Philly students host forum on gun violence

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Students at Parkway Center City Middle College talk about their experiences with gun violence during a student-led forum with City Council President Darrell Clarke and Councilwoman Cindy Bass.

Students at Parkway Center City Middle College talk about their experiences with gun violence during a student-led forum with City Council President Darrell Clarke and Councilwoman Cindy Bass. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

On Monday morning, ninth-grader Nyla Brooks stood in front of her classmates at Parkway Center City High School in Philadelphia and spoke about the broken promise of her city, the “City of Brotherly Love.”

“I see fear, and I see damage, and I see people that are hurt because they feel guns is the way to go,” Nyla said.

“I see blood. I see bloodshed. I see bodies. And that’s not what I want to see.”

She was not speaking figuratively. Like most of her classmates at this special admissions school on the northern rim of Center City, Nyla has actually seen the toll of gun violence.

When she was 4, her father was gunned down.

“I have a little bit of PTSD, so when I hear certain things, it triggers certain emotions, and it triggers a certain fear that I have,” she said.

A few steps to her left stood City Council President Darrell Clarke and Councilwoman Cindy Bass, a graduate of Parkway Center City. The students had invited the political duo to their forum on gun violence and racial discrimination because they want to keep the conversation going. They don’t want the recently heightened national consciousness to drift again from topics they consider vital.

The killing of 17 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, has galvanized a generation of youth activists and pushed gun control to the front of the national narrative. On March 14, thousands walked out of class in protest. Ten days later, thousands more gathered in cities across the country for boisterous demonstrations. Last week, students walked out of class again in Philadelphia and elsewhere.

Student leaders have seized the nation’s attention. Now they’re trying to figure out how to keep it.

That evolution is playing out — on a small level — in schools such as Parkway Center City.

The ninth-graders here earned media attention after Helen Ubiñas, a Philadelphia Daily News columnist, spotlighted their efforts to talk about the toll of everyday gun violence and not simply focus on the victims of sensationalized mass shootings. That led them to D.C. for the national March for Our Lives Rally and into the national press. It also brought them into the crosshairs of online trolls who pilloried them in comments sections.

Not that Nyla is concerned.

“Trolls don’t come after people who [aren’t] doing nothing,” she said.

Converting all that attention and energy into power is a heady challenge for students who just began high school.

They took their nervous first steps at Monday’s hourlong forum. Some bellowed to conceal their nerves or went for laughs. Others futzed with the microphone.

Mostly, though, they were serious and steady.

They lamented the state of the city. They asked Clarke and Bass what each could personally do to curb violence. They wondered why racism still exists in 2018. Clarke, in an unguarded moment, admitted he didn’t have a good answer.

Mostly, they learned the difference between caring about an issue and confronting people in power with their passion. On the topic of gun control, there was little ideological tension between the students and Clarke or Bass. But the simple act of standing in front of elected leaders and speaking directly to them left an impression.

“I got to see and learn how the city officials have to operate to get things done and the amount of grueling time and patience it takes to get stuff done,” said Jamin Cash, adding that he learned he shouldn’t sit in the back next time a public official came to school.

Nyla deemed the event a success, with one qualifier.

“I felt like it could have been more powerful if we had more time,” she said.

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