be worked out over the next few weeks for the coalition’s first meeting in January. In the meantime, Neal said she desperately hopes the holidays can bring a break from gun violence.

“I just hope we can have a little tranquility, a little peace,” Neal said. “But we know that this work has to be done. There is no security in not knowing what’s going to happen from one day to the next in a given neighborhood.”

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