Teens map symptoms to find cures for city's violence

Posted: March 19, 2012

WHEN ENJOULÉ Johnson travels out of town, she can predict what people will say when she tells them where she's from.

"They say, 'That's not Philly - that's Killadelphia.' It's embarrassing," she said. "It's hurtful, and it makes you feel unsafe at the same time."

Olivia Smith-Bey says some of the city's neighborhoods are running out of safe places for young people to gather. "Every park I've been to," she said, "somebody got shot in it."

The two women are seniors at University City High School, which says eight in 10 students come from homes below the poverty level. The two are classmates in a social-studies course that seeks to address teenage exposure to violence and poverty.

"Apathy is a crippling sentiment for young people to embody," said Andrew Biros, the student teacher guiding the course. "So I made a decision: All right, we're going to try to chip away at this."

The first step in breaking the cycle is asking questions about why this is happening, to whom, and how it can be addressed, said Biros, a University of Pennsylvania grad student in education. Biros is pushing his class to think critically about the issues in their neighborhoods, to ask questions and to draw from their own experiences and research to propose solutions.

The goal is for the teens to access power - and those who are in positions of power - to advocate for change.

"You strive to access more knowledge, because when you access knowledge you access power," Biros said. "But if no one ever explained that to a student, then how are we to expect them to just instinctively know?"

Armed with data and maps about Philadelphia's crime rates, poverty and educational attainment, Biros said, the students eventually opened up when they realized that their opinions were valued.

"Young people and students, they know more than we give them credit for," he said.

A visit from the mayor

When Mayor Nutter visited the class Friday, Biros' students used the opportunity to ask for safer recreation centers and more employment options for teens.

The mayor was impressed.

"There's a lot to be gained by paying attention to what's on their minds and then trying to do something about it in a positive way," Nutter said.

The class has spent part of this semester studying the city's homicide rate and analyzing a crime map to determine where the violence is unfolding.

A 43-year-old man was gunned down last Monday on a crowded playground in Logan, and a 28-year-old man was fatally shot last Wednesday on a North Philly street packed with children. A stray bullet was lodged in the door of a nearby community center after the second shooting, police said.

Like many other areas of the city, the students' section of West Philadelphia is filled with dots on the homicide map indicating an address where someone has been killed.

Homicide rate

With 324 homicides in 2011, Philadelphia had the highest homicide rate of the nation's 10 largest cities. Last year, 1,415 people were shot in the city, according to Police Department data, and 124 of those victims were juveniles. Of that number, 106 - roughly 85 percent - of juvenile shooting victims were African-American.

With too much competition for too few jobs, students say, young people try to find ways to get money - even if it means making it on the streets, where competition can translate to bloodshed.

"They just think you have to carry around a gun, you have to protect yourself and do certain things to make it," Smith-Bey said.

Without intervention, the teens said, it can be a tough lifestyle to leave behind, regardless of how dangerous it is.

"Basically, it's like being on drugs and you relapse," Johnson said of teens who are unable to turn away from violence and criminal activity. "It's so easy to relapse because it's out here everywhere."

Keeping teens interested in school and letting them know about job opportunities can go a long way, the teens said.

Michael Parker, another student in Biros' class, said the talk of change and advocacy sounds nice, but likely isn't enough to make people think it's possible to restore a sense of community to Philadelphia's neighborhoods.

"I have to see something being done to care," he said.

"It should start with us," said classmate Johnson. "And I'm OK with that."


Contact Phillip Lucas at 215-854-5914 or lucasp@phillynews.com. Follow him on Twitter @UnPhiltered. Read his blog Philly Confidential.com

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