Community College students take back the future.
Tyesha Wilson has a loud, distinctive voice and she’s not afraid to use it. Her mission: To take back the streets of Kensington, where she grew up watching a parade of destruction and murder go down outside her window.
“My voice can and will make a difference, one set of ears at a time,” she says. “I can take it to the streets, to corner bodegas, to the Chinese stores.”
Wilson, 26, is one of a group of Community College of Philadelphia students spearheading a new partnership between the college and the Philadelphia Anti-Violence Partnership. The AVP provides support services for victims of violent crime and their families, and the students think they can serve as ambassadors in their neighborhoods.
The students are eager to take up the role because for them, the ugly, violent side of Philadelphia isn’t something they just hear about in the news; it’s part of day-to-day life.
Wilson remembers helping a stranger several years ago after he’d been shot in the street, cradling his head in her arms while waiting for an ambulance. “After they scraped him up, I left,” she says. “I didn’t want to be involved in any … snitching stuff.” Months later, a man approached her at a Christmas party. “That voice, that voice,” he said, and hugged her. It was the same man she had helped on the street.
“My voice made an impression in this guy’s mind,” Wilson says, vowing to never again stay silent when she has something important to say. She penned an essay about the experience titled “About the Badlands” for her English class at CCP, writing, “I have yet to find a perfume to cover the stench of crime, violence and drugs in my neighborhood.”
Her professor, Ari Bank, took note, touched by how many of his students’ essays focused on guns and street life. “It’s like for them, gun violence is a natural way of death,” he says. Bank sees the consequences first-hand. One of his students was relegated to a wheelchair after a shooting, and another went missing—Bank later found out the student was shot and killed in Germantown. “I had to come teach a class and stare at an empty chair that was supposed to be for a student who seemed so eager to learn,” he says.
Bank is the public-relations director for the Anti-Violence Partnership, which offers counseling and assistance navigating the court system for victims’ families, as well as runs a violence-prevention program in schools. With the loss of federal and private funding in the last three to four years, AVP has had to reduce staff after slashing its budget by nearly 25 percent, so Bank put out an email looking for students who wanted to help. Expecting a handful of replies, he was shocked when more than 100 people signed themselves up—in less than a day. Last Monday, Bank held a preliminary meeting in a CCP classroom with 16 of the students and AVP Executive Director Julie Rausch to brainstorm ideas. First, they shared stories about why they wanted to be involved.
Diane Mapp, 28, a mother of two from West Philly, tells the group she survived years of domestic violence before she escaped from her abusive partner to the People’s Emergency Clinic.
“My abuser kicked out the door to my house, busted out the windows so I got evicted,” she says of the torment she endured. “I felt alone,” she says. “I didn’t have the resources I have now. I want to reach out to people so they learn there is hope.”
Sitting near Mapp, Dominique Johnson speaks next. “My father was murdered on Father’s Day 1999,” he says. Johnson, 21, still doesn’t entirely understand what happened; some dispute over money ended with his dad lying dead in a North Philly parking lot, a bullet in his head. “He was my whole world,” Johnson says. “He was always the glue in the family’s life.”
Johnson too wants to leverage his experience to help others undergoing a similar ordeal.
“I feel that to not join would be a disgrace,” he says.
AVP’s most immediate need is cash. Though a budget hole of more than $150,000 is a bit steep for the students, they look at ways to chip in, volunteering in the AVP office to cover administrative duties and planning a carnival in the spring to raise money. “It would be wonderful if they [the students] can do a fundraiser for us,” Rausch says.
But the biggest impact the CCP students can make is outreach, given their ties to varied neighborhoods and communities all around the city. Those at the group meeting last week brought up their diversity several times, reflecting the overall demographic at CCP: 53 percent black, 27 percent white, 10 percent Hispanic and 8 percent Asian. With such reach, even if students don’t capture new clients for AVP’s stretched resources, they can still be useful in turning people on to other services available, all working toward the larger mission of fighting back against incessant violence.
For victim support, the students start with each other. Sinh Taylor, 24, who works for the CCP newspaper and lives in Kensington, breaks down in tears while describing her experience with abrupt death.
“It was 2003 New Year’s Eve,” Taylor recounts. “I woke up to find my best friend had been murdered.” Gang rivals chasing her friend’s boyfriend had shot up her house, killing her.
As Taylor struggles to speak through her sobs, Wilson crosses the room and gives her a hug. “There’s a positive side to everything if you carry her spirit,” Wilson says.
“Every group is formed by people who have had a really horrible experience,” Rausch tells the room. “You can take that and give back so maybe other people don’t have to go through it, or at least won’t have to suffer as much.”