Philly’s gun violence rates are dropping but more work is needed to strengthen youth empowerment, leaders say

Organizations led by millennials and Gen-Z Philadelphians are now turning their attention toward Philly’s next mayor for more support.

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The Philadelphia Youth Commission and Youth Creating New Beginnings host their first annual “Support Tomorrow” Back to School Drive & basketball tournament in Germantown. (Courtesy of the Mayor's Office of Youth Engagement)

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Philadelphia gun violence prevention advocates feel that their work made a difference in 2023 — and they hope to continue and grow their work as Mayor-elect Cherelle Parker takes office in 2024.

As of this month, there’s been a 25% decrease in fatal and non-fatal shootings compared to last year. That’s a higher decrease than was expected — mid-year data initially showed that shootings went down by 20% compared to 2022.

“There’s so much to be hopeful for,” said Jeanette Bavwidinsi, executive director of the Office of Youth Engagement. “I’m excited about the continuance on that upward trajectory.”

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The numbers for both gun violence deaths and injuries are still high, but since the COVID-19 pandemic, when the city’s number of gun violence victims skyrocketed to more than 2,200, the city has made substantial progress, Bavwidinsi said.

“Obviously, we still have a bunch of work to do,” she said. “We are making forward progress, and forward progress sometimes feels small, incremental.”

One reason to remain hopeful, Bavwidinsi said, is because the city’s youth are becoming activists and organizers.

“Young people have a knack for invigorating and re-energizing folks,” she said.

A group of people poses for a photo at a pier in front of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge.
Community members join the Mayor’s Office of Black Male Engagement for their 11th “Brothas Stroll” (a walk from Black Men’s Health) in the 6th District. (Courtesy of the Mayor’s Office of Youth Engagement)

And as the new year approaches, she believes that the city can’t curb gun violence without their help.

“The energy that I get and I feel is that they’re ready to work,” she said. “They’re ready to add their voices. They’re ready to convene spaces. They’re ready to organize — and not necessarily in opposition to anything — just to be a more engaged and civically-minded generation.”

The Office of Youth Engagement has worked with the Philadelphia Youth Commission and the Millennial Advisory Committee to provide a space for youth to develop their leadership skills.

Those efforts included a series of anti-violence initiatives in June around Gun Violence Awareness Month, spotlighting millennial and Gen-Z Philadelphians taking action steps to foster safer neighborhoods.

A group of kids wearing orange T-shirts participate in a unity walk, walking down Broad Street.
The Mayor’s Office of Youth Engagement host the PHL Youth Unity Walk – a youth-led walk for gun violence reduction and youth resource fair from Temple University to City Hall. (Courtesy of the Mayor’s Office of Youth Engagement)

These projects have also garnered support from City Council and outgoing Mayor Jim Kenney, who emphasized gun violence prevention efforts as a top priority during the final term of his administration.

Advocates are eager to see how the new, incoming administration will support their work.

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“Obviously the incoming administration is going to have their way of doing things, but I think that the purpose of offices like the Office of Public Engagement is to be the bridge that can mend spaces where communities can add their ideas,” Bavwidinsi said.

Two members of Philadelphia Youth Commission leadership pose for a photo at the White House
Philadelphia Youth Commission leadership visit the White House in Fall 2023. (Courtesy of the Mayor’s Office of Youth Engagement)

‘The humanity of Black men and boys’

Gun violence prevention was a priority issue during the 2023 mayoral election.

During her campaign, now Mayor-elect Cherelle Parker arguably held the strongest views on the issue, suggesting that police strengthen “stop and frisk” tactics.

She later clarified her position by saying that there was no room for unconstitutional stop and frisk.

“Elements such as stop and frisk may seem like a deterrent to kind of shake people at their core and give them something to fear when it comes to dealing with law enforcement,” said Quan King, director of teen development at Greater Philadelphia YMCA. “But I don’t necessarily think that instilling fear in the public is something that is necessary.”

King said all that policies that support “over-policing” accomplish is to create more barriers between law enforcement and the community. He said it’s also not conducive to creating healthy conversations around a trauma-informed approach when dealing with teens.

“A lot of times we’re dealing with teens who see the world through two options, and that’s just fight or flight,” he said. “Every stimulus that they get is that reaction to figure out, ‘Do I need to fight this thing or do I need to run from this thing?’”

He said that a lot of young people feel that they are in “survival mode.”

“When you’re in survival mode, you’re not thinking about your future,” he said. “You’re only thinking about today, what’s right in front of you. So if you start to begin to frame your understanding of that, you’re able to then see why it makes a lot of sense that people go into a Wawa and steal food, because you’re only thinking about the moment and you’re not understanding the larger picture.”

Advocates hope that the incoming administration will center the voices and experiences of youth who are living with the challenges of gun violence every day.

Eric Westbrook, director of the Mayor’s Office of Black Male Engagement, partnered with different community groups to produce a two-hour documentary called “A Hope that Lights the Way,” a film that uplifts Black men and boys of the gun violence crisis. They have organized screenings that are followed by discussions about ways to end the violence.

It’s a film that Westbrook hopes will contextualize “the humanity of Black men and boys.”

“One young man that was supposed to be in this film, he was gunned down right around the corner from his place,” he said. “We just spoke to him on FaceTime. We were excited to meet him. And seeing that shook all of us because this was happening in real time. It also reminded us why this work was so important.”

What’s driving gun violence, Westbrook said, is poverty and a feeling of hopelessness for many youth. He also said that adults need to understand that young people are dealing with unprecedented challenges, and their ability to handle conflict has evolved.

“I don’t know what it feels like to know someone’s out there that wants to take my life,” he said. “When I was in high school, we had fights, and that was it. I never had to deal with social media and someone being able to embarrass me 24/7 in front of an audience whenever they choose.”

From trauma-informed care to the city’s budget

City Council might be on different sides of the ideological spectrum in terms of violence prevention, but 3rd District City Councilmember Jamie Gauthier, who represents West and South Philadelphia, said it’s imperative to center the voices of the city’s youth in its policymaking. She said she was reminded of that importance during a recent debate.

“During the ski mask deliberation, one of the things that really, really changed my mind and turned me into a ‘no’ vote was hearing young people. Hearing them talk about – begging us not to do this, and asking for other means of supporting them and investing in them,” she said. “The young people who are in the city, getting up going to school, supporting their peers, being upstanding citizens — the overwhelming majority of young people are not a narrative of violence.”

A group of people pose for a photo inside of one of the main meeting rooms of Philadelphia's City Hall
The Mayor’s Office of Youth Engagement & Philly BOLT host a youth-led community conversation at City Hall. (Courtesy of the Mayor’s Office of Youth Engagement)

Gauthier emphasized the council’s commitment to supporting programs that elevate youth leadership for gun violence prevention. And those efforts will need to be supported through the city’s budget, for example, through continued funding for the Office of Black Male Engagement and Office of Public Engagement.

“I think it’s incumbent upon the public to let Mayor-elect [Cherelle] Parker know this office is important in this work,” she said.

Based on the incoming administration’s priorities, Gauthier is confident that the support from City Hall on gun violence issues will strengthen.

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