A North Philly neighborhood rallies around its youth.
Monet Foye needed a gun, stat. But the 9-year-old already had a criminal record, which prevented her from legally buying a firearm herself. So she turned to friend Janet’ Sanders, also 9, who strolled into the local gun shop and came out with a 10-pack of pistols, no questions asked. Within minutes, another elementary school acquaintance was dead on the streets of North Philly, shot down with one of the recently purchased guns after a petty confrontation.
Monet and Janet aren’t street-hardened juvenile delinquents, though. The girls are members of the Bright Lights youth group and the violent exchange was all an act, a skit on the dangers of straw purchasing—when one person buys a gun and transfers it to another party to skirt legal requirements.
The presentation was part of the Youth Peace Conference Saturday at Wayland Temple Baptist in North Philly, which kicked off a weeklong Peace on the Block event, a grassroots effort to build neighborhood pride and, as a result, spread peace.
“We’re covering various aspects of peace and reconciliation, mostly having to do with the individual,” says Mary Wade, founder of the group Building Respect in Community (BRIC), which organized the Peace on the Block event.
Wade, 69, who has a Ph.D. in conflict analysis and resolution, grew up in Philadelphia at the nearby Johnson Homes Projects, but spent 35 years away from the city, traveling the world as a Quaker representative and human-rights specialist for the United Nations. After returning to Philly in 1998 to care for her ailing mother, Wade quickly realized that her hometown was falling apart at the seams. She says she was shocked by the “deterioration of communities, houses and what seems to be relationships between people.”
She says she was particularly saddened by the lack of attention paid to the children. “So many of them are just kind of out there … on their own.” She adds: “Lots of young people don’t have anyone with any expectations of them. That was very painful for me to see … very disheartening.”
Wade had to act.
Though she lives in West Philly, Wade continued to attend her childhood church, Wayland Temple Baptist, and together with other members of the community, she started BRIC in 2006. The group holds regular workshops for parents and kids, making efforts to recognize teachers, elders and other community leaders.
“Our overall objective is to increase participants’ sense of self-respect, and as a result the role they have in creating and maintaining and building up respect in homes and communities,” Wade says.
Attendance at Saturday’s conference was lower than expected due to a funeral in the neighborhood, but about 40 adults and children did show up. Also in attendance were representatives from other New York- and Philadelphia-based peace movements including Heeding God’s Call, the Urban Youth Peace Movement and the Bright Lights.
As temperature outside reached the 90s, the crowd inside the large, stained-glass-lined community room in the church endured as laboring electric fans struggled to maintain a tolerable temperature.
The idea was to make a lasting impression on children starting at a young age, and the kids listened.
“I learned when I get older to not buy any guns,” says 8-year-old Breahn Mazyck.
Ajia Hendricks, 9, says to her, peace means “we stop messing with each other and getting in arguments. We should get together, be nice.”
“Violence is sad and angriness,” says Ibrahim Kamara, 10. “Peace is happiness.”
Through persistence in reaching out to young people, organizers intend to show that they’re serious about building a peace movement, not just a moment. Spread over the rest of the week are sports and arts activities, and tonight residents will spill out onto the streets for the fourth annual Peace March.
“We just try to be a force in a small way on how young people think about themselves and their community,” Wade says.
Though Peace on the Block receives no outside funding—contributions come from organizers and church members—Wade says they can pull off the entire week’s events for less than $1,000, which includes food, games for the kids and modest fees for speakers and facilitators.
But creating a movement requires sustained efforts.