Annette John-Hall: Making a difference with deeds, not talk

Hasan Lloyd (left) and Terrance Lisby reach out through Project Strawberry Mansion.
Hasan Lloyd (left) and Terrance Lisby reach out through Project Strawberry Mansion.
Posted: July 26, 2011

Turned on the radio the other day and heard Mayor Nutter fire off his latest salvo in an effort to generate change for the better in Philadelphia:

"I pledge to increase the number of high school graduates," the mayor said. Then he pointedly asked, "What are you prepared to do?"

I'm guessing that's the whole point of the "I Pledge" campaign, a series of public-service announcements featuring politicians, activists, and other notables, heard on hip-hop and R&B radio stations citywide: If everyone actually made a pledge, kept it, and held a neighbor accountable, this thing could go a long way toward fixing what's wrong with the city.

Truth is, it doesn't work that way. If only it could be as easy as uttering magic words to rid Philadelphia of the guns, crime, and hopelessness too many young people live with every day.

I sure don't have the answers. But I do know that a pledge of nonviolence, recorded by some slick-talking disc jockey in a suburban studio miles away from where the violence actually occurs, is just slick talk.

So I pledge to tell stories of the folks on the ground, whose commitment to their communities puts them in a position not only to start figuring out the answers, but also to ask the right questions.

Beneath the T-shirt

Terrance Lisby, 41, was understandably hesitant. After all, he didn't want some random reporter judging him on his checkered past.

But if sharing his story could bring attention to what he and Project Strawberry Mansion, his fledging organization, were trying to do, it was well worth it.

So one of the first things Lisby did, after we met at Calvary United Church of Christ - where he works in partnership with the Rev. Ron Milliner and former State Rep. Andrew Carn - was lift his T-shirt to show his gunshot wounds. Not as a badge of honor, but to show how he's earned his cred among the skeptical youth he works with.

It wasn't as if Lisby grew up a stereotype in Strawberry Mansion. He was raised by both parents, but the allure of quick cash through selling drugs was too much to ignore, especially when most of his friends were doing it.

'So real on our level'

Bad turned to worse. Lisby did 12 years on a third-degree murder charge. The victim, says Lisby, "pulled something from his pants, so I shot him."

Remorse? At the time, "I didn't care," Lisby says. "I looked at it from the standpoint of, what if it was the other way around? Of course, now it's different. You just don't go around shooting people." But many of the young men committing most of the crime in Strawberry Mansion - 29 homicides already this year, up from 20 at this time last year - feel differently. Lisby says they live in an isolated subculture with a whole different set of rules, stoked by a skewed definition of respect.

"It's so real on our level. Either you're gonna eat or not. Either you're gonna shoot or get shot," Lisby says. A state law prohibiting straw purchases of guns doesn't mean a thing, he says. Getting a gun is as easy as asking for one.

At Project Strawberry Mansion, Lisby and partner Hasan Lloyd use their own resources to help young men with the basics, such as food. Like providing soap and deodorant. What people don't realize, Lisby says, is that many young men kicked out of their mother's or grandmother's house don't have money to eat.

"They've been hungry for so long, they start to take," he says.

What's more difficult is trying to help them find a job.

"I explain to them they can't get a job if they don't have a high school diploma," says Lisby, who earned his GED while in prison.

It would be wonderful if the city or some benevolent sponsor helped fund his programs, but Lisby is nothing if not a realist. He understands that while some give him cred for his past, others shun him because of it.

"I take responsibility for what I did. I've made peace with my life," the married father of three says. "Now I think I can do more with my life by helping someone than destroying someone."


Contact columnist Annette John-Hall at 215-854-4986, ajohnhall@phillynews.com, or @Annettejh on Twitter.

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