Philly teens are in the center of the gun violence crisis. Here’s what they want to do about it

Gun violence prevention was a popular theme at the annual MLK Day speech competition hosted by the Thomas and Woods Foundation.

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Cayla Waddington leans against a wall, smiling as she poses for a photo.

Cayla Waddington, the 1st place winner of the MLK Day Oratorical Contest. (Sam Searles/WHYY)

Working on a solution to gun violence and want to share it? Get in touch with gun violence prevention reporters Sammy Caiola and Sam Searles.

Thursday’s City Council meeting was nearly full. City Councilmember Isaiah Thomas spoke to a packed house, honoring the remarkable work by young Philadelphians.

“Today in council,” Councilmember Isaiah Thomas announced, “we have the winners of this year’s MLK Day Oratorical Contest. [With] this being Black History Month, what better group of people to acknowledge and celebrate than the young people who are using their voice to make a difference?”

The annual speech competition, hosted by the Thomas and Woods Foundation, aims to highlight the visions and voices of young Philadelphians by matching them with mentor-coaches to help them prepare. In the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr., the developed speeches speak to the political and social climate of the day. This year’s theme was “Love Thy Enemy,” and gun violence emerged as a major theme.

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Khyree Counsins, smiling, poses for a photo in City Council chambers.
Khyree Cousins, a finalist in the MLK Day Oratorical Contest, stands in City Hall. (Sam Searles/WHYY)

Khyree Cousins, a finalist in the contest, focused his speech on the conflicts he sees among peers, and issued guidance for brokering peace.

“The best way to love your enemies is stop, breathe, detach yourself, seek to understand, seek to accept, forgive, and let the past go,” Cousins said in his speech. “See them as yourself or someone that you love … find common ground.”

Cousins said he became even more passionate about speaking up against violence after someone fired gunshots near his house.

Last year, children represented 217 shooting victims in Philadelphia compared to fewer than 100 in 2017, according to city data. Young people are making up a greater proportion of total shootings than they used to.

First place speech contest winner Cayla Waddington says safety is a huge issue for young people right now, because many don’t feel confident walking or biking alone in their neighborhoods.

“It’s sort of inhibiting my teenage freedom,” she said. “I watch television shows and sitcoms where all the teenagers in the suburbs are just going out. And I’m like, ‘I want to go out.’”

Cayla Waddington smiles, posing for a photo.
Cayla Waddington, the 1st place winner of the MLK Day Oratorical Contest. (Sam Searles/WHYY)

Waddington believes social media is fueling disputes between young people, and that there is a lack of understanding about the consequences of picking up a gun.

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“Teenagers specifically want to seem cool to their friends and they want to act tough and they want people to respect them more.” she said. “They don’t fear the consequences of their actions because they feel untouchable.”

There’s a whole contingent of Philly teens getting involved in the fight against gun violence. The Enough is Enough Steering Committee, supported by Thomas and led by Waddington and others, conducted a citywide survey  of 1,300 youth last year and put out recommendations to officials.

The survey found that:

  • 64% of students said they were worried about the safety of their friends and family regarding gun violence.
  • 79% of students selected gang involvement as a reason for gun violence.
  • 63% cited “the desire to be seen as tough or cool” as a driving factor.
  • When asked to propose solutions to gun violence, 71% said “better gun laws,” while only 48% said youth programming.

Many of the survey respondents were affected by gun violence — 46% had a loved one who had been shot, 36% had witnessed gun violence, and nearly 11% had been victimized.

The committee held a rally at City Hall last spring, and issued the following recommendations for policymakers:

  • Increased focus on mental health in schools.
  • More opportunities for students to communicate with City Council on a regular basis so their ideas can impact policies.
  • Making green spaces a priority.
  • An even spread of community organizations that work with teenagers across the city.

Waddington has also served as an intern in councilmember Thomas’s office, and has traveled to Harrisburg to advocate for gun control policies on behalf of the committee.

Thomas, who released a gun violence prevention proposal last year, said he’s excited to work with youth to make sure at least some of these ideas are executed.

As for the speech contest winners, he said he plans to follow them as they follow their college aspirations. The first, second and third place competition winners took home scholarships ranging from $500 to $2,000. “I’m just a fan in the stands,” Thomas said. “For me, just watching [them]; they were amazing, impactful, and powerful.”

Cousins said he wants young, Black men to remain part of the conversation because so many of them have lost their lives to gun violence. The contest helped him improve his public speaking skills and his ability to hold eye contact. He hopes to go to college soon to pursue basketball or music engineering.

Waddington said she wants to be a prosecutor when she gets older, to try to shift the criminal justice system away from punishment and toward rehabilitation.

“Not just trying to put people in jail,” she said. “I want to change it. And I feel like the best way to change it is from the inside of a system that’s broken already.”

She’s been brainstorming a town hall or open house where teens can meet with their city representatives and share solutions.

“The most important thing to help teenagers feel less helpless and also make change, is to let them be in the conversation,” she said.

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