Fewer empty lots, police from community: Philly teens tell Mayor how to make a safer city

For some of Philly's Gen Z residents, 2020 was a political wake-up call. Now, they're bringing their ideas to city government.

Makayla Coleman, 15 (left), and her brother Devon Hester, 13 (right), have been tapped for their opinions about city planning and civics. Philadelphia is targeting the Gen Z’ers for more government and civic participation. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Makayla Coleman, 15 (left), and her brother Devon Hester, 13 (right), have been tapped for their opinions about city planning and civics. Philadelphia is targeting the Gen Z’ers for more government and civic participation. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Devon Hester, 13, is ready to share all of his opinions with city government. He’s been practicing.

For the last 12 months, he’s been rapping about everything from police brutality to food insecurity, spitting about change and marching downtown.

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Hester, a student at Wissahickon Charter School at the Awbury Campus, said as he grows up, he’s become more aware of problems in the city and racism in particular. Music has been his primary means of expression but after a year of protest and a pandemic that kept him at home, away from friends and his school, he wants to take his ideas directly to people in a position to make change.

“It all needs to be rebuilt,” he said of the systems that govern Philadelphia, where he lives on the border of Germantown and East Falls.

Hester and his sister, Makayla Coleman,15, see themselves as necessary players in the city’s future — and present.

“The government is who runs us and I feel like youth voices are not heard enough in government. Policies are being made without us,” said Coleman, who attends George Washington Carver High School of Engineering and Science in North Philadelphia.

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The duo have been around civic engagement their whole lives, close to an aunt, Diana Coleman, who describes herself as a life-long activist and organizer.

Devon Hester, 13 (left) and his sister Makayla Coleman, 15 (right), have been tapped for their opinions about city planning and civics. Philadelphia is targeting the Gen Z’ers for more government and civic participation. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Still, it wasn’t until 2020 that the two began to get more involved. A lot of their drive came from rethinking what public safety means, especially as two young Black people living in a city where your level of personal risk depends on the block you live on and, too often, the color of your skin.

“It’s very important for kids to get their feelings out, but if you hold your feelings in over time, it just becomes a big ball of stress,” Hester said.

The siblings were among 56 young people who dedicated a Saturday in January to Zooming with city officials via a new initiative from the Mayor’s Office of Youth Engagement called “Operation Innovation.” The ongoing series was designed as a way to connect Gen Z — people who are 12 to 24 years old — with city government.

Jeanette Bavwidinsi, the director of the Mayor’s Office of Youth Engagement, said she knew that younger voices were missing from city government. She’s 29, a millennial, and acknowledges she isn’t old either but still wants to encourage the generation after her to learn. The goals behind these sessions are to teach young people how government works but also to provide them resources on how to make their ideas a reality.

“People who don’t care about young people scare me,” she said. “What are we doing in the city if we’re not preparing the next generation of leaders, community activists, and grassroots organizers?”

Bavwidinsi was joined on the Zoom with Philadelphia Police Deputy Commissioner Joel Dale. Dale was there to begin the conversation between young people and police.

“There’s a lot of distrust in the community, no doubt about it,” Dale said. “But we all have to take that first step and be willing to come together to meet.”

Gen Z wants trust and a ‘fresh start’

Bavwidinsi’s office began working to organize the dialogue last month, on the heels of the city’s Circles of Truth conversations. There, city leaders were encouraged to have honest conversations about relationships between the community and police.

Hester wants to reimagine public safety, which includes trainings to help officers regain relationships with the communities police serve. Regular citizens should be invited to these events, the 13-year-old said.

“Every week, there should be meetings to address things that we think should be changed,” he said.

One idea that came out Saturday’s meeting was a “Meet the Captains” program that would put officers — “white shirts” — in the community and out of uniform so they could talk to young people and begin building relationships. Hester was one of the most vocal kids to push for officials to consider the idea.

“It would be like starting over, a fresh start,” he said.

Other changes he wants to see: fewer drugstores in Germantown and more parks. He also asked city officials to consider supporting more community gardens to encourage healthier eating.

His older sister Makayla also wants to see more gardens in Germantown. Empty lots  — the city has about 40,000 of them— were another concern for her. She said she would love to see them used for community events.

“When I look outside my window, I can see a community garden not far away,” she said. “But if I go outside, and go maybe three blocks away … you see vacant lots … and they need these too.”

Coleman said she’s been trying to be more engaged over the past year. Her interest was piqued when she went to a Philly Black Student Alliance meeting. It was the first time she began to learn about how city government and the Philadelphia Board of Education work. Coleman was blown away by all the public information readily available that wasn’t taught in class. That lightbulb moment led her to become the secretary of the organization in September.

“It just felt like we had no business in this,” she said of the government.

That changed when she began listening to public meetings and getting involved in the alliance.

“I do have a voice in the policies that affect me and I am allowed to use it,” she said.

Coleman supports defunding the police. She believes police should exist but that officers should be required to live in the areas they police.

“I feel like the communication would be better,” she said. “It wouldn’t be just a job to them.”

Ramier Jones, 17, outside his home in Southwest Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Ramier Jones, 17 and also a Carver student, is the co-chair of the public safety committee on the Philadelphia Youth Commission.

“One day, the people who are in government won’t be here anymore and the people who are taking their place are us,” he said. “I’m very big on the concept called ‘train your replacement.’”

That being said, he rejects the idea that it’s up to citizens to remedy the relationship between the community and officers and that it should be the police’s role to make the first step. He agrees with others that relationship building should be the priority but he is concerned that the onus is placed upon regular citizens.

“A lot of these times with these relationships, we’re the victims,” he said. “Then when we go to town halls, [officers] ask us ‘What’s the solution?’ and you don’t do the same thing with a doctor. You go to a doctor to find a solution.”

“There needs to be trust,” Jones added. “If there’s no trust, you can’t adequately serve the people you’re trying to service.”

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