As Philadelphia community leaders and city officials work to slow surging rates of gun violence, a few residents-turned-researchers are digging into the root causes of the crisis in hopes of shedding light on solutions.
Philadelphia is one of five major cities receiving national funding to study the factors driving youth gun violence. The research model involves hiring people with lived experience to ask questions in their own neighborhoods.
On Friday, the research team from New York met with the Philly team to discuss how to hire community researchers, how to recruit neighborhood participants, how to craft survey questions, and other important tasks required for the study.
The goal of the project, which will include interviews with 750 young people across the country, is to ”gain a better understanding of why youth in disadvantaged urban neighborhoods get involved with guns.”
“What we have to find out is who’s in this neighborhood who we know is a shooter, who has shot people and is still shooting?,” said Basaime Spate, one of the researchers from New York who was formerly involved in street violence.
The teams will ultimately come up with recommendations to share with public officials.
A nonprofit called the Fathership Foundation in Southwest Philadelphia is leading the work locally and has hired three research associates from the community so far.
At Friday’s meeting, the two teams discussed how Philadelphia might tailor its survey questions.
“Different communities have very different street cultures,” said Fathership Foundation director Jonathan Wilson Jr. “In this region of the country, the big gangs and the national gangs, there’s no real footprint for that in Philadelphia.”
Sarah Sydney, a research associate who also works for the foundation, said she knows which youth they’ll need to talk to.
“I’m here to support my neighborhood and I wanna know what’s the problem here,” she said. “I’ma do this research. I’ma find out, how can we change this?”
Sharon Macon, another community member and research associate, said she’s hopeful that their work will inject new information into the gun violence puzzle.
“There’s a lot of people out here who believe change is never gonna happen, but it has to,” Macon said.
Experts say gun violence research is underfunded compared to other public health issues. Caterina Roman, a criminal justice researcher at Temple University, said it’s especially rare to see studies that incorporate the perspectives of people affected by the problem.
“This work will uncover many insights that will help practitioners and policymakers devise grounded solutions to the gun violence crisis,” she said in an email to WHYY.
She also believes the experience community members gain while collecting data will be useful to them in the future.
“The training they receive increases employability in many ways including making them top candidates for positions as street outreach workers in evidence-based interventions being implemented in high-violence communities,” Roman said.
The interview questions the Philadelphia team is designing will be sensitive, and the team will face the challenge of convincing people to speak with them. Study participants will receive a $30 stipend for participating.
Elise White, research director for the Center for Court Innovation and an investigator on the study, said having credible people ask the questions will improve the turnout and the quality of responses. Community researchers will also be the ones to craft the recommendations based on the findings.
“The folks who live the experience also end up controlling the data at the end, so they control the narrative,” she said. “And that’s an extremely important thing when you look at the way that gun violence gets talked about.”
White says the Philadelphia team could have findings by this coming December or January.
If you or someone you know has been affected by gun violence in Philadelphia, you can find grief support and resources here.
WHYY is one of over 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.