The Origins and Effects of the Code of Silence

Emerging Leader Fellow: Samuel George, 2007-2008

Growing up in Cheltenham, Pennsylvania, I noticed at an early age that the expressway connecting my house to Center City cut through neighborhoods very different than my own.  I also noticed that I had very little contact with these neighborhoods, as if invisible barriers separated my spacious suburban world from the dense inner city.  Even at an early age, this contrast troubled me as the separation contradicted my family’s lessons of equality and desegregation.  As I pursued higher education, I dedicated myself to investigating these invisible barriers that divide our society, with the hopes of hastening their deconstruction.     

I began my research on the Code of Silence as an undergrad at Oberlin College.  Noting a gap in the literature, I decided to analyze a complicated and delicate subject by its historical roots.  In considering the roots of the communication breakdown between Philadelphia communities and the police, and analyzing the effects, I sought to begin a more substantial discussion on this crucial topic than the typically cursory and inflammatory explanations portrayed in the media.  After graduation, however, the fist particles of dust began to gather on the thesis I had composed in college. 

Thankfully, Stoneleigh Foundation offered me the opportunity to refine my research, and present it to Philadelphia.  With input from David Fair, Vice President of Community Impact at the United Way, we had the idea to organize a public panel featuring individuals interviewed for my thesis.  Preventing my work from languishing on a lonely bookshelf, Stoneleigh Foundation’s support gave my research a voice, and in the process, focused the ears of Philadelphia on the individuals that we need to listen to if we want to understand and begin to improve the relationships between the inner city and the police.      

The Muted Truth Forum:  On May 16th, 2008, some ten months after starting this work, our idea came to fruition.  WHYY hosted The Muted Truth: Philadelphia’s Stop Snitching Crisis in its Civic Space.  The forum, supported by The United Way of Southeastern Pennsylvania, gathered subjects interviewed for the thesis, along with professionals and stake holders that I had worked with during my year as a junior fellow.[1]

The forum addressed the major issues of my thesis (such as the rise of physical isolation, a failed war on drugs, and the lack of legitimate employment opportunities) in front of a capacity crowd of 150 people, including with reporters from major Philadelphia newspapers and televisions stations.  Many who attended work with Philadelphia’s youth, and a number have indicated that they plan to incorporate what they learned at the forum into their programs.  The forum received significant press coverage:  The Philadelphia Daily News, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Philadelphia Tribune, KYW Radio, WURD Radio, among others, all reported on the event.  Considering the initial goal of sharing the conversation with Philadelphia, this press coverage added to the success of the forum by helping disseminate our conversation.     

Not only did the forum give voice to my work, but it also represented the first event of a campaign being waged by the United Way of Southeastern Pennsylvania to address the Code of Silence.  I am honored to have inspired this campaign, and to have started it off in the right direction. 

On a personal level, the forum allowed me to forward my career at an exciting pace.  Throughout the planning process, I networked with individuals throughout Philadelphia.  I learned how to incorporate very different personalities and perspectives into one eclectic presentation.   I gained experience in pressure packed situations, as I insured that our materials were accurately and thoroughly prepared, and that our panelists represented complementary perspectives, were knowledgeable, and in attendance on the day of the forum.   

While The Muted Truth forum represents the highlight of my junior fellowship, the forum’s successes could only be realized after a number of setbacks, owing to ambitious planning and complicated scheduling.  Besides being learning experiences, these setbacks allowed me to approach a number of smaller projects that may prove to be as memorable as the forum project itself.  In fact, one of the most valuable aspects of the fellowship was getting experience in a number of different disciplines, working with “big shots” – high ranking professionals, as well as “long shots” – Philadelphians attempting to forge a life path while overcoming daunting circumstances.  Some highlights include:    

● Language Access work with Congreso De Latinos Unidos:  With Congreso de Latinos Unidos (the city’s largest non-profit Latino organization), I investigated how language barriers affected Spanish speaking parents’ abilities to interact with public school and the juvenile justice system. 

My research included shadowing a bilingual case manager as she visited her Spanish-speaking clients throughout Eastern North Philadelphia.  Eventually, I would interview these parents in Spanish concerning their experiences with monolingual systems.  I joined these families during their Family Court hearings to witness in person the resources available to individuals of Limited English Proficiency.  I also interviewed a number of professionals involved with language access in schools and courts.  At one point, I sat in a four person meeting along side Nick Torres, Executive Director of Congreso; David Lugo, Principal of Thomas Edison High School; and Administrative Judge of Family Court, Kevin Dougherty. My work with Congreso (which they plan to publish) allowed me to use my Spanish in a professional setting, as well as to fight for the rights of some of Philadelphia’s most vulnerable citizens. 

● Journalism:  Stoneleigh Foundation encouraged me to share my work with the world through journalism, and even provided for a highly respected editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer to work with me on my writing.  My pieces have since been published on the Stoneleigh Foundation and United Way websites, in The Philadelphia Daily News, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and The Bulletin

● Engaging at Risk Youth in Creative Writing: I believe an important way to overcome the Code of Silence is to encourage artistic expression.  Through my Junior Fellowship, I conducted work shops with at risk youth in which the youth composed poetry and prose on topics such as Stop Snitching, police, prisons, and how to break cycles of unproductive lifestyles.  One group of young adults at the E3 Girard (E3 Centers serve Philadelphia’s High School dropouts) wrote a song, and recorded it using the foundation’s equipment. At the Muted Truth forum, I disseminated a compilation of the best of these writings, along with a CD copy of the song in a book entitled The Commonwealth Verses.  

As my Junior Fellowship concludes, I am excited to know that a number of the projects I began will continue.  The United Way has expressed commitment to the Code of Silence campaign.  With my assistance, the organization has invited Philadelphia’s youth to determine the nature of follow up events.  The United Way also plans to have more public forums in the communities where the Code of Silence is strongest.  Congreso De Latinos Unidos has adopted Language Access as a focus point and they plan to publish portions of my research, and to advocate for my recommendations.  Thanks to the support of Stoneleigh Foundation, I have been able to help shape and kick off campaigns aimed at tearing down the barriers that divide Philadelphia.  Personally, the Fellowship has further inspired my conviction to see a united Philadelphia.  I am honored to have been Stoneleigh Foundation’s first Junior Fellow, and I look forward to pursuing the many professional opportunities available thanks to the experience gained during the last year.  

[1]Panelists included Judge Renee Cardwell Hughes, Deputy District Attorney George Mosee, DHS Interim Commissioner James Randolph, Homicide District Attorney Mark Gilson, Deputy Mayor for Public Safety Everett Gillison, AVRP Program Manager Andre Chin, Philadelphia Anti Drug Anti Violence Executive Director Darryl Coates, Dorothy Johnson Speight of Mothers in Charge, and Daniel Cariño, co-founder and current president of the Youth Advocacy Council at Congreso De Latinos Unidos.