On Friday afternoon, Philadelphia high school students took a pledge to rewrite Philly’s story.
The promise marked the end of the School District’s second annual youth summit — the first RISE (Rewrite. Inspire. Strengthen. Engage) gathering, held last year, tackled the city’s opioid epidemic.
This year, about 200 students met online to focus on our other epidemic — the relentless gun violence soaring during the COVID pandemic, a high-stakes presidential election, and a racial and police reckoning that has gripped America since the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.
That reckoning landed squarely on our front steps Monday after police shot and killed Walter Wallace Jr. in West Philadelphia.
I’ve long argued that the daily gun violence that affects so many young people here doesn’t get the attention or action it merits.
But then last week I found myself scrambling to squeeze in calls with students between reporting on the police shooting and feeling more than a little guilty about not being able to give them the kind of time they deserved.
The killing of Wallace calls for our full attention right now. And yet I still couldn’t help but feel that there always seems to be some reason, some other urgent matter, that takes our focus from the young people by whom we keep promising to do better.
I felt worse when I mentioned this to one of the students and she said she not only understood there was a lot going on, but, astonishingly, she shouldered some of the responsibility.
“I’m blaming myself right now, for everything that’s going on, because I feel like I’m not doing enough,” said Akayla Brown, a student at Bodine High School for International Affairs.
Brown is only 17, but she’s already created a nonprofit — Dimplez 4 Dayz — that through programs and activities encourages young people to lead positive lifestyles.
She’s not yet old enough to vote, but she and a team of her peers have been working to get out the vote for the election.
In short — she’s already done more for Philadelphia than many of the adults who are paid to serve residents.
Brown was one of four student leaders who hosted a half-day of discussions about the impact of gun violence on young people, but also what they can do to address it.
Toluwanimi Olaleye, 16, and Qamar Coleman, 17, both students at George Washington Carver High School of Engineering and Science, lost a classmate last year. Zyqueire Echevarria was 15 when he was gunned down in South Philadelphia.
Keylisha Diaz’s 20-year-old stepbrother, Alexander Villaran, was fatally stabbed on March 14 — a loss the 16-year-old and her family still are reeling from, even as she recalled reading an article that listed him as just one of six people who were killed that day, most by gun violence. More than 400 people have been murdered in Philadelphia this year, an increase of more than 40% compared with the same period last year.
“It completely sickened me,” said the junior at Philadelphia Military Academy. “It disgusted me when I saw my brother’s name in an article, along with five other people who were husbands, who were boyfriends, who were fiancés, and who had children and families. But most of all, you know they were human beings at the end of the day and they died through senseless acts of violence.”
Her peers, who were as vocal about neighborhood shootings as they were about police shootings, shared her disgust.
“People think it’s the norm in Philadelphia, and it shouldn’t be,” said Coleman.
“It’s not another day in Philadelphia," said his classmate Olaleye. "It’s another life that was taken away. I hope the adults are listening, I hope that they hear that this is affecting us a lot, and that we would like to feel safe, to be able to walk down the street with our friends and not have to worry about looking behind us or looking ahead of us for danger.”
But one thing became clear after talking to her and listening to other students on the virtual summit.
They aren’t waiting on us.
When Brown asked her peers for one word that summed up their future plans, one kept popping up.