Gun violence in Philadelphia takes a toll on students and their ability to learn and succeed. WHYY News’ gun violence, education, and health reporters look at the intersection of schools and violence in their new six-part series, “Safe Place.”
Jayden Hawkins was a teenager living in the Frankford neighborhood of North Philly when he first became a victim of gun violence.
“I never thought it would even happen to me,” the 21-year-old said. “Someone tried to rob me, and they shot me.”
That moment heightened his sense of awareness about gun violence, and unfortunately since then, things have gotten worse.
“We had about 12 shootings in two months on the same block that I live on,” he said. “And I was trying to do better in my life and be positive. But every time I go back home, it’s like I’m surrounded by negativity.”
Hawkins was in search of a space that would allow him to feel safe. He started scrolling through Instagram, and found an account a friend followed called “YEAH Philly.” YEAH stands for Youth Empowerment for Advancement Hangout.
“They were having a moderator type of event, teaching people how to squash beefs and how to get over certain situations,” he said.
Hawkins met Kendra Van De Water, director of YEAH Philly, who invited him to the group’s space in West Philadelphia.
YEAH Philly is a youth hangout location that’s dedicated to peer gun violence mediation, conflict resolution, and employment opportunities for Black teens.
“We focus on young people in the legal system, but we are really trying to be with young people,” Van de Water said. “And it’s a space not only for young people to be themselves and get the things that they need, but to elevate their experiences specifically of a population that is often silenced or oppressed when it comes to adults servicing this population.”
YEAH Philly was created as a space where Black teens can enjoy the fullness of their young years.
Hawkins said gun violence has stolen some of his enjoyment of the fun times of being a teenager. He sees many young adults experiencing the same thing.
“It’s ridiculous to me. How could you throw your life away so young before you even begin to experience it? It’s not right,” he said.
YEAH Philly appealed to Hawkins because of what the space provides: a chance to cook for himself, listen to music, or watch movies to relax inside. And for most kids, Van de Water said, these are the simple things that can help keep them away from the streets.
YEAH Philly keeps its space open from 3 to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
“For us, it’s about staying open later because young people need and want things to do,” Van de Water said. “So instead of them being outside, they can just be here.”
The program runs focus groups for young people who have been involved with gun violence. When it comes to this type of mediation, Van de Water said, convincing teens to not carry in today’s environment is difficult.
“They all say the same things — they’d rather be caught with a gun than without one,” Van de Water said. “What we talk about is, ‘Are you actually safe if you have a gun versus is it just a mental thing and you saying, ‘mentally this helps me feel safe.’ A lot of these things are stemming from arguments, which is why we try to focus on mediation,” she said.
But Van de Water said that YEAH Philly is more than just addressing gun violence. It is also about helping to foster a space for healing and mental health awareness.
“It’s dangerous out here,” said Kiz’mek Allison, 21. “You get shot just by minding your business.”
Allison joined YEAH Philly when she was a student at Randolph Technical High School. She was bullied, cutting classes, and “struggling with anxiety pretty bad.”
“The first time I came here, we did paintings, and I just started coming into the building all the time — like, every day,” she said. “You ever got to your grandma’s house and you just feel right at home? That’s how it is. This is right where you want to be. This is where you go to relax, have fun, be yourself.”
Donte Duprist, 21, is from Southwest Philadelphia and graduated from John Grisham High School. His mother passed away when he was 14, and was raised by his father, sister and brother.
“Going home and not seeing her was the craziest part for me,” he said. “After my final moments with her at the hospital, once I got home, I cried. I’m older now and I learned how to be stronger and learn how to let my emotions out. That’s why I come here to talk to the young teens here.”
Duprist is known for having a jovial personality at YEAH Philly — always showing a huge smile, or telling jokes. It’s something that’s helped him cope since his mother died.
“I love to be happy,” he said. “I don’t do anything that could bring me down besides, you know, if it ain’t killing me, it’s making me stronger. That’s what’s kept me motivated and still keeps me motivated throughout the years.”
It’s the joy and optimism of youth like Donte, Van de Water said, that makes her hopeful for the future.
“A big part of Black health to me is Black joy,” she said. “Young people should be able to be carefree and laugh. And a lot of times they don’t get to. But a big part of our program is making sure that they’re able to experience that joy, because that’s part of getting Black health.”
Hawkins said he always feels a sense of family at YEAH Philly. The program has made a profound impact on his life, and he wishes that he could go back in time and join earlier.
“I wish when I was younger I had a program like this,” he said. “I would have had a little outlet in a place where I could just relax and not have to survive the way I did.”
If you or someone you know has been affected by gun violence in Philadelphia, you can find grief support and resources online.
Support for WHYY’s coverage of health equity issues comes from the Commonwealth Fund.