Educator who survived gun violence opens West Philly community center

A historic spike in shootings has residents urgently calling for more community support and resources. The new ECO Center in West Philly hopes to provide that.

Kyle “the Conductor” Morris hypes the crowd with with a dance at the ECO Center's ribbon cutting.

Kyle “the Conductor” Morris hypes the crowd with with a dance at the ECO Center's ribbon cutting. (Ximena Conde/WHYY)

It was New Year’s Eve in 2013 and Kyle “the Conductor” Morris was at a get-together where everyone was doing the “right thing.” There was mac and cheese on the table and his group of friends was playing the board game Taboo. But then, Morris said an argument broke out between one of his friends and a stranger. One of the stranger’s friends pulled out a gun and shot Morris six times.

Two of his friends were also shot — one of them fatally.

“Sometimes we’re so disconnected from the violence in our community because it doesn’t seem to affect us,” said Morris, 30. “But when you see it happening to you… you realize the responsibility that comes with that to stop it as much as you can.”

His brush with death was followed by years of seeing his history students graduate and “end up behind bars or under the ground,” which motivated Morris to look for a way to combat the forces driving people to violence.

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He launched The Education Culture Opportunities (ECO) Foundation in 2018, and after two years of helping students at schools and in their neighborhoods, the nonprofit cut the ribbon on its first home base in West Philadelphia on Sunday.

The grand opening of the new ECO Center at 5411 Market Street comes at a time when Philadelphians are urgently calling for more community support amid a historically violent summer.

“In order to reduce the number of shootings, it’s not about guns off the street, it’s not about limiting the ammunition you could have,” Morris said. “It’s about increasing the number of resources and opportunities.”

At least 20 people were shot in separate incidents this weekend alone, adding to the count of more than 1,100 shooting victims and 260 gun fatalities so far in 2020, a more than 30% increase from this time last year.

In the rallies and meetings that have followed spate after spate of shootings — with more than 100 children among the victims — residents often argue disinvestment in communities of color is a major factor driving the violence.

“People, they don’t feel heard, and there’s no response to what they’re asking,” said Ariella Bella Goodwin, a member of The ECO Foundation board.

She sees the ECO Center as a small response to years of residents asking for more after school programs for their children and other supports.

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The organization tries to build up the community through a variety of projects aimed at teaching people new skills and promoting well-being, she said.

There’s Cameras Converting Communities, a program that teaches young people how to produce videos, and Bustlenomics, a combination of “hustling” and “economics,” a program that helps young people build financial literacy. As the coronavirus pandemic hit many families’ bottom lines, the organization started to distribute food.

Volunteers give away food to families affected by the pandemic.
The ECO Foundation wants to be a place where young people can find mentors, but it also wants to help families in need. During the ECO Center’s ribbon-cutting, volunteers gave away food to families affected by the pandemic. (Ximena Conde/WHYY)

The ECO Foundation also tries to tackle a lack of educational resources for Black students and a need for more workforce development programs, said Goodwin.

“We’re addressing problems that have risen from a capitalist system that we live in,” said Goodwin. “That system is very much built on oppression.”

Sunday’s grand opening offered free school supplies, new clothes and face masks, among other giveaways.

Morris said the opening was possible, despite the COVID-19 pandemic, thanks to the many partnerships The ECO Foundation keeps with organizations like Rubye’s Kids, Bunny Hop PHL, Youth Design Philly, and Feed Philly Now. The organization also relies on help from volunteers and is taking donations for a second location it hopes to open in two years.

For now, Morris envisions the West Philly ECO Center as a place “that will meet people where they are to get them to where they’re going,” a place where young people and families can pop in when they’re in need, instead of searching for an ECO member in one of their many partner locations across the city.

“Rock bottom doesn’t have to be extreme poverty, rock bottom doesn’t have to be complete sadness,” said Morris. “You’ll still be sad, you’ll still be depressed, but you’re not in it alone and you’ll know you have the ECO Center to lean on.”

At the event, two cousins — Tafiq, 11, and Tyonn Leonard, 12 — carried professional cameras and helped document the ribbon cutting and neighbors winning raffles. At one point, Tafiq bashfully admitted he’d only gotten blurry photos of one exchange, and an adult reminded him it was no big deal and offered pointers.

Kyle "the Conductor" Morris is speaking to media and Tyonn Leonard, 12, is doing some documenting of his own.
Kyle “the Conductor” Morris is speaking to media and Tyonn Leonard, 12, is doing some documenting of his own. The ECO Foundation is mentoring Tyonn and teaching him about photography. (Ximena Conde/WHYY)

That’s the sort of mentorship Jessica Jorden has high hopes for. Jorden has lived in the neighborhood since 1962 and raised her five children smack across the street from the center. She hopes the free resources the ECO Center is advertising will “offset all the violence” this summer.

“If [young people] know that maybe they can come somewhere and have a conversation and have someone to talk to,” Jorden said they might get “some suggestions that will help them.”

Maritza Guridy, a parent of six, made the trip to West Philly from the North Philly-Nicetown/Tioga area to show support for the programs ECO offers, which two of her children have taken part in. Guridy said her neighborhood has experienced its share of shooting incidents — including last summer’s nearly eight-hour standoff between a gunman and police in which six officers were shot — and she hopes a center like this could open near her home so young people will have more to do.

“They need a place where they can feel that they can be themselves, that they can be creative, that they can learn,” she said.

Still, Morris says he doesn’t have all the answers. In addition to helping residents gain access to resources, he believes the best thing organizations like his can do to fight gun violence is listen to residents and foster community.

“If we can’t trust each other, we can’t change gun violence or the next issue.”

Broke in PhillyWHYY is among more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic justice. Follow us at @BrokeInPhilly

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