Third grader Kylee Pearson is barely tall enough to be seen behind the City Hall podium. An adult has to lower the mic for her before she starts to speak.
She’s in a ruffled black skirt, black gloves and a matching black hairband. Her voice is squeaky but clear as she recites a poem about the toll of fatal shootings. When she leaves the stage, applause booms and a crowd of students and teachers embraces her.
In Philadelphia, gun violence is an unavoidable fact for the city’s youngest residents — and for some, it’s a driver of activism. This week, dozens of them left their classrooms to spend part of the school day demonstrating. They’re part of a new coalition of concerned children asking city officials to take a stand.
“These young people have a data set that no one in the city has,” said Ayesha Imani, CEO of the Sankofa Freedom Academy Charter School. “They did the work … now we need grown folks to work.”
Sankofa is one of nine high schools behind the Enough is Enough campaign, which formed in February with support from City Councilmember Isaiah Thomas’s office. Today they presented findings from their gun violence survey of 1,300 students in grades seven through twelve.
The survey shines light on the need for more resources for young people — 95% of respondents said they couldn’t name a neighborhood organization where they could go to talk about the impact of gun violence.
Seventh grader Morena Brown says the fear is constant.
“There’s nowhere safe now,” Brown said. “I can run to my mom and my dad, but I can’t run to the cops … what are they gonna do?”
Students at the rally expressed frustration that law enforcement and other criminal justice agencies haven’t more effectively addressed rates of gun violence in Philadelphia. They called for stronger restrictions on who can purchase firearms, higher clearance rates for murder cases, and closer tracking on lost and stolen guns.
When asked about the reasons driving Philly’s gun crisis, 79% of youth survey respondents cited gang involvement. The coalition’s list of recommendations includes a “gang prevention curriculum” in every middle school, as well as support groups for victims and perpetrators of gun violence and focus groups of young people from various neighborhoods to “learn about when and where they feel safe and recreate those conditions more broadly.”
The crowd was small Tuesday, but those who withstood the hot morning said they did so to support the young activists. Some pointed out that any of the students standing behind the podium could be the next victim of Philadelphia’s gun violence crisis.
There have been 911 total shootings in Philadelphia in 2022, and 82 of the victims have been under the age of 18. There were 12 gun killings over Memorial Day weekend, two of them children, bringing the 2022 homicide toll to 209.
Stanley Crawford, founder of the Black Male Community Council of Philadelphia, was one of a handful of gun violence prevention activists at the event. He says the city needs a better plan for tackling the problem.
“We can’t keep giving lip service to it, we’ve got to come up with a methodology to stop it,” he said.
He called out the Philadelphia Police Department for increasing its budget but not achieving a reduction in murder rates.
“If with all of that you can’t stop it, something’s wrong with your methodology,” he said. “The government officials have to get together, like these children are doing … and make a strong statement that we’re going to work together to stop it.”
The city of Philadelphia says its clearance rates for both nonfatal shootings and homicides have increased, and that there are plans to embrace community policing this summer by expanding foot and bike patrols. There’s also a push for summer programming and youth jobs, centered on recreation centers and parks, to keep young people out of the line of fire.
Members of the Enough is Enough campaign are asking the city to require that any organization receiving grant funding for gun violence include at least two high school students from the community in their decision making.
If you or someone you know has been affected by gun violence in Philadelphia, you can find grief support and resources here.