Mentorship, entrepreneurship, better enforcement: Community leaders highlight urgency to ‘reimagine Philadelphia’ in the face of gun violence

“People are tired. People are scared. People are moving out of the city,” said a longtime Philly teacher at a roundtable convened by Allan Domb.

Community leaders and pastors talk after a roundtable hosted by Allan Domb, former member of City Council and likely mayoral candidate

Community leaders and pastors talk after a roundtable hosted by Allan Domb, former member of City Council and likely mayoral candidate

Lizzy McLellan Ravitch / Billy Penn
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Community leaders are calling for Philadelphia’s next mayor to bring real, systemic change to address gun violence. But they say there’s urgency to do something now, long before January 2024, when that person takes office.

A roundtable event Wednesday brought together religious leaders, the founder of a mentorship organization and a longtime Philadelphia School District staff member to discuss the reasons behind the city’s public safety problems and potential solutions.

Held in West Philly at the People’s Baptist Church, it was organized by former councilmember and prospective mayoral candidate Allan Domb as the first stop of a “listening tour,” even though he hasn’t yet formally declared his intent to run.

Conversations touched on all of the city services that could — or should — be involved in making residents feel safer.

The discussion focused largely on young people and schools, and not just because of what happened near Roxborough High the previous day, where a post-football scrimmage shooting left four teens injured and killed a 14-year-old boy.

“The children that are carrying the guns are getting younger and younger, and they can still walk right into the schools,” said Joyce Abbott, who worked for 25 years as a teacher and climate manager at Andrew Hamilton Elementary.

“What are we waiting for, something massive to happen here?” she asked. “People are tired. People are scared. People are moving out of the city. People are even scared to go to work.”

Others at the roundtable were Dante Leonard, founder of local organization We Embrace Fatherhood; Noreen Shields, a minister at Catalyst Church in Southwest Philadelphia; Rev. Eric Goode, pastor People’s Baptist; and Rev. John Roberts, former pastor of Garden of Prayer World’s Prayer Center, who also previously worked in the Philadelphia Sheriff’s Office.

Roberts recalled working in the juvenile division, before retiring in 2010. “You didn’t hear about shootings at schools and playgrounds, not back then. Now, it’s almost like every day,” he said.

“Parents have to be held accountable,” Roberts added.

Others at the table agreed, but lamented that in many cases one or more parents, particularly fathers, are not present.

Leonard, whose organization promotes male engagement in the family and community, proposed “a holistic approach” by teaching young people how to create a good life and a comfortable home, rather than telling them what not to do. One of his suggestions was getting “100 real men” and training them to go into communities and mentor other young men.

Abbott said that’s not enough, arguing that “tougher enforcement” needs to be implemented now.

“Right now, being 2022, we cannot do some of the things from the past because it’s a totally different family dynamic,” Abbott said. “So moving forward, what needs to be done now, like tomorrow and today? Because it’s getting worse.”

Domb proposed a program that allows students to work one day a week for pay and school credit, and the roundtable expressed enthusiasm for this idea, as a pathway toward post-graduation employment.

Roundtable participants with former City Council member Allan Domb included Dante Leonard, Joyce Abbott, Noreen Shields, Rev. Eric Goode, and Rev. John Roberts

Roundtable participants with former City Council member Allan Domb included Dante Leonard, Joyce Abbott, Noreen Shields, Rev. Eric Goode, and Rev. John Roberts

Lizzy McLellan Ravitch / Billy Penn

Everyone at the event agreed it feels like young people have easier access to weapons than ever before. Philadelphia has made efforts to tighten its gun laws — Mayor Jim Kenney just announced a ban on firearms and parks and rec centers — but a state rule called “pre-emption” makes it difficult if not impossible to enact regulations found to be effective elsewhere.

The roundtable participants proposed a number of other steps city leadership should take, and what they want from the next mayor, including:

  • Increase school funding
  • Improve safety measures in schools
  • Create safe spaces for young people where they can learn basic household skills and receive mentorship
  • Provide parenting classes for students and for adults who are already parents
  • Provide entrepreneurship classes so students can learn “responsible ways” to make money
  • Beautify communities and address blight

Resoundingly, they agreed the schools need more funding, and need to be teaching practical subjects like entrepreneurship. Domb suggested financial literacy, technology and parenting classes as well.

Domb also emphasized his proposed plan to closely analyze the more than $200 million Philadelphia is spending on gun violence prevention, to see what programs deserve more investment and which ones are less effective. A recent report by Controller Rebecca Rhynhart found most of the funding is going toward long term projects rather than immediate solutions.

The community leaders on Wednesday emphasized the importance of a long-term vision, but not at the expense of taking action now.

“We talked about black on black crime, but black on black crime is systematic — or symptomatic of a larger issue,” Goode, the People’s Baptist Church pastor, said. “The mayor, the next person who will take that seat, needs to be able to reimagine Philadelphia, needs to be able to reimagine our community.”

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