Panelists and audience members exchange contact info after a recent Billy Penn/CeaseFirePA event Credit: Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

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Valencia Peterson wants her football players to know that if they’ve been shot or lost friends and family to violence, and they walk Philadelphia feeling anxiety about their own safety, it’s actually affecting their brain.

And by acknowledging the effects of the trauma, she tells them, they can change it.

“One of the things I do with my young men,” said Peterson, who runs sports-focused nonprofit Open Door Abuse Awareness Prevention (ODAAP), “is I give them the power to understand themselves in order for them to do something about their trauma.”

To get the point across, she’s started using a large poster showing a giant brain. One side is red, representing distress. The other is blue, which represents calm.

“Our theme is: Get in the blue,” said Peterson, who is known almost universally as “Coach V.”

The poster and methodology were an immediate hit at CeaseFirePA and Billy Penn’s second community conversation about the city’s $155 million anti-violence budget, which includes $7 million for Parks & Rec. Peterson was joined on the panel by Mustafa Clement, founder of The Rebuilding A Village Foundation, and Laura Vega, who runs clinical operations at CHOP’s Violence Intervention Program.

Held outside on Wednesday at Lonnie Young Recreation Center in East Germantown, the discussion focused on youth and children. They make up a tragic and significant demographic among the city’s gun violence survivors, and perpetrators.

More than 220 shooting victims this year in Philly so far were 18 and younger, according to the City Controller Office. Of those, 38 were murdered.

During the event, Peterson, Vega, Clement, and audience members talked about ways to reduce those numbers, and identified factors that impede progress.

One of them: the lack of a centralized place to share ideas like the “red/blue brain” exercise, which people said is part of a general dearth in coordination.

For example, after a shooting, a family may receive calls from several different initiatives and become confused and overwhelmed, said Vega, of CHOP. She called for the city to create coordinated trauma response resources so organizations can stop operating in silos.

Another opportunity for the city to lift up grassroots organizations working with children: provide help applying for grants.

Clement, who grew up near Lonnie Young in East Germantown and now runs his program out of Haddington Rec in West Philly, said he’s applied twice for city funding but has never received it. Often, the application itself is daunting.

“We all have a common need: we need help with the application,” Clement said. “We all have other things going on. I have a business on the side, I’m a full-time dad, and I’m also volunteering. I don’t really have time to fill out a 30-page grant application. If they could get some resources to us, to bridge that gap, that would help.”

Audience member Derrick Cain, community engagement editor at Resolve Philly, agreed. “After a long day of doing that, and then you gotta sit down and fill out this 15-page thing, you may get through two [pages], and you’re going to bed”

People shared similar worries about accessing city anti-violence funding at Billy Penn and CeaseFirePA’s first panel discussion last month, at Siddiq’s Water Ice in Cobbs Creek.

Coach Peterson, of ODAAP, said she recently met with the District Attorney’s Office and was encouraged that the staff there seem to understand the grant application process is too arduous for most of the impactful, on the ground organizations that need and deserve access to capital.

Video: How Youth Programs Prevent Violence

Another key takeaway from Wednesday’s discussion: The city should invest in people with relatable lived experience to the populations they’re working to reach. Along with transparency and consistency, Clement said that’s what’s helped him establish trust in West Philadelphia, where he regularly hosts events like school supplies giveaways alongside sports programming.

“It’s not easy,” he said. “I bring in guests from that neighborhood who are successful now, who the kids can look at and say, ‘Wow. They did it. They live around the corner, I heard about them.”

Clement’s reputation was on full display when, to his surprise, two men in the audience at Lonnie Young shouted out praises for his hard work and authenticity. He said he had no idea people felt so positively about him.

In general, takeaways from the event included:

  • An immediate response for a community that suffered gun violence trauma is crucial.
  • Survey the children who actually use the resources to learn who and what is working best. “Find out where there’s impact,” Patterson said. “The kids know who’s impacting them.”
  • When something works at a rec center, keep the people who made the program great there instead of pulling them away to try to replicate it elsewhere, leaving the original to founder.
  • Rather than identifying and creating programming based on deficits like violent crime, incarceration and drop out rates, use positive metrics that identify strengths and assets of youth and within families.
  • City-sponsored trauma-response resources must be coordinated and should cease operating in silos.
  • The city should create a resource to help small, grassroots orgs complete grant applications. That could be funding for community grant writer positions, for example

CeaseFirePA Philadelphia organizer Kallel Edwards said a system that allows community members to access different resources, donors to see what they want to support, and helps increase facilitation among groups would be a positive step.

“Creating a centralized hub would allow organizations to facilitate outreach as we help people heal and intervene in violence, stretching limited dollars even further,” he said.

Edwards grew up in Germantown and said he saw crime increase when sports programs at Waterview Rec Center shut down. He stressed that even though it might feel dispiriting at times, no matter what, people need to continue doing the work.

“Folks like me can’t sit down and let [violence] go on,” Edwards said. “If you’re a credible messenger and you got the strength to carry on and make a difference, you really need to make a difference.”

Billy Penn reporter Layla A. Jones (moderator) and panelists Valencia ‘Coach V’ Peterson, Laura Vega, and Mustafa Clement Credit: Danya Henninger / Billy penn

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...