Our Children are Dying and We Can Stop It.

On May 16th, the Stoneleigh Foundation sponsored a symposium about what concerned and engaged stakeholders in Philadelphia might do together to stem youth violence. At the beginning of the event, I stated that our goal was not to numb the audience of almost 200 with stunning and depressing statistics, but rather to stir them to action, to mobilize the public will and present select  opportunities for engagement from those who are leading efforts to prevent violence.

The levels of violence in our schools and communities are unacceptable and we know that ending violence will take more than outrage and talk.  The Symposium’s strong showing and passionate dialogue from a wide range of stakeholders demonstrated that many in the community are deeply concerned.  

The good news is that there are solutions and resources that can reduce youth violence - from targeted strategies within the systems serving youth, to innovation with law enforcement and evidence-based prevention work, to creative ways to engage youth in transforming their own lives -indeed there is no shortage of solutions or approaches.

A consistent theme from our conversation with the Mayor, School Reform Commissioner Lorene Cary, Stoneleigh Fellow Dr. Ted Corbin, Director of Philadelphia’s Youth Commission, Jamira Burley, Executive Director of AMLA, Lucas Rivera, and Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey was the need for strong, committed leadership and better coordination among all the efforts working to combat violence. We have to view this as a community-wide problem that affects ALL of us and not just a problem affecting someone else. We must each take a step back and ask, “what more can I (or should I) do to make the children in my neighborhood safer? Can I hire a young person this summer? Can I be that one caring adult that we know makes the difference in a young person’s life? How can I bring my agency/business/ or organization’s resources to bear on this issue? Who might I connect with as a result of the symposium to advance a more effective approach to violence prevention?"

Lorene Cary challenged us to start rebranding the school district as one that can succeed. She shared several examples of its ability to succeed as well as the self-defeating impacts of “labeling” it a failure. Today, you could share what you learned and heard from her with those you know. Consider what message we send to our children when we avow that we aren’t willing to pay more for their education, but we are willing to spend twice as much on incarceration. 

Dr. Corbin needs all of the providers attending to connect to his Healing Hurt People program. Every day his team struggles to find the resources his patients need to make a safe life possible. Services such as obtaining an ID card, finding a GED program near home, and accessing health care are key to providing an alternative to the revolving door of violence. He needs to connect to you, but doesn’t know where you are. If we save one person from the cycle of violence that predicts a 44% reinjury rate, we save up to $30,000 in medical costs alone. Shouldn’t the small cost of prevention justify our collective response?

From Jamira Burley we were told to make noise and stand together to refuse to live in a city where violence is a daily occurrence and murder is common. She and all of the speakers implored us to affirm the humanity of each individual and change the nature of the Google “image” that pops up when you search for youth.

Lucas Rivera told us to call back when a child calls out. His story defines what happens when that child is at a fork in the road, and you respond. Instead of a statistic, he becomes a community leader.

Who will step up and respond to Commissioner Ramsey’s call for a protest march for every young person who dies as a result of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, not just Trayvon? Do we have what it takes to sustain the multi-generational effort needed to return our streets to the children who should be playing on them?

Stoneleigh will continue to do as much as possible. This week we launched this blog series on violence to help continue the dialogue, provide an outlet for your comments and offer ideas for opportunities that might make a difference. Visit our website from time to time to see new resources and information that we will post.  

Yesterday, I publicly applauded the Stoneleigh board for recent decisions that exemplify that extraordinary times require extraordinary responses. We say we don’t make program grants, but the Stoneleigh Board did when they saw that strengthening the voice of youth was an important part of finding a solution to violence. Additionally, it is unheard of for a foundation to pay for the development of a proposal, but the Board recognized that if we want to help create safer schools, it required this unheard of action. We all need to stop finding reasons why we can’t and look for reasons why we can support children. I am proud that Stoneleigh isn’t just talking the talk, but walking the walk!

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Lorene Cary made a critically important point emphasizing that a child's behavior is typically linked to the quality of education and environment present in his/her classroom and school. Students who are learning and experiencing success in school are rarely students who act out. That is even the case for children who are saddled with family and community problems (though of course these all matter, too.) This might seem obvious, but it's sad to observe that the history of efforts to prevent violence in schools has rarely made this connection. Any safety strategy must take into account this linkage between learning and behavior. I am glad to see that the Stoneleigh Foundation has followed up its Summit by supporting a Fellow to develop a new school safety strategy.
Debra Kahn Executive Director Delaware Valley Grantmakers

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