A toddler poses on a stationary bike at a community event thrown by Urban Navigation

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Steven is 10 years old. He’s a fifth grader from West Oak Lane, loves Biggie Smalls and Tupac, and wants to be a music producer when he grows up (but only if basketball doesn’t work out).

Oh, and he also knows how to disarm a Glock.

“Make sure your trigger finger isn’t on the trigger before you release the magazine,” he told Billy Penn, during a Zoom session set up by Urban Navigation.

Founded last year, Urban Navigation aims to divert kids, teens, and young adults from a path of violence. At their West Philly training center, people aged 10 to 26 can take classes on topics ranging from music production and songwriting to engineering for dirt bikes.

The goal? To give young people a roadmap of options beyond what might be available in their neighborhood or at school.

“Yes, students are able to attend school. But they also have to have a mindset where they feel able to be successful. Having that is a lot harder for inner city kids,” said co-founder Don Jackson.

There’s also a focus on practical tips for young people who live in environments where guns are regularly present by no fault of their own.

“From talking with kids, we know that gun violence was a big issue,” said Hameen Diggins, Urban Navigation’s other co-founder. “They also told us that dancing around the issue wouldn’t solve the problem, so we tackle it head on with gun safety education.”

Already this year, more than 340 people in Philly have been shot, according to data compiled by the Philadelphia Center for Gun Violence Reporting, up 4% from last year’s already high pace. The concentration of shootings varies over time and across neighborhoods, but the brunt of the violence falls on young people.

In 2021, young adults comprised a quarter of Philadelphia’s shooting fatalities. The violence near North Philly’s U School has made students feel “numb [and] disconnected” as they grapple with constant lockdowns, The Inquirer reported, while others are afraid to walk to school.

Diggins and Jackson try to impart skills youth can use immediately, like how to disarm a weapon, stay safe during a shooting, or what Second Amendment rights do and don’t cover.

“We’re not teaching people how to go and shoot accurately,” said Jackson, who works as director of education for the Philadelphia Technician Training Institute. “We’re teaching them how to respect the weapon, which a lot of kids don’t learn.”

The inspiration for Urban Navigation came directly from conversations with students at his North Philly automotive and technical trade school, Jackson said.

Some students wanted to learn more about the music industry and engineering, while others sought intangible life skills: conflict resolution, healthy self expression, and how to plan for the future.

The organization partners with local hip hop magazine Hypefresh and internet radio station Myndset Radio to teach Media 101 classes, which focus on documentary and audio production. Their signature program, 16 Bars of Expression, looks at how rap can be used to solve conflicts, while their Power Sports Commission combines gun safety lessons with engineering classes.

All programs run on open enrollment and are free to the public. Jackson stressed that no two students will have the same takeaways from a class, but most center on how to cope with gun violence.

There’s little research about how effective gun safety classes are at blunting the impact of gun violence. But for 10-year-old Steven, the program seems to be working.

“I would recommend [Urban Navigation] to a lot of kids in Philadelphia,” Steven said. “The way crime is, kids need to know how to handle being around a gun.”

Credit: Courtesy Urban Navigation

ATVs as anger management: ‘They’re not shooting at anybody’

West Oak Lane fifth grader Steven is also a big fan of Urban Navigation’s Power Sports Commission.

The 13-month program uses ATVs as a jumping off point for technical training on small engine repairs, entrepreneurship lessons, and eventually, the chance to obtain a legal license for a vehicle.

Philadelphia’s strong dirt bike culture has ties to Meek Mill and community building. It has also incited backlash from city residents who conflate the streams of bikes and ATVs that zoom down Broad Street and other commercial corridors with upticks in crime, noise complaints, and traffic accidents.

Last summer, City Council passed legislation that would make it easier to confiscate these illegal vehicles. But where local legislators see crime, Urban Navigation sees an opportunity.

“There’s always the news reports: ‘These ATV’s get on people’s nerves.’ But what the city is not realizing is that when young people are on their ATVs and dirt bikes, they’re not shooting at anybody,” said co-founder Jackson. “Instead, they’re taking out their frustration on the bike.”

Urban Navigation’s program operates in small cohorts of 5 to 15 students. Some days, instruction means field trips to dirt bike trails to blow off steam. Other times, it means learning how to build robots or fix a motorcycle.

Steven said the program is already teaching him determination and perseverance. Older students who complete the training can earn mechanical certifications and walk in a graduation ceremony.

“When you’re working on a bike or riding one, all your problems go away,” co-founder Diggins told Billy Penn. “All of that anger, all of that pain disappears for a minute. And we want to be able to give youth that option.”