In parts of Philadelphia, gun violence is all too common. Movita Johnson-Harrell is teaching children that, although they may be used to the sound of gunshots, that doesn’t make it normal.
She stood in front of a room of students at the W.C. Bryant Elementary School in West Philadelphia on Wednesday and asked children to raise their hands if they had ever heard gun shots. More than half of the students raised their hands.
“If you hear gunshots, some things you can do [are] don’t run towards the gunshot, go in the opposite direction,” she told students. “If you hear a gunshot that sounds close by, lie on the ground.”
Dawn Hunt, the school’s counselor, said many children don’t learn how to deal with the trauma of gun violence. When Johnson-Harrell asked children if anyone had lost someone to gun violence, they responded casually, saying they had lost uncles and cousins in shootings.
“You don’t necessarily see the emotion until they start talking about it,” Hunt said. “I think in this community it’s really hard, because they really become desensitized to things.”
That’s what brings Johnson-Harrell, or “Miss Mo,” as she calls herself, out to schools like W.C. Bryant. She founded the Charles Foundation in 2011 to help children make better decisions around guns.
“We’re not having a conversation with our children about something that’s going on around them every day,” she said.
She was inspired to start the foundation after her son Charles was gunned down in a case of mistaken identity. Exactly 90 days after his death, she filed paperwork to start a nonprofit.
“I don’t even remember forming the foundation. It was a really dark time in my life, and the grief was overwhelming,” she said. “The only way I was able to know the date was because that’s the date that was on the documentation for the foundation.”
She started her work by engaging civic and neighborhood groups in discussions about gun violence. However when she discovered that the two young men responsible for the murder of her son had criminal records, she decided to do work in schools.
“It was just a given that it starts as a child,” she said. “And if we can catch them at children, maybe we’ll have less murders.”
She wants to open a group home in West Philadelphia for kids who have just left juvenile detention centers. The programs offered there would center around one basic principle: Make better decisions.
As she paced the room, asking children what to do if they come across a handgun in someone else’s house, a girl in the front row raised her hand and asked about the picture on Johnson-Harrell’s T-shirt. She told the girl it’s a picture of her son, and she candidly told the story of the day he died.
“No parent should have to go through that,” she told them.