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Community youth leaders with We Can stand with Nia Eubanks-Dixon (center), founder of Creative Praxis. Photo: Nigel Thompson/ AL DÍA news. 
Community youth leaders with We Can stand with Nia Eubanks-Dixon (center), founder of Creative Praxis. Photo: Nigel Thompson/ AL DÍA news. 

‘My voice matters’: Kensington and Fairhill youth have answers to improve community safety

“We can, as young people, take initiative and be on the front lines to educate community members, city officials, educators, and other leaders in our community…

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A group of 14-24 year-olds are leading their neighborhoods in a series of conversations and focus group sessions dedicated to creating safer, more equitable communities within the Philadelphia neighborhoods of Kensington and Fairhill. 

On Tuesday, June 16, these young community organizers gathered in the parking lot of New Kensington Community Development Corporation (NKCDC) where they delivered a preview of a report based on session findings and recommendations from these voices on how to move forward on a number of issues plaguing the surrounding community.

Young people identified issues they see and experience on the daily that are unsafe on an individual, cultural, and institutional level, and delivered their own solutions based on their lived experiences. 

To gain access to the event, attendees needed to first pledge to these young people that they would be ‘agents of change,’ and in turn, youth with the organization We Can distributed ribbons to be worn signifying they made the pledge.

It made for a colorful display of solidarity. 

Nia Eubanks-Dixon, founder of Creative Praxis, an art-based healing center training  organization in Philadelphia that works with young people, educators  and community organizations like We Can told AL DÍA that the core purpose of her work is liberation. 

“So how do I make sure that not only I am free, but I make sure that young people are free, that our teachers are free. So my freedom is tied to you and your freedom is tied to me,” she said.

Her approach uses these principles of liberation centered around the arts and healing to create interactive dialogue sessions with Kensington and Fairhill youth. Eubanks-Dixon said it has gotten young people from all over the community to discuss and make recommendations about policing and safety in their area, and how they can create a safe and equitable community.

A lot of that, she said, is rooted in listening as opposed to talking at them.

The issue is oftentimes there aren’t any safe spaces for these young people to gather and actually have their voices not only be heard, but truly considered at the decision-making table when drafting and implementing change. 

“To get their wisdom has just been breathtaking and it just reminds me of the importance of listening to the young people and making sure that they have seats at the table in positions of power,” she said. 

One aspect the soon-to-be-released report mentions is that people in positions of power often have a tendency to exclude actual community members. There is also the notion that young people are inexperienced and don’t know what the ‘real world’ is like. 

Contrary to that belief, these young community organizers in Kensington and Fairhill live in their communities each and every day. They see the ongoing divestment, and that experience is real. 

A contributing factor has also been their often negative portrayal in traditional media.

Eubanks-Dixon said that because of this negative outlook, youth from these neighborhoods are often met with dismissal. 

“Like ‘Oh you must not know,’ or, ‘oh that’s so cute,’ Like they’re pacifying us. Like, sure, we’ll let young people speak, but really not being in positions of power,” she said.

Over various sessions with young people, it’s been about reversing that framework. 

“With allowing these things to stay up — it’s a lack of accountability from public officials. I’m sure many of you are also public officials, giving promises to solve the issues of gun violence, the spreading of drugs, and yet the issue still continues over centuries.”

That was 19-year-old Reese Broadwater, who took the mic during the event to discuss what he felt were the core issues of lack of accountability from law enforcement. He said things don’t happen on an individual level — there are roots.

“This is the first time I’ve ever done an event such as this, so even the things that I thought I knew—I’ve learned more. When I came here, I learned about the MOVE bombing of West Philadelphia, I never even knew about that,” Broadwater told AL DÍA. 

He’s a recent graduate and has lived in the Kensington community for 12 years. He expressed a particular interest in the disparities within education that determine the likelihood of one’s success.

“So many kids don’t get the same education as other schools outside of the city. I’m pretty sure everyone knows the show, Are you smarter than a fifth grader? I realized when I was in fifth grade… I learned nothing that they learned. So that’s when I started to realize, that maybe we don’t get the same treatment as everybody else,’ and I realized there’s something wrong with the education system in Philadelphia,” he said. 

Sebastian Vazquez, 18, told AL DÍA that without coming together to speak on these issues with people his age, in a space where he feels safe, he wouldn't have realized that the things he was accustomed to each day were actually problems. 

“So like poverty — I’ve been walking around and I’ve said, ‘Yeah, that shouldn’t be like that,’ and a lot of things now that I’ve learned about it, I see it more frequently, you know? Because I actually keep my eye out for it. So things like that really changed my mind and I really hope to do more things to help.” he said.

“We have a right to live”

While the full report is not yet available, the youth organizing the event provided attendees with a list of recommendations across four categories, most pertaining to the issue of over-policing in Kensington and Fairhill. 

There were also a number of law enforcement officers from the 24th District Philadelphia Police present to listen. 

Categories included Investment, Community and Police, Training, and Accountability measures for Police. 

Under investment, youths listed the prioritization of mixed-income housing and a response to the gentrification taking place in their communities. They also called for a fair distribution of funds to educators and schools, mental health resources, and to provide alternatives to the punitive court system. 

Under training, youths recommended additional training for police officers, who in Pennsylvania only need to complete 760 hours of training compared to cosmetologists, who require 1,250. They also emphasized the need for community members to be trained in methods of conflict de-escalation.

Under Community and Police, youths made it clear during the event that they believe the answer to healing the community is not through an increase of police presence. They also suggested that officers do community service in the districts in which they serve to provide opportunities for getting to know the community they are serving, and to create public forums. 

Under Accountability measures for police, youth organizers said that community members should be involved in the training, hiring, incident reporting, and community relations for local police departments to close the deep divides between the entities of community and law enforcement. They also stressed that body cameras should be used at all times.

The full report will be available by July 2021, and is a product of collaboration between three local nonprofits and their youth — HACE CDC, Impact Services, and NKCDC.

This article is part of Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project among more than 20 news organizations focused on economic mobility in Philadelphia. Read all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.

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