Youth speak out against gun violence and call for action at the 2023 PHL Youth Unity Walk
Coming together to express unity in the face of issues plaguing Philadelphia, youth leaders led a march through Broad Street on June 3.
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On Saturday, June 3, the PHL Youth Unity Walk for a Safer Philadelphia was hosted, as students from across Philadelphia marched down Broad Street from the Liacouras Center in Temple University to City Hall, both in a display of unity and to protest against the gun violence within the city.
At City Hall, the youth of the city gathered to connect and support anti-violence initiatives in their neighborhoods, within schools, and across the city.
Remarks were given by several youth leaders, as well as by Jeanette Bavwidinsi, the Director of the Mayor’s Office of Youth Engagement, who opened the event.
The first speaker was Kamryn Davis, the Social Media Director for PA Youth Vote, an organization dedicated to elevating youth voices, improving civics education in public schools, and to empower youth by building their political power.
Davis is currently a student at West Chester University, studying Political Science, as well as a double minor in Law, Politics, Society and Spanish, additionally serving as President of the Black Student Union and campus Ambassador.
“To see this sort of unity is not only beautiful, but powerful. Everyone that is standing here today came for [their] own individual reasons. But amongst all of our shared differences is a desire to see better for the city of Philadelphia, and harmony among every young person that resides within it,” Davis said.
Davis discussed the lack of political power that the youth in the city face, that each elected official put into office cannot truly represent the city’s youth, nor be held accountable by them.
Velicka Anderson, a member of the Culture Shifters Collective under the Mayor's Office of Youth Engagement, spoke next with a recitation of poetry, questioning when the violence and grief caused by gun violence would be brought to an end.
She then delved into the gun violence afflicting students, of the nationwide death toll of over 2,500 children under the age of 18 in 2021 alone, and made a call to action to adults to consider what they are doing to make a change, to make things safer for children across the nation.
Anderson pushed for adults to take action, to take responsibility in ensuring children know how to be safe in the city and to create more spaces that children can be safe at, such as recreation centers.
Amaiyah-Monet Parker, youth leader and senior at Central High School, has worked as an activist since the eighth grade, always asking herself how to see the change she and others work for.
“As youth, we may feel as though we don't have the power to create the change or that the adults and our elected officials are the only ones with the power,” Parker said.
“While they do have the power, they work for us, we don't work for them. We also have power. The power is in your voice, in showing up and coming out, and so much more. Use your voice and let the city know your demands,” she continued.
Parker pushed for multiple courses of action, ranging from consistently keeping officials aware of your grievances, to reallocation of funding from new police equipment to underfunded recreation centers, after school programs, or towards reducing gun violence.
For Parker and her peers, they are the ones with first hand experience and are thus the ones able to come up with solutions.
“When we give you these solutions, they aren't coming from thin air. They're coming because we experience these problems every single day,” Parker said.
“Youth are the ones who are being impacted by poverty, being impacted by gun violence, being impacted by the lack of resources in schools. We are the ones being impacted, not the adults,” she continued.
Cayla Waddington is a 16-year-old student leader, and for the past two years, has been involved in gun violence prevention, having grown up in West Philadelphia and gaining first hand knowledge of its pervasiveness.
As head of the Enough is Enough Students Against Violence Steering Committee, Waddington led a citywide survey on gun violence, asking 1,300 youth in 2022 their thoughts.
They found that 64% of students were concerned about the safety of their friends and family, with 79% seeing gang involvement as a reason for gun violence. Of the respondents, 63% stated "the desire to be seen as tough or cool" as a motivation, and proposed solutions, such as better gun laws (71%) or youth programming (48%).
The week before the Unity Walk, Waddington was a keynote speaker for the National Liberty Museum in its celebration of the members of their Young Heroes Outreach Program (YHOP).
In it, she spoke to the program's members — 4th to 8th grade students — who had been creating their own initiatives to improve their neighborhoods, such as book drives to give books to underprivileged children, or creating outdoor green spaces at their schools that can provide safety to play outside in.
“When teenagers have access, when teenagers know that their voices are heard, or teenagers are allowed to be a part of the solution and not just be the problem, that is when true change happens,” Waddington said.
“What we need to do is let teenagers know that our voices are heard, we need to let teenagers be a part of the change. We need to let us be the change that we want to see in the world,” she continued.”
The final speaker at the Unity Walk was Jeron Williams II, the Vice Chair of Communications at the Philadelphia Youth Commission, a commission under the Office of Youth Engagement in Philadelphia that works to improve the lives of the city's youth.
Williams' work expands beyond those under the age of 18, but up to 25 as that age group is disproportionately affected by societal issues such as gun violence, homelessness, and hunger, as well.
Like other speakers, Williams advocated for giving youths a seat at the table, to allow them to weigh in on the decisions that would impact them, such as how the Youth Commission employs those under the age of 25 to let youth advocate for themselves.
“I know at the end of the day, this is going to pay off for one person, for 10 people, for 100 people, for all the people in the city of Philadelphia, and I'm going to do it. I take that personally,” Williams said.
“I take that to heart. This ain’t work for me. This is my life. I've got to protect my life. I've got to protect the lives of these people that support schemes with me, I’ve got to protect the lives of you all,” they continued.
They spoke on how to take action, and that in order for the city’s youth to make progress in their goals, they needed to speak out in places like City Hall, attend protests, testify during public meetings with political figures in the city, or even join internships within city offices to better advocate for themselves.
“The future is bright for Philadelphia. Philadelphia is headed to a future where young people are in charge, where we are the change that we want to see, where we are at the table,” they said.
“Nobody will stop us from our mission of letting us know, of letting everybody know that the youth are here,” Williams concluded.
Organizations present at the Unity Walk included representatives from the Philadelphia School District, members of the Free Library of Philadelphia, to the After School Activities Partnerships (ASAP), and local water ice vendor Siddiq's Water Ice.