Grassroots community organizing groups address gun violence in their neighborhoods

“True safety can’t come from outside—from police who occupy our neighborhoods or judges who send people to prisons hours away. The thing that’s going to keep us safe is each other.” -Kris Henderson, Executive Director of Amistad Law Project

Last year, 562 people were murdered in Philadelphia—the highest number on record—506 died   in shootings. Gun violence takes its heaviest toll in communities of color. The majority of shooting victims and people charged with violent crimes in Philadelphia are young Black and Brown men. Grassroots movements are organizing to reduce violence by addressing its root causes.  

“There’s an illusion that suddenly there’s a spike in violence, but there’s been decades of disinvestment and starving communities of resources, so now we’re at a crisis point,” says Kris Henderson, Executive Director of Amistad Law Project, a grantee since 2018. “What we need are a lot more resources for things like libraries, recreation centers, afterschool programs, and jobs programs for young people.”  

“Poverty, lack of access to education and healthcare, and the hopelessness that comes from those things has rendered young people powerless in so many aspects of life to where the only currency they have left is violence,” says Felix Rosado, Program Coordinator of Healing Futures at Youth Art & Self-empowerment Program (YASP), a grantee since 2011.  

“Young people don’t feel safe walking the street, not even going to school, so they feel like they have to carry a gun just for protection,” says Don Ike Jones, Re-entry Coordinator for Youth Sentencing and Re-entry Program (YSRP), a grantee since 2015.     

Movement leaders say more police and prisons are not the answer. “There is a wide body of research showing that other factors reduce violent crime just as much, if not more, than increased policing and incarceration,” Henderson says. That includes increased income, decreased unemployment, and community-based efforts addressing violence, addiction, mental illness, housing, and education, Henderson says.  

“We have a system that, instead of asking the question ‘Why doesn’t this young person feel safe?’ and ‘How do we support them in creating safety?’ puts them in cages and separates them from their community supports and then expects them to do something different when they come out,” says YASP Director Sarah Morris.  

“I would argue that prison is a cause of violence,” Rosado says. “Prison itself is violent but it also produces the kind of anger, frustration, and trauma that continues the cycle of violence.”   

YASP’s Healing Futures program works to interrupt the cycle of violence by diverting young people and survivors away from the criminal justice system and into a community-based restorative justice process where youth take responsibility for their actions and work toward community healing.  

YASP and YSRP are leaders of the Care Not Control campaign, which seeks to end youth incarceration in Pennsylvania and reallocate resources from the carceral system to schools and health care. In May, YASP helped introduce a landmark bill into the Pennsylvania Senate that would eliminate the practice of prosecuting youth as adults.  

“True safety can’t come from outside—from police who occupy our neighborhoods or judges who send people to prisons hours away,” Henderson says. “The thing that’s going to keep us safe is each other.” 

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