As violence in our community has spiraled in recent weeks, with suspects in recent shootings as young as 15 years old, I’ve spoken with formerly incarcerated folks, gun violence survivors and victims’ families, and reflected on my own family’s experience of losing a matriarch to gun violence and a teen cousin to a likely life sentence for her murder.
In the words of my fellow abolitionist Frederick Douglass, it is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men. Typical public safety interventions—more cops on the street, as an example—try to tackle the latter. My proposed investment in public safety focuses on the former. Youth development is the most frequent refrain I hear when I speak with the community about the recent rash of gun violence, and on this basis, I suggest we invest in a resident-led transformation of our Leisure Services programming and support community organizations doing youth development work as means of lifting our youngsters into healthier life outcomes which, ultimately, will make our neighborhoods safer.
One new Leisure Services program I’ve proposed, the Everybody Eats municipal community garden pilot, tackles public safety at multiple levels. It transforms a blighted property in a low-income neighborhood into a communal space for collective recreation and life skills development, improving social cohesion and deterring drug use, trespassing, and other crimes that blighted properties invite. This is proven to make communities safer, too. In a study of crime and blighted property remediation in Philadelphia, low-income communities saw a 29% decrease in gun violence in the vicinity of blighted properties that the city transformed into pocket parks, among other safety benefits. Critically, Everybody Eats will employ neighborhood youth at a living wage to help manage the garden and recruit their friends to come learn agricultural skills, providing youth with a healthy social environment, food security, financial stability and the opportunity to give back to their hoods, all of which set them up for long-term financial, mental and social health—and, as a result, set our communities up for lasting safety.
This is just one intervention of many that we desperately need to save our kids. What I hear, too, is a desire for community involvement in deciding how such youth supports are structured. That’s why I also propose an additional $500,000 to be invested in youth development in next year’s budget and a participatory process to determine how it gets spent. Some of the funds could be allocated within Leisure Services, who would be tasked with engaging members of the community about improvements and expansions to existing Leisure Services programs, including modification of existing pay structures, facilities open hours, and application processes to help lower barriers to access. I feel the $190,000 in spending already allotted in the mayor’s recommended budget for renovations and new programming at Aaron Heard and Lay Parks should be divided up this way, too.
There are many community-based organizations already at work in addressing public safety through youth development as well. Alternatively, or additionally, this infusion of funding could be allocated to community-based youth development coalitions like Youth Organizations United To Help (YOUTH), which, in addition to offering a wide range of programs, also performs needs assessment for at-risk youth and matches them with programs that will best support them.
Turning to the criminal justice system for answers when community violence spikes is our autopilot response. But criminal justice interventions—diversion programs, police reforms, etc.—are tooled to address crisis and harm after they’ve arisen. Our approach to public safety must also address root issues before they become crises in the first place by investing in our collective future—starting with our children.
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