In parts of West, Southwest, and North Philly, every resident is a co-victim of violence. The trauma and grief spawned by the gun violence epidemic affects not just those involved, but radiates outwards to family members, friends, classmates, and bystanders. Much has been said about the surge in gun violence sweeping across our city, but it is equally important to address the widespread trauma affecting our neighbors.
Philadelphia communities are no stranger to trauma. They have been short-changed for decades by gentrification, skyrocketing rent costs, and high eviction and foreclosure rates; by chronically under-funded schools, libraries, and recreation centers; and by low-wage, high-stress jobs that strip them of their dignity and health. The COVID-19 pandemic was the match that set the powder keg of gun violence aflame, but the root causes are plain for anyone to see.
My four daughters, three granddaughters, and I live in 19140, one of the fourteen zip codes in the city where the majority of violent incidents take place. Eight years ago, my cousin, Tianna, was murdered by her abuser. Two months ago, my godson was hospitalized when a bullet struck his face. And just last week, my daughter, who runs a hair salon, had to leave in the middle of an appointment because her godbrother had been murdered. My daughters have lost more friends than I can count, and every time I pick up the phone, I worry that I will be called to yet another scene of a shooting where a Black child has lost their life. Because too often, I know the faces on either side of the conflict.
Trauma is not linear, but a repetitive loop that surfaces at unpredictable times, and has real, physiological consequences. Exposure to violence causes our bodies to produce excess amounts of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. Over time, this physiological response causes the brain to reprogram itself, making it harder to concentrate, relax, or sleep. People begin to always anticipate danger, even when no danger is present. When the threat of gun violence is omnipresent, its hold on your mental health is unrelenting, and its effects are far-reaching. As we work to address the gun violence crisis, we must ensure that our solutions, too, are equally far-reaching.
As a member of City Council, I have been proud to stand with many of my colleagues in advocating for an urgent, bold approach to gun violence that includes expanding employment opportunities and afterschool programming for youth, funding grassroots anti-violence efforts, and implementing community crisis intervention programs. If we are to save lives and stabilize communities, bolstering these efforts is essential. However, we also need to think about violence holistically, and employ trauma-informed approaches to repairing harm, restoring safety, and achieving justice. Any long-term solution to the gun violence crisis in Philadelphia should take a transformative justice approach to community safety by addressing the social conditions that produce gun violence in the first place.
My belief in the power of transformative justice comes from witnessing firsthand how it can rebuild communities that have been torn apart by conflict, pain, and mistrust. For years before I became an elected official, I traveled the country teaching restorative justice in schools. There, I helped people identify the root causes of conflict, heal from the harm that was done, communicate openly, and mutually agree upon a remedy that reflected the needs of the people involved. Transformative justice takes this restorative approach a step further and believes that systems-level change is required to change the conditions that repeatedly enable harm to arise.
Employing a transformative justice lens to gun violence does not mean diverting resources or attention away from immediate crisis response, anti-violence efforts, or targeted programming. On the contrary, swiftly employing these solutions is essential to stopping the bloodshed. What transformative justice asks us to do is look beyond statistics and think about harm holistically. Transformative justice recognizes that carceral solutions and punitive responses to violence often exacerbate and reproduce the forms of harm they seek to address.
Transformative justice means expanding non-carceral responses to harm, investing in community responder models, and funding re-entry programs. Transformative justice sees housing insecurity, our broken social safety net, job insecurity, and under-funded education as key barriers to overcome on the path to building safe, equitable communities.
We have a collective responsibility to stop our babies from dying in the streets. But we also need to recognize the trauma that our neighbors carry with them, and the systems-level change needed to create safe, livable conditions for all our neighbors. Because my community deserves more than just survival, they deserve to heal, grow and thrive.