L to R: Moderator Layla A. Jones and panelists Siddiq Moore, Soneyet Muhammad, and Michael Thorpe

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Small, bootstrapped organizations and civic-minded entrepreneurs in at-risk neighborhoods might not have the most organized administration, but they do have clout, respect, and impact. They should be first in line to get city funding earmarked for anti-violence jobs programs.

That was one of the takeaways from a community conversation in West Philadelphia Tuesday night. But many in attendance were skeptical it’ll ever really happen.

The group of about 50 people gathered at Siddiq’s Real Fruit Water Ice on 60th and Irving included community organizers with a breadth of real-world experience, as well as residents interested in uplifting their neighborhood and making it safer. They all wanted to send a message to Philadelphia officials as the city prepares to invest millions of dollars in violence intervention jobs training.

Co-hosted by Billy Penn and CeaseFirePA, the  “How Jobs Prevent Violence” panel talk and Q&A was convened to explore what community-based jobs programs were doing right and help guide the city toward proven practices.

Panelists included Michael Thorpe, who runs the Mt. Vernon Manor CDC and created a jobs training program for returning citizens, Soneyet Muhammad, director of workforce development at Drexel, and entrepreneur Siddiq Moore, who owns the eponymous water ice shop.

“A lot of the organizations that’s getting the so-called funding… they’re great at pushing paper,” said Moore when it was his turn on the mic. “But they’re not on the ground, they’re not doing the work in the community.”

Moore, who started with a single water ice cart, now owns a store in Chester as well as 60th Street. As the business grew, he continued to hire from within his community and teach employees about entrepreneurship.

“The people that’s really doing the work, they don’t have time to sit and put the paper together and try and apply for this grant, and may not have the technical assistance,” Moore continued, referencing funding opportunities offered by the city, “but they got the heart and the courage and they got the street credibility to do it.”

A related concept reverberated through the crowd: A handful of well-known names have access to officials and, therefore, receive grants from the city — but those aren’t the only people running good programs.

YouTube video

In general, panelists and community members expressed frustration at what they described as a prohibitively complex grant application, vetted by decision makers not plugged in to who’s making a real impact in the neighborhoods most plagued by shootings and joblessness.

Muhuammad, who also helps ensure Drexel’s procurement process is more equitable, said a key part of her work includes hiring long-time residents who can hold her and the massive educational institution accountable.

The City of Philadelphia, she said, should do the same — and offer training if needed.

“One of the challenges sometimes is the mismatch between the skills that you may need for a particular job function and what you’re able to identify within the community,” Muhammad said. “You have to be ready and have the capacity to train. ‘If I can’t find it, can I build it?’ And if you’re not willing to do that type of work, then you need to take a step back.”

Philly publicly began emphasizing job training programs in July, after the health department published data showing ZIP codes with high chronic joblessness also see higher levels of gun violence.

Part of the city’s $155 million anti-violence funding budget is dedicated to workforce development, including a $2 million portion for an evidence-based program that couples cognitive behavioral therapy with jobs training.

Soneyet Muhammad, Director of Workforce Development, Drexel University Credit: Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

Hire people with lived experience, return vocational training to schools

The idea that jobs prevent crime is far from new to people who grew up in affected neighborhoods and saw what access to jobs and entrepreneurship, or the lack thereof, could do.

Folks already doing the work, including residents who attended the event, offered up suggestions — ways they believe Philadelphia must allocate funding if it wants to have real impact.

Suggestions included:

  • Place jobs training programs, especially building trades initiatives, in the neighborhoods where the most at-risk young people live, not in a location like Center City or Spring Garden that would require travel.
  • Hire people with lived experience to help the city identify which groups are doing the work, who should get funding, and who’s most at risk.
  • Provide multi-year grants as opposed to one-time grants for organizations “that are at scale with reasonable measurements of success and performance measures,” Muhammad said.
  • Elected officials should immerse themselves in neighborhoods to ensure groups that are tangibly helping neighborhoods get access to grant funding.
  • Put vocational training back in schools.
  • Partner larger, more established organizations with smaller grassroots groups to provide technical assistance that will help less savvy organizations with grant applications.

Councilmember Jamie Gauthier, whose district includes the 60th Street corridor where the panel was held, attended Tuesday’s meeting. She acknowledged that things haven’t always been done in the most equitable way.

“In the past, there’s been a mismatch between the resources and the organizations on the ground who need the resources,” she said, “but we want to work differently this time.”

Gauthier encouraged neighbors to call her and other members of City Council and promote groups and individuals who may be overlooked but who deserve money and support.

“What’s been described that happened in the past,” Gauthier said, “is the exact opposite of what all the Council members who came together during this budget season want.”

Layla A. Jones (she/her) was a general assignment reporter for Billy Penn from 2019 to 2021. Her work has helped underserved community organizations, earned free repairs for property owners who sustained...